I’m not writing much at the moment, so as part of my recovery from bouts of illness I am reading a lot. So it was with interest I came across this book for young adults. The novel is impeccably researched as you would expect — Worsley is my favourite historian — and the cover is sumptuous, showing a young red haired girl, dressed in green stepping through the shadows of the court of Henry VIII.
The story follows Eliza Camperdowne from the age of 12. We see her betrothal, to an earl, a subsequent visit to his family home and her removal to Trumpton Hall and the dubious ‘training’of the Duchess of Northumberland, where she is groomed to be a Maid of Honour at the court.
Eliza is a spirited heroine in thought, while outwardly she schools herself in an almost callous, outward, indifference as she learns to negotiate the tricky world of the royal court. Through her eyes we see Katherine Howard, her cousin who is groomed by her family, exploited by it to become the next queen. This exploitation is horrific, and has a tragic end when she is beheaded. But given the initial dislike between the two protagonists when they meet at Trumpton Hall, and Katherine’s manipulative behaviour as the novel develops, it is hard to feel sympathy for her.
The counterpoint to the intrigue and secrecy is Eliza’s friendship with Ned Barsby. At various points in the novel, a look from him, a message or a gift, are enough of a reminder to Eliza that she is being superficial and false, sometimes necessarily so. Henry’s court is a dangerous place, and it is Eliza’s pride and ability to cultivate a polished demeanour which simultaneously protect her at court and drive away Ned. Moreover, at times she loses the friendship of other maidens, particularly Anne Sweet. This is inevitable in the insecure world of female jealousy created by men and senior courtiers, such as the Duchess of Northumberland, for the pleasure of the king.
The fact that the young girls are simply expendable puppets is brought home suddenly in chapter 34. The young girls, including Queen Katherine have no idea what is going on. As the story progresses Eliza is fed snippets by Ned and others mirroring the gossip ridden court. Eliza gets off lightly in the court of enquiry. She spends time with Katherine, her cousin, in the tower before the execution and the two girls are reconciled by their youth and Eliza’s realisation that Katherine Howard had been ‘ambitious, false and selfish’ but that , ‘the (old) duchess (of Northumberland had trained them) to be bait for the king’ . Furthermore, Eliza realises she is as much a pawn in her family’s ambitions:Katherine’s fate could have been hers; for while Katherine played a better dynastic game she ultimately pays with her life.
Depressingly, Eliza is told by her father to do her duty, in otherwords to become the kings mistress if necessary and she wonders how she can escape this fate.
Set nearly five hundred years ago, this novel portrays a dangerous world for young women. In some respects the historically distant setting dilutes the horror of sexual exploitation and grooming of young teens and yet Eliza’s veneer of callous indifference when in danger resonates today. Indeed, their vulnerability is highlighted as soon as Eliza reaches Trumpton Hall, just that the experience is viewed through Eliza’s naive eyes so that the reader accepts her interpretation of what we know to be historical events and supposition.
However, Eliza is as much a narrative puppet as she is a pawn in courtly intrigue. She is a character through whom the larger historical narrative is retold. Her position allows us to see the intrigue and exploitation first hand, but because of her pride and her narrative perspective it is hard to get close to her. This is exacerbated because she is not narrating her own story but Katherine Howard’s. Eliza’s jealousy and dislike of Katherine dminish our sympathy until the end of the novel, so that this work of historical-fiction leaves me feeling uneasy, because what the reader is left with is the notion of a courtly paedophile ring where fathers, brothers and uncles are prepared to give up their daughters, sisters and nieces in the pursuit of preferment, power and wealth.