Opening in the mid-1500s England, the remaining Grey sisters (Catherine and Mary) are still in mourning after the execution of their elder sister, Lady Jane Grey. Mary Tudor rules England and holds strong, vehemently, to the Catholic faith. Religious executions become, perhaps not normal, but far too common as religious intolerance grows over the years. The plot takes place over several decades as Queen Mary Tudor is replaced by her half sister Queen Elizabeth Tudor. Much of the story is told through the eyes of Catherine and Mary Grey, along with their mother’s best friend, the court painter Levina Teerlinc. Catherine is a bit of a flirt and seeks love and safety in affection. Mary Grey, who was born with a crooked spine and a small stature (which becomes apparent with age) must rely on her wits as she has zero prospects for a marriage. With court intrigue ever threatening to turn them into the reigning monarch’s enemy, these ladies are hard pressed to stay out of trouble.
This was an excellent read. It’s that simple. I loved learning about this little corner of history that I was previously ignorant of. I greatly enjoyed the characters. The plot, while driven by history, was still captivating. While I had heard of Lady Jane Grey an her execution I had never considered her immediate family and what became of them. Her two younger sisters were kept close at court, I expect to see if they had any designs upon the throne that needed to be squelched quickly. Jane’s mother goes on to have a second marriage, one that removes her from court but not from worrying about her remaining daughters. With Mary Tudor on the throne, there is royal intrigue constantly circling the Greys as they have a strong claim to the throne via their Tudor blood.
From the artist Levina we learn some gruesome details about the weekly burnings of heretics as Queen Mary attempts to make the whole of England Catholic. Of course weekly executions are never really useful in maintaining a stable government. Queen Mary needs an heir. From Levina, I got a very good sense of constant tension she and the Greys were in. Those wishing for more religious freedom pushed for another queen, one who could reproduce. However, once Queen Elizabeth takes the throne, the Grey sisters may or may not be in worse circumstances.
With all that said, I believe my favorite character was Mary Grey. She is physically deformed in an age where good looks were associated with the grace of Heaven and bad looks (including birth deformations) were often considered the sign of the Devil. due to Mary’s small stature, she is often treated like an intelligent pet or a doll by the courtiers and the Queen. She is commanded to sit upon the Queen’s knee and keep her entertained with her quips. Mary also has to tolerate the rude remarks by the other court ladies when the Queen isn’t looking. Indeed, her life from a young age looks bleak except for the fact that she will never be eligible to rule England as she can bear no children. No, Mary must use her eyes, ears, and mind to sift her way through decades of court intrigue.
Catherine Grey is also interesting because she had so many love entanglements. She was married at a young age, and pretty much in name only, though the two younglings did their best to sneak a few kisses here and there. With the fall of the Greys from grace (execution of Jane Grey), the marriage was ignored by the parents. Catherine goes through a few years of keeping a few young men dancing on their toes around her. Early on, I found her quite vapid, which suited her character’s actions. But as time went on and life became more serious for her, I found myself getting attached to her character too.
Levina Teerlinc as not quite an anomaly of her time; she earned the bulk of the yearly income with her court paintings and kept her household staffed and fed. In an age where so many women were dependent on a husband or male relative, she stood out in this regard. The author included an afterward in which she explained that very little is known about Levina and she was required to make several educated guesses about Levina’s life. I say she did a very good job and made Levina quite believable.
This book makes history interesting not only for showing what the women were up to, but also capturing how the whim of a monarch can affect so many at this time and place in history. The ending was very satisfying, and there were a few poignant moments that got a little tear from me. That speaks to how attached I became to some of these characters.
The Narration: I think the publisher did the listener a good turn when they decided to employ three narrators for this book. I felt that all the female characters were given greater distinction with the additional narrators. Each of them performed well and feel there was good continuation from one to the other when the point of view shifted. I especially loved the main narrator for Catherine as she caught her often silly and sometimes vapid inner monologue quite well. I truly felt like I was listening to the inner thoughts of a love struck fool.