Author: Karen Heenan
Publication: Trade paperback, 2019
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: 16th century EnglandDescription: Life in Southwark is hard for Peter Davydd and his family. They lost their only son to the sweating sickness. His wife and daughters do washing and ironing for those who can afford it but barely make a living so he brings ten-year-old Bess to Greenwich Palace. Recognizing his child’s exceptional voice and Henry VIII’s love of music, Davydd sells his child to the king, freeing himself of a burdensome mouth to feed and also securing her the training she needs. Hurt by her family’s rejection and very conscious of her impoverished background, Bess has difficulty adjusting to the royal household but the friendship of Tom, a minstrel boy, helps her make the best of the situation and fear a return to her old life. As Bess grows up and becomes a gifted performer, she is drawn into the intrigue of the court, the rivalry between Katherine of Aragon and upstart Anne Boleyn, and learns herself that is impossible to love and to be wise. . .
My Impression: Ever since childhood when I overheard my mother watching the Six Wives of Henry VIII on PBS (and claimed a spot on the couch), I have been fascinated by 16th century England. In the (ahem) intervening years, the rest of the world has caught up with me, as witnessed by the success of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell and other historical fiction. Heenan’s novel, first in her Tudor Court series, reveals a part of Henry’s court that is sometimes taken for granted but is quite fascinating. Most casual readers know that Henry loved music but the only court musician who gets much attention is the wretched Mark Smeaton, who died with Anne Boleyn. The author’s careful research and vivid characters bring to life Henry’s entertainers and the important role that music played as entertainment in this era.
Bess observes the machinations of the court from a child’s perspective so does not always understand the implications of what she sees, although she is fortunate there are several adults who wish her well and try to guide her. Bess is given the surname Llewellyn because she is illiterate and does not know her own name. This bothered me and upset the poor father when he came to visit her, to show she was not totally abandoned. Bess soon recognizes she is better off at court but she never fully loses her fear that anyone she cares about will leave her, which results in bad choices.
Bess’ impatience with the restrictions of court life is contrasted with the behavior of her closest friends: Agnes, a beautiful but illegitimate girl, who shares her chamber and seems a model of good behavior (until it turns out she was not) and Joan, whose obedience to her distant family is unquestioned, not to mention Tom, who has learned to adapt, so as to secure his livelihood and place at court, and is always there for Bess. I got irritated with Bess for being so impulsive and willful, for demonstrating bad judgment despite seeing Agnes’ misfortunes and having so little pride she gives herself to someone unworthy, even after she knows better and understands the risks. Luckily, even after I stopped liking Bess, I was still intrigued by her friends Tom and Robin. Robin gets his own book this spring, which should be equally entertaining.2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Marg at The Intrepid Reader.
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Source: Copy provided by the author