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Mar 7, 2011

The Queen's Rival by Diane Haeger

The Queen's Rival by Diane Haeger
New American Library, March 1, 2011
Review copy provided by the publisher, thank you!
The Burton Review Rating: 4 stars

As the beautiful daughter of courtiers, Elizabeth "Bessie" Blount is overjoyed when she secures a position as maid of honor to Katherine of Aragon. But when she captures the attention of the king himself, there are whispers that the queen ought to be worried for her throne.
When Bess gives birth to a healthy son the whispers become a roar. But soon the infamous Boleyn girls come to court and Henry's love for her begins to fade. Now, Bess must turn to her trusted friend, the illegitimate son of Cardinal Wolsey, to help her move beyond life as the queen's rival.

Finally a novel on Bessie Blount! Her name has followed me throughout many Tudor reads, but I have never been able to read something that had the potential to answer many of my questions about her, a famous mistress to a handsome and dashing King Henry VIII. Diane Haeger has focused some recent novels on the Tudor courts, and along with Philippa Gregory she was one of the first historical authors I read (The Secret Bride which was an intriguing story of Henry VIII's favorite little sister, Mary). In The Secret Bride, Mary defied her royal brother's wishes and married the man she loved.. his best friend. And thus.. I was hooked on that wild Tudor family. Last year, Haeger wrote of Catherine Howard in The Queen's Mistake, and the author finally gave young Catherine the voice that she is always lacking in most Tudor novels. Now Haeger gives us yet another inside look in those same veins of Henry VIII's court and finally gives us Bessie Blount. Blount is almost always mentioned in Henry VIII reads as she was the mistress who bore Henry his first son, who grew up to marry the fearsome Thomas Howard's daughter.

Everyone knows how Henry VIII noticed Anne Boleyn dancing one day and promptly had to have her, which then set him up for the succession of wives afterwards. But before all that.. who was Bess Blount? Was she a flighty air headed girl? What was the relationship between she and Henry really like, especially since he was at his prime? How did pious Queen Katherine treat her rival? How did Henry's other mistresses treat Bess? Why did she leave the court?  Did Henry shush her aside once she was with child? What was it like to be a mistress to a man whom everyone wanted a favor from? Why didn't she have the stuff that Anne Boleyn  had to make Henry marry her?

My questions were answered with Diane Haeger's novel on the mysterious lady who seemingly loved King Henry VIII. Haeger portrayed the relationship without rushing, as she made the reader get to know Bess and wish for her to take a different path, safely away from a ruthless king. Yet Henry is not quite the murdering king we have come to know, as he is still young and vibrant and full of hope. Bess's own life is like an open book with Haeger's writing, although besides the facts we will truly never know what depths of emotions there were between Henry and Bess, I was impressed and satisfied with the story that Haeger writes, which finally fills in so many blanks regarding Bess Blount and her family as she spun her tale with devotion and patience to the subject. It was tenderly written with sweet as opposed to bawdy sex scenes and the ending of the story had me dabbing at my eyes. I enjoyed the book more for the amount of time it encompassed, from Bess' arrival at court at age fourteen to Bess's second marriage while following along King Henry's own timeline of subsequent mistresses and marriages. The reader is also treated to well-known players at Henry's court such as Wolsey, Katherine of Aragon, and Henry's bastard son. One wonders how close England could have been to having his bastard son in succession to the throne which could have set a precedent for England. Haeger's novel on Bessie Blount is one that will be most appreciated by Tudor fans who have always longed to know what went on behind Henry's closed doors and in his heart with regards to one of his first acknowledged mistresses.