Monday, March 14, 2011

The Queen's Rival - Diane Haeger

The Queen’s Rival
In The Court Of Henry VIII
Diane Haeger
New American Library

Historical Fiction

Young Bess Blount dreamed of going to the court of King Henry VIII. Both her parents served there, and the stories they told made it seem like a magical place, ruled over by a god-like King. Bess gets her wish at 14 when her father returns, injured, from war, and her mother must stay at home in the country to nurse him back to health. Bess will serve as a sort of place-holder for her mother in the court of Queen Katherine of Aragon. Bess is shocked to discover that the Queen’s court is not the lively place full of music and dancing that the remembered from childhood stories. Instead, the Queen is devoted more and more to prayer, desperate to give the King (and the country) the son and heir he desires.

Bess’ first meeting with Henry does nothing to diminish her childhood crush or her romantic notions about the man. She’s sure that she, alone, can be the partner he needs. Thinking no further than that, really, Bess learns how to flirt and catch the King’s attention, completely oblivious to the fact that one of her best friends at court is currently Henry’s mistress. Bess will not believe that she is just one in a long line, and allows her thoughts of romance to become deed. The reality of the situation becomes quite clear when Mistress Blunt (not even a lady of any real standing) discovers that she is with child.

It’s true that Bess’ story is one of the more little-known stories of the Tudor era. She was absolutely real, and had an affair with the king that resulted in a child. Her time at court began during the time of Katherine of Aragon and continued through the times of the Boleyns and into the time of Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour. It should have been quite a dangerous time for anyone at court, not the least one of Henry’s many mistresses, but Bess somehow floats above it all, living out a girl’s fantasy.

In a way, it’s understandable, since she comes to court at 14, and begins her affair with Henry at perhaps 16. Girls that age are still full of romantic silliness and unrealistic expectations about life. On the other hand, I found it nearly impossible to believe that Bess’ mother, a longtime member of Katherine’s court, wouldn’t have warned her lovely daughter about the King’s habits in no uncertain terms. And it’s extremely difficult to imagine that a girl would live at court for years and still retain her innocently rose-colored view about the King and his court.

Be that as it may, this is a bit of Tudor history that generally gets a footnote or, at best, a paragraph. When held up beside the courage of Katherine and the scandals that followed the Boleyns, Bess’ story seems quite tame. The author does a wonderful job of making Bess into a living, breathing human being with strength of character and the kind of flaws that define a person. She’s real, on the page, as are Henry, and the many members of his court. The descriptive passages allow the reader to feel that they’ve walked through the hallways or sat at supper with some of the greatest names in English history. The writing is lovely and makes this story accessible for those with no familiarity for the historical period; yet deep and fascinating for those readers who do. It’s a beautiful book about a little-known part of Tudor history that might have changed the course of a country.

Rating: 8 ½
March 2011
978-0-451-23220-5 (trade paperback)

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