Heads held high as others fall.
Publisher: Michael Joseph (Penguin)
First Published: 22nd May 2014
Date Reviewed: 1st March 2015
When Lady Jane Grey is killed the future becomes uncertain for her mother and sisters. Regulars at court and related to Queen Mary, no one knows whether or not they will be safe and as time goes on and this doesn’t change, it’s up to the family to try and find a solution.
Sisters Of Treason is the second novel by Fremantle, which looks at the trials (sometimes literal) of the Greys that remained. It also looks at the little known life of minature artist, Levina Teerlinc, filling in the gaps in the history.
It has to be said that this is no Queen’s Gambit, however this is not entirely down to the author. Whereas previously Fremantle chose to write about a queen with plenty of history behind her, this time her subjects are somewhat obscure and did not lead as eventful a life as Katherine Parr. This, then, presents a conundrum: the book is not particularly riveting, but then Fremantle has followed what is known of the history.
Essentially this book was always going to be limited in scope; yet this limitation itself is worth discussing. Katherine and Mary were rarely away from court and, in Mary’s case especially (at least here in this book), they are not particularly fond of court. This means that whereas we are often told – by teachers, television, evidence – that court was a blustering, busy, exciting place, this novel shows us that actually in many ways it was boring. We all know it was stifling, rife with jealousies and full of backstabbing, but ‘boring’ is rarely a word used.
This is to say that Fremantle effectively shows the reader how dull Katherine and Mary’s lives were. Not dull as in to say unworthy of study, but dull because they had to remain at court when they may not have wanted to. There is the threat of death ever lingering in the background, but as a conflict it is not very strong – it could be said that this is a character-driven story when generally factually-based historical novels straddle both plot and character, tending towards plot as their backbone. It could thus be said that this would have made better non-fiction.
Fremantle makes as much as she can of the known history, and chooses to incorporate less reliable evidence only when it suits her plot. As an example we have Mary, who has a crooked back, scoliosis perhaps. It is interesting to look at this example in light of the recent discovery of Richard III’s body. It was constantly debated whether or not Richard had scoliosis, whether or not we should trust the words of those historical figures who may simply have hated him, and in discovering his body it was found that those people were speaking the truth. All this to say that, given Richard III, if Mary was reported to be crook-backed then it’s very possible she was and thus despite the general lack of evidence in the pictures we have of her, Fremantle’s decision to incorporate a disability into her fictionised Mary’s life is something to savour. Fremantle makes a point of studying the culture in terms of disability, which is aided by her extra focus on Levina Teerlinc.
Teerlinc, a rarity in medieval history – a female artist – is little known, and so Fremantle’s dealing of her is largely similar to the character of Dot from Queen’s Gambit. Through Teerlinc Fremantle explores not only the Tudor working woman but the world beyond the court and the politics in the wider world that merit a totally difference handling when discussed inside the privy chamber.
It should be noted that the dispositions of queens Mary and Elizabeth are not favourable, which in the case of the latter may surprise you. However it is perfectly reasonable considering the viewpoints used – Katherine and Mary were not going to like Bloody Mary and if Elizabeth held them prisoner, it’s safe to say they wouldn’t have considered her especially wonderful, either.
Sisters Of Treason looks at the life of those who might have wished for something that would have rendered them even less well-known. Whether you will like it or not really depends on how open you are to the idea of sitting sewing beside the window whilst the world passes you by. It is likely to interest those with a prior interest in the sisters; as for others it is hard to say. The book is certainly well written and full of factual information you won’t forget in a hurry. Indeed the only written element that is cause for thought is the French of Frances Brandon, of which there is a lot.
Sisters Of Treason focuses on hope when everything else is lost. It’s packed with history and is an excellent example of good research and writing. It is respectful of the historical figures it uses, but it should be noted that it is steeped in anxiety and sadness and that the conflict is less apparent then is generally expected.
I received this book for review from the publisher.
March 4, 2015, 3:56 pm
I enjoyed reading this as I found interesting that it focused on two lesser known characters from the Tudor period.
March 4, 2015, 4:05 pm
I often prefer historical fiction that does not focus on well known figures. I admit to not being a huge fan of historical novels that focus on royalty or the like, but I do like the sound of this one.
March 4, 2015, 9:30 pm
I read this last year and I think I actually enjoyed it more than Queen’s Gambit, although that’s probably just because I’m more interested in the Grey sisters than in Katherine Parr. Elizabeth Fremantle has a new book called Watch the Lady coming out in June which I’m really looking forward to.
March 11, 2015, 8:20 pm
GoodReads and blogging has changed my reading life. I used to be haphazard and easily stuck in ruts. Now I log everything I read and want to read, and pick a few challenges each year to help me broaden my reading horizons and achieve certain goals (like learning about the Wars of the Roses, for example).
Now, I can’t imagine not keeping a log of what I read!
April 20, 2015, 1:13 pm
Jessica: Yes, I thought that aspect was great. In a way, it was also a good reminder of why some people do get lost to history – if their lives aren’t as fascinating as others – though I think in any other time they might’ve been more well known. Henry VIII kind of blocks many from being more well-known!
Literary Feline: I’m the same. Well-known is great for a top-up, so to speak, but it’s nice to be introduced to others. I’m big on dynasties but you can certainly have too much of them. Really interesting you prefer others; you must learn a lot more than many.
Helen: Thank you for that, Helen, I’ll look out for it. I think Katherine Parr is fascinating but then I like reading about Jane Grey just as much. If half of the rumours Fremantle used here turned out to be true they would surely be more famous.
Jane: (The post Jane’s commenting on, if anyone’s confused, is this one about keeping track of reading lists.) I have to say I can’t imagine not logging now, either, and wish I’d started earlier.