It seems that every time I check to see what is coming up in historical fiction, there's another heap of novels set in the Tudor period of English history to wade through. I suspect that more ink has been spilled over this dynasty than any other, filled as it is with two of England's most famous rulers, Elizabeth I and her father, Henry VIII, who ran through six wives before he was finished. And to be honest, there's very little that's new that can be said about it.
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So it was with some surprise that I found that Kate Emerson's recent novel, Secrets of the Tudor Court: Between Two Queens wasn't about any of Henry's Queens, but rather a young woman who served as a maid-of-honour to four of them. What made the story even more interesting for me was that Anne Basset actually lived, and was a stepdaughter to Arthur Plantagenet, a little known royal bastard and son of Edward IV.
At the age of fourteen, Anne -- or Nan, as she is called in the story -- is thrilled to be summoned to King Henry's court, along with her sister Cat. She knows that to find the wealthy, titled husband of her dreams, the royal court is the best place to find one. But Nan is a rather naive young woman, and as most teenagers are, very self-centered and can't see much beyond her own pretty nose. But when she does arrive to become a member of Queen Jane Seymour's household, it couldn't happen at a worst time -- for one, Nan's French fashions are all wrong for the very English, very prim queen, and Queen Jane is about to go into seclusion for the birth of her child -- a time when no men are allowed in or around the queen and her women. Nan is bitterly disappointed, and things just continue to get worse when the queen dies soon after childbirth and her household disbanded. Sulking and unhappy, she manages to find a noble household to live with as the king negotiates for a new wife, and quickly decides that the only way that she is going to get what she wants is to have the king for herself.
Whoa. The King? Even after his record of abandoning one wife, beheading the next, and having the third die on him?
And Nan doesn't seem to quite grasp that being a haughty, backbiting miss isn't exactly the way to win friends either. Finally there's a young man, Ned Corbett, who is interested in her, and Nan makes an extremely stupid mistake where he is concerned...
What can I say? This is a novel that should have been titled How to Flop at the Tudor Court. While I'm pretty certain that the real Nan Bassett wasn't quite this stupid. Indeed, she was so dislikeable that I kept wanting to hurl the book at the wall and not finish it. But I was determined to wade through this mess in the hope of finding out what happened to Nan and her family. I had first encountered them in a nonfiction collection of letters and documents known as The Lisle Letters, that had belonged to Arthur Plantagenet -- he was known as Lord Lisle, and served as the Governor of Calais for a good portion of Henry VIII's reign. Ms. Emerson relies heavily on them to flesh out and populate her story, and there is certainly enough in there to build a novel around.
But the big flaw in here is that the author simply can't resist messing around with her characters a bit, and puts Nan in a situation that is very contrived and farfetched -- all the way through it, I kept wondering, Didn't anyone bother to check? Couldn't anyone see that the silly twit was pregnant? Another problem in the plot was having Henry VIII and Nan having an affair; while I could certainly see Henry VIII flirting with Nan -- rumours in various documents did suggest that that was happening -- I find it very far fetched that she would be sleeping with him, especially as Nan was a sort of relation to Henry through her step-father.
Too, there isn't really a likeable character in the entire novel. Either they're bitchy conniving women with bad attitudes who are particularly good at backstabbing, or men who are basically dogs, perpetually in rut after some skirt. The only people I could feel sympathy for are Arthur Plantagenet who is ruthlessly used by Cromwell, and Wat Hungerford who is so young and two-dimensional that he makes hardly a ripple in the story.
I can admire the author's extensive research into the life and customs of Tudor England, but one of the hard facts of writing a good novel is to make your characters believable and sympathetic, otherwise the reader is going to get rapidly bored with the story, no matter how exciting it is. There was so much potential here in the story, and Ms. Emerson squandered it on a silly sub-plot and detestable characters that left me not caring by the time the story ground to a halt.
Extras -- they seem to be necessary these days to historical novels, no matter what the variety or time -- include a genealogy chart showing the links between Anne Bassett's family and the Tudors, a note from the author, a Who's Who for Tudor England in the years 1537-1543 (and which I found more interesting than the novel itself), a reader's guide for book clubs, including a set of questions for discussion and finally, an interview with Kate Emerson.
Overall, the flaws of this novel outweighed the positives and I can honestly only give it three stars. That's too bad as it could be so much more. Kate Emerson intends to continue this series, and her next novel is titled By Royal Decree.
Three stars. Not recommended.
Secrets of the Tudor Court:
The Pleasure Palace
Between Two Queens
By Royal Decree -- forthcoming
Secrets of the Tudor Court: Between Two Queens
2010; Pocket Books/Simon and Schuster, Inc.