Reading as a Writer: The Queen’s Gambit

I’ve just been reading The Queen’s Gambit*, by Elizabeth Fremantle.  I volunteered to review it for the bookselling site,

 I’m posting the review I’ve sent them here, but with a few additional thoughts I had on reading it as a writer.

I like historical fiction.  When it’s done well it is armchair time-travel.  This one is well thought out and nicely written.   The opening hooked me straight onto Katherine Parr, the main character.  The prologue shows her caring for her dying second husband, John Neville, Lord Latymer, who describes her as, ‘his dear, dear Kit.’  We see that she is thoughtful, practical, caring and clever and that he loves and trusts her.  I trust her.  She is not a great beauty, he tells us, but she has charisma.  It is this charisma that drives the main strand of the story, because here is a Katherine Parr who can be asked to cross unspeakable boundaries, if circumstances demand.  Who knows what else a woman will do, if she’ll risk her eternal soul to save a loved one from suffering…   

The novel’s secondary character is not King Henry VIII, but Katherine’s servant girl, Dot.  Here is an equally rounded character, slightly scatty, but caring and curious.  While Katherine is progressing along her political road, Dot is learning.  Her questions and curiosity allow Fremantle to provide a broader picture of Tudor life and expectations. There is no need to pause for explanations; Dot’s journey illuminates the period.  She watches, listens, questions and learns, and has her own romance to pursue.

This is not a heavy novel.  It only spans six years of Katherine and Dot’s lives, but in that time, both are drawn into the dangerous religious and political intrigues of Henry’s court. Through their extraordinary stories Freemantle provides an accessible and vivid picture of women’s lives in Tudor England. 

How can you put your reader on the edge of their seat when writing a fiction based on a historical figure?  I suspect that most readers will know how the marriage of Henry and Katherine came to an end.  Even if they have not seen one of the many celluloid, ‘Lives of Henry VIII’, then the old, ‘divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, alive’ rhyme is probably jingling along at the back of their minds as they turn the pages.

Fremantle’s solution is to give us access to Katherine’s thoughts, memories and feelings, so we can see her tensions.  Katherine is no longer a middle-aged and plain woman who was good at ducking domestic missiles when Henry’s gout was bad.  (Oops, wasn’t that from a Carry-on film?) Instead we have a woman who is sexual attracted to one man, but forced to marry another, and that man is notorious for the way he has disposed of four of his previous five wives.  Our sympathies are engaged, our curiosity is raised, how did she do it? Why? What would that have been like?

For suspense, we have Dot, faithful to the point of reckless, and Huicke, royal physician, whose homosexuality puts him at risk.   

Dot is particularly interesting, because she is the character who grows in this story.  Dot is a servant, and therefore trained to serve invisibly: she should be neither seen nor heard, we are reminded several times.  Well, that’s not so in Katherine’s household.  When Dot enters the story, in the prologue, she is apparently a secondary character, almost invisible to us, the reader, too.  But she is in Katherine’s thoughts when the chapter ends.

So what? You may say. 

I say, if beginnings need a good hook, endings require bigger ones on the same fishing line.  Chapters don’t just fade away, they generally leave us with a question designed to maintain our attention. Sometimes it is a cliff-hanger, ‘what next?’ often it’s a, ‘why, how, where or who?’  

So when Chapter 1 ends with the suggestion that the daughter of the house thinks of her servant as a sister, I wonder, Why? and turn to the next chapter.

And there is Dot, asking questions, not only for herself, but us too.  Like the side-kick in a detective duo, her purpose is to allow Fremantle to draw our attention to significant details.  But more than that, the areas of Dot’s ignorance are as revealing as the answers she is given.  She is a historical reference point.  Education, we are shown, is available only to certain people at this time.  Dot embodies the expectations and experiences the serving classes might expect, whether by acquiescing to them or defying them.     

But Dot’s other big function in the story is that she is not a major figure in history.  When the scandals and intrigues hot up, and Dot is drawn into the centre of them, we have no idea whether she will survive them, let alone how.  It is Dot who carries the real tension of the story.  While we may hope that our author will not kill off a major character, we cannot feel confident.  After all, Dot is a servant, she is expendable.  So if Dot has developed into a character we can care about, and has been drawn into perilous situations, then the author has us on the edge of our seats despite what we know about Katherine.      

  *The Queen’s Gambit is published in early March 2013

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