Title: Queen’s Gambit
Author: Elizabeth Fremantle
Release Date: August 6, 2013
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
At the age of 31, Katherine Parr, wife of Lord Latymer, is widowed for the second time. Having done her duty twice, Katherine hopes that she can make a third marriage for love, to the handsome Thomas Seymour. When Katherine catches the eye of the aging Henry VIII (his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, sent to the block for infidelity), she refuses to believe that he might be considering her as his next wife. But when all signs begin to point to marriage to the king, Katherine begins to wonder if being queen will help her advance her religious agenda.
Literary historical fiction has become a trend of late, after the success of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. It’s still historical fiction, but it’s written in a different style; Sarah Dunant used it in great effect in her recent Blood & Beauty: The Borgias. That’s not to say it’s better than regular historical fiction, just different, and it’s often a treat when you’re looking for something smart and historical, but don’t want to venture into nonfiction. Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle is another book in this vein, telling the story of Henry VIII’s sixth and final wife, Katherine Parr.
Queen’s Gambit begins with the death of Katherine’s second husband, Lord Latymer. It’s interesting to watch Katherine begin to live for herself after he dies; she falls in love and expects that, soon, she will finally be able to make her own destiny. Of course, the reader knows what is coming, and it’s sad how Katherine deludes herself when it comes to Henry. She wants freedom so badly she can taste it; Fremantle does an excellent job establishing a sympathetic character quickly. Katherine’s lack of say in her own future, as well as the way her brother is so willing to use her to advance himself, is heartbreaking.
Katherine is also very smart in Queen’s Gambit. She’s a reformer when it comes to religion, and doesn’t agree with Henry’s slow but steady moves back towards the Catholic Church. Once queen, Katherine believes she can make a difference in her subjects’ lives by influencing the king. She is very good at manipulation, as Fremantle makes clear, but at the same time, she has trouble holding her tongue and behaving as men of the era believed women should. Her outspokenness gets her into trouble; the author does an excellent job portraying the tension surrounding everything during the time period. At that point in his life, the king was barely rational; even the smallest thing could turn him against his wife.
In the end, though the reader comes to know and love Katherine in Queen’s Gambit, she led a sad life. But Fremantle provides another voice in the novel as a counterpoint: sweet Dorothy, or Dot, Katherine’s maid. It’s interesting to see the story from the different points of view, to see how, despite Katherine’s education and sharp mind, Dot is much more perceptive when it comes to the people around them. Both these women led extraordinary lives, though constrained by the time period they lived in and the expectations that came with it. If you’re looking for a thought-provoking story written with a sure hand, then this novel is sure to satisfy your inquisitive mind.