Monday, June 11, 2012

A novel of the Nine Days Queen and her doomed family.

4 out of 5 stars

Though Ella March Chase has taken some liberties with historical record (which she acknowledges in an author's note at the rear of the book), unless you're familiar with this period of Tudor history, the changes go unnoticed in her deftly plotted and compelling narrative.

I have always been fascinated by Lady Jane Grey--young, innocent, a defenseless pawn used grievously by her parents and the Duke of Northumberland, yet, despite that, a surprisingly resolute and determined young woman--but have always overlooked her sisters. Despite knowing that they existed, beyond that, there was never much mention of them in the history books I read; I don't know if that's due to a lack of information or a lack of interest on the part of the authors, but as a result, they've remained ciphers. Three Maids for a Crown changes that: Chase has not only given Jane a voice, but brought to life her sisters, the lively and beautiful Katherine and the loyal, perspicacious little hunchbacked Mary. In this way, not only is Jane's, ultimately tragic, navigation through the treacherous waters of Tudor politics illuminated, her sisters' lives, fraught with just as much danger and intrigue, have been brought out of the shadows of history where they've languished for too long. Though a fictional portrayal, Chase's book is still a worthy introduction to these two ladies and perhaps her interpretation of their lives will serve to drum up more interest in them; for my part, I would truly love to know more about the real Katherine and Mary Grey.

Beginning in the declining years of sickly King Edward VI's rule, the book covers his (painful and possibly prematurely hastened) death, the sham of Jane's nine days rule as Queen of England, the reign of lonely Queen Mary ("the Bloody"), to the triumphant rise of Queen Elizabeth. Through it all, Chase skillfully illustrates the dangers of those uncertain times, where loyalties could change in an hour and one's firmest supporter could suddenly become the most implacable enemy; where every gesture, every glance, every letter and whispered conversation was dissected and examined for the smallest sign of deception or betrayal; where the simplest word took on a dozen different meanings on the whim of who spoke and who heard. Because we are seeing the personages/events of the time through the eyes of the sisters Grey, we get a viewpoint of history colored by their personal biases, whether or not those biases reflect the truth. Thus we see Elizabeth, an enemy and an obstacle in the Grey and Dudley families' quest for the throne, portrayed as a wretched bastard, simpering, vain, and sanctimonious; the usurping whore born of witchcraft and lechery. Queen Mary is a sad, desperate, more sympathetic queen, a woman who is seen as broken from all the misfortunes heaped upon her, delusional in her quest to find love, defeated and spiritless, lacking the Tudor fire in her blood. While I understand why the bias existed, after a while it become rather heavy-handed; because these viewpoints are skewed, we never get to see the other side of the picture. Was Elizabeth vain, capricious, and cruel? Yes. Did she treat Katherine and Mary Grey abominably? By all accounts, most definitely. However, Elizabeth's moods and actions, especially in the early years of her reign, were almost certainly influenced by the fear she felt on what was probably a daily basis, exacerbating her already mercurial nature; she not only had to deal with uprisings and opposition from forces outside her realm, she was beset by traitorous forces within both her realm and even her court, opponents who constantly harped upon her bastard status, her female sex, her unfitness to wear the crown. As far as Mary, was she treated ill by the men in her life, from her father, King Henry VIII, who repudiated her as his true heir, to her husband, Prince Philip, who ignored her and used her and England as simply a supply depot and a bank? Hell yes. Did she go against her conscious and her deeply-held beliefs, against the spirit of her dear mother, Queen Katherine, who fought to retain Mary's right to the crown, and publicly proclaim herself to be a bastard in order to win her father's approval and affection, an act which she regretted the remainder of her life and which was the final straw in the sapping of her spirit? Sadly, yes. Yet, tired though she may have been when she finally came to the throne, pathetically eager for her cold husband's love and a child to quicken her womb, she was also her father's daughter; she discovered the throne gave her the power to redress some of those wrongs visited on her and she redressed those wrongs with a vengeance, turning hers into a reign of terror. Both of these women were far from perfect; both had their good qualities and their bad, yet because of the method of storytelling, it's easy to get the wrong idea about them. That's the point of my rant, by the way, the hope that people will recognize that firstly, this is fiction, and secondly, it's fiction told from a very personal, very biased viewpoint and not take it as gospel truth. There are two sides (if not more) to every story. As humans, we turn a blind eye to the faults of those we love and find every fault, real and imagined, in those we hate; such is the case with the Grey sisters, as Chase has written them.

The only real quibble I have with the book is, it's very romanticized. Jane is portrayed as being much softer than she truly was. Don't get me wrong, in the novel she's still prim, highly religious, serious, and scholarly. But she's also more vulnerable and more emotional. For instance, when the time comes for Jane's execution, she clings to Richard Feckenham, Abbot of Westminster, whom Queen Mary sent to offer Jane a reprieve in exchange for her conversion to Catholicism; in the novel, Jane asks the abbot to stay with her as she walks to the scaffold, her fear suddenly overwhelming her so near to the end. In reality, Jane was...well, to be frank, she was a prig. She was dogmatic, rigidly unyielding towards that which did not conform to her standards, and fervent in her belief that Catholicism was the root of all evil in the world. In her last days, she calmly accepted her fate and was even rather anticipating her release. "I am ready and glad to end my woeful days," she said. And although she warmed to Feckenham, who treated her with more affection than she'd ever received from her own parents, she steadfastly refused to budge from her philosophical stance and her Protestant religion. It was Feckenham who, knowing he'd failed in his attempts to save her life, asked if he might accompany her to her execution. It's a little thing, but that difference highlights how Chase portrayed Jane and how Jane actually was. As for the other sisters, even though little is known about them, it's likely that Katherine was more flighty and vain, probably with quite a bit more of her mother's personality in her than portrayed, and Mary probably wasn't quite the inscrutable little oracle she's painted to be. Granted, her hunchbacked nature shunted her to the sidelines of life, allowing her to see and hear things from her marginal position that others might not, but that still doesn't mean she was some kind of Delphic prognosticator, imbued with magnificent foresight and wisdom. However, as I've stated again and again in this review, this is a fictional account, which means that certain liberties can and will be taken.

In the end, everything I've mentioned as being quibble-worthy is tiny in comparison to the fantastic story Chase has told; her ability to weave together a tension-filled narrative and multiple character voices is enchanting. She sweeps the reader away into a world where, if you're not constantly on your toes, you're in danger of losing your head.

Read January 29-February 2, 2012
Originally reviewed on Goodreads February 16, 2012

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