Dec 21, 2009

Book Review: The Secrets of The Tudor Court: Between Two Queens by Kate Emerson





Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Pocket (January 5, 2010)
ISBN-13: 978-1416583271
Review copy provided by the author
The Burton Review Rating:Four Stars

Product Description:
THE SECRETS OF THE TUDOR COURT SERIES IS "RICH AND LUSHLY DETAILED, TEEMING WITH PASSION AND INTRIGUE," SAID ROMANTIC TIMES. NOW TALENTED KATE EMERSON CONTINUES A SAGA AS DRAMATIC AND SEDUCTIVE AS THE COURT ITSELF.

Pretty, flirtatious, and ambitious. Nan Bassett hopes that an appointment at the court of King Henry VIII will bring her a grand marriage. But soon after she becomes a maid of honor to Queen Jane, the queen dies in childbirth. As the court plunges into mourning, Nan sets her sights on the greatest match in the land...for the king has noticed her. After all, it wouldn't be the first time King Henry has chosen to wed a maid of honor. And in newly Protestant England, where plots to restore the old religion abound, Nan may be the only one who can reassure a suspicious king of her family's loyalty. But the favor of a king can be dangerous and chancy, not just for Nan, but for her family as well...and passionate Nan is guarding a secret, one that could put her future -- and her life -- in grave jeopardy should anyone discover the truth.

Based on the life of the real Anne Bassett and her family, and drawing extensively from letters and diaries of the time, Between Two Queens is an enthralling picture of the dangers and delights of England's most passionate era.

In Kate Emerson's second installment in the Secrets of The Tudor Court series, Emerson brings to life the character she imagines as Nan Bassett. Called 'Nan' by her friends, there is not a lot known about Anne Bassett, this mistress of Henry VIII, except that he had courted her briefly. How far that went is unknown, but Henry seemed to be fond of her. The author takes this a bit further, and has Nan in the midst of Tudor court intrigues, as a maid of honor to Jane Seymour, albeit quite briefly due to Queen Jane's death; and then as a maid of honor to Anne of Cleves, and eventually to Queen Mary Tudor.

But we are treated to more than just the coquettish ways of the courtiers: the author cleverly inserts facts of the times such as habits and foods, and the politics of the factions within the court as well. The writing style is adept at inserting these facts without turning it into a history lesson, and those readers who would truly like to learn more about the customs and traditions of Tudor England will appreciate the references the author relays. Along with the many details offered, there is a wide cast of characters within the novel, from Nan's large family to the courtiers and the movers and shakers of the time. The author supplies a genealogical chart, and an informative Who's Who section as well.

Since Nan spent time in Calais, then still an English possession, we are also privy to the unrest in Calais. Nan's stepfather, to whom the author portrays as being close to Nan, was Lord Lisle, Deputy of Calais, otherwise known as Arthur Plantagenet. He was the illegitimate son of Edward IV, and Henry VIII's uncle. Lord Lisle becomes implicated in a treasonous plot, along with some of the family members, while Nan needs to find ways to help her family without implicating herself in the process. Thomas Cromwell figures heavily here as well, as Cromwell dislikes Lord Lisle and believes he is incompetent in Calais. When Lord Lisle was arrested in 1540, the letters that were seized during this arrest were preserved, which in turn did historians a great service.

Nan's mother is also featured, who was Honor Grenville, and in her second marriage to Lord Lisle had found herself in a higher standing than she had enjoyed with her previous husband; whom she had her children by. Emerson doesn't go into great detail regarding the personal lives of the many siblings of Nan; they are seen more in the background and perhaps as a bit less than supporting characters. Their mentions are more along the lines of who and when they are going to marry.

Nan would like to have an advantageous marriage herself, and this is the characteristic that we are heavily introduced to in the beginning of Emerson's novel, which did not endear me to her right away. But, as the novel progressed, Nan's better side began to show through as if she had matured as we read on, and she was more careful than I expected her to be. Such as when the author takes liberties and invents an affair with one of her father's men, Ned Corbett, and they have a child together. It was an intriguing storyline that could have ended badly as far as plot and predictability, but the storyline was played out well which was surprising. The author inserted this fictitious affair into the story, but it created an interesting plot and served the story well.

The novel weaves its way through the everyday court life, with comings and goings as we learn more about how life was during the period. There are not a lot of dramatics, but as a reader I came to also hope for Nan's ultimate goal of securing a stable future for herself. She wisely conducted herself when she was with the king and did not flaunt whatever relationship she and others perceived her to have with him. When Catherine Howard comes into the picture, Nan doesn't fight for a place as Henry's mistress, as we would expect her to do, and I found this refreshing. It seems that Nan did ultimately but briefly achieve a sense of happiness, but her life also could be seen as one that was full of hardship and sacrifice.

I was intrigued by the way that Emerson portrayed Catherine Howard, which was more as shrewd young woman rather than the naive twit that we are used to. I enjoyed the name dropping the author deftly employed as I enjoy trying to place who was where, when and why; although those newer to the time period may find the multitude of names confusing and unwarranted. Emerson seems to take great care to provide her readers with a full sense of the Tudor times, with all of the main characters present.

The use of the title Between Two Queens made me think... as the book was not necessarily about two queens. But the fact that Nan was 'stuck' between two queens could be cause for discussion. Nan's only source of income and status was as a maid of honor, and she was briefly one for Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Mary Tudor. Much of the focus is within the time period that Henry was looking for a wife, and Henry was without one when Jane had died after childbirth. There was a time when Christina of Milan was purpoted to be the Queen, but she would not have him. Anne of Cleves was next, and luckily survived the marital state. Catherine Howard, a fellow maid of honor with Nan, was selected as the next Queen. One wonders if Nan had a shrewd uncle, like Catherine had in the Duke of Norfolk, if Nan could have been advanced further. But Nan's family had clung to the 'old ways' and the Catholic religion, although they tried to stay low during the Reformation and Henry's reign. They did not succeed fully in that endeavor, as Nan's mother and stepfather were implicated and held in the Botolph plot, thus further tainting Nan's own reputation.

The author Kate Emerson mentions that she relied heavily on the six volume edition of The Lisle Letters compiled by Muriel St. Clare Byrne, which comprises of multiple family members' letters and correspondence primarily between the years of 1533 -1540. Emerson astutely derives facts from these letters and reconstructs Nan Bassett's life surrounding the facts within these letters. As a work of fiction, readers need to be aware that most of what is in this story regarding Nan is what the author imagines "could be true", but I still enjoyed this story on a Mistress Anne Bassett, for whom will always be within a shroud of mystery, as with many historic figures of Tudor times are. Those who wish for drama akin to Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl may be disappointed, however. As a Tudor junkie myself, I enjoyed the education within the story and the writing style of Kate Emerson made this a pleasurable read for me. Instead of focusing on the life of royalty or kings and queens, this is an endearing work of fiction about a female struggling to maintain a safe existence within the many intrigues of the Tudor Courts.

For those wanting to know, Kate Emerson's previous Secrets of The Tudor Court: Pleasure Palace is pertaining to a different family altogether. These two novels are stand alone, although I did enjoy the first one as well (see my review). Kate Emerson also created an inspired guest post during the first Historical Fiction Bloggers Round Table Event, and you can read that here at The Burton Review. Kate Emerson is a pseudonym for Kathy Lynn Emerson, and she also writes mysteriesand non-fiction works. She has also created a very interesting website devoted to Tudor women.