Monday, May 19, 2008

28. The Queen's Fool

by Philippa Gregory,
audibook read by Bianca Amato

This is another historical fiction/romance by Gregory set in the Tudor era. Unlike the other two of hers I’ve read so far, the main character in this one is not based on a real person. Gregory chose to tell the story of Henry VIII’s oldest daughter Mary through fictional Hannah Green (nee Verde), age 14 in 1553, a Spanish Jew who earlier escaped the Inquisition with her father after her mother is burned at the stake.

Hannah dresses as a boy and serves as apprentice to her printer father in London, and they pretend to be Christians. Real historical characters Robert Dudley and John Dee visit the shop and Hannah has a vision of an angel. They recognize her as having “the Sight” and take her to King Edward VI to serve as a “holy fool.” On her website, Gregory says she got the idea for Hannah from a real female fool, Thomasina, who served both Queens Mary and Elizabeth. To date, I can find little information about Thomasina (except that she was a dwarf or midget), nor much on “holy fools,” other than the definition “One who subverts convention or orthodoxy or varies from social conformity in order to reveal spiritual or moral truth,” which was Hannah’s purpose in court due to having “the Sight.”

Hannah goes on to serve Edward’s successor, his half-sister Mary, and is sometimes sent by her to serve/spy on her half-sister, Elizabeth. Meanwhile, Hannah still considers herself a servant of Dudley (on whom she has a huge crush) and spies for him on Mary, and practices scrying for his friend Dee, trying to “see” the future for all these people.

There are really two stories within this book. Besides the court intrigue, it’s a coming-of-age story for Hannah who is 19 by the end of the book. She is betrothed to another Jew-in-hiding, Daniel Carpenter (whose family changed their name from Disraeli, which immediately made me think of late-1800s British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who was also of Jewish origin). Hannah has a major scare while at court and decides to leave England with her father and Daniel, and they go to Calais to escape possible persecution. They are there when the French retake Calais in January 1558, but Hannah manages to escape back to England on Dudley’s ship.

I found Hannah’s story of being a Jew in the Renaissance to be more interesting than that of the Tudor court characters (Mary, Elizabeth, and Dudley), the best part being her time in Calais, away from the court. The other story was less believable. Gregory does a wonderful job in making Queen Mary into a sympathetic character – separation from her mother, loss of prestige, and near-exile as a youth; a cheating husband; phantom pregnancies. Yet it’s hard to believe a young Jewish girl whose mother was burned in the Spanish Inquisition could be so admiring and forgiving of the “Bloody Mary” who also burned Protestants and Jews (and I’m Catholic!). I realize Hannah’s position and gift of “Sight” were a plot device to enable her to move so easily among the three Tudor characters, but her also being a young Jewish woman made this rather implausible.

Nevertheless, the story (unabridged on 17 discs, over 500 pages in print) sucked me in. British actress Amato does a fine job with the different voices and characters on the audiobook. Despite (or perhaps because of) their flaws (Mary is zealous and obsessive, Elizabeth is coy with men and conniving, Dudley is a traitor and a rake, and Hannah is truly foolish at times, but also matures), the characters are likeable, and I learned more about Tudor history. Recommended.

ETA: Contrasted with The Virgin’s Lover, I found some characters the same and some were different in this book. Dudley is the same in both. Elizabeth comes across as more weak and foolish (especially at first) once she’s on the throne than when she is scheming to get on it. The biggest contrast was with Dudley’s wife Amy. In The Virgin’s Lover, she is a sympathetic character, the cheated-on, neglected wife who may also be physically ill. In The Queen’s Fool, she is haughty, cold, hysterical, and any illness is more mental than physical. Quite a contrast! I guess it’s all point of view. The Virgin’s Lover is told partly from Amy’s view, while in The Queen’s Fool, we only see Amy though Hannah’s rather biased eyes (since she still admires Dudley).

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