Giveaway: Win a copy of Elizabeth Fremantle’s “Sisters of Treason,” by accessing the Rafflecopter app, by clicking the cover image above for the book!! Remember, winners are chosen randomly, and the contest is only open to those living in the USA! Thanks!
An infectiously clever song, which I think for the purpose of this review, satirically pokes fun at the way many stories, about the Tudors, always obsessively and myopically focuses only on how courtesan women, at this time, (in many ways, this is true), can only derive meaning and purpose from the fulfillment of certain socially-correct marriages. But, Elizabeth Fremantle’s book will show how dramas, focusing only on this one strand of the lives of women at the time, are missing out on the things left unmentioned and unsaid in history books.
Typically, historical fiction books, television series, or films that like to depict a certain dramatic scene from this time period-the mid sixteenth century in England- during which England is embroiled in a clash of different, contrasting religious idealisms, Protestantism and Catholicism. For a vast majority of these historical fiction books, it is usually the lascivious King Henry VIII of England, and his tawdry affairs. Much like the satirical song, by Emilie Autumn, posted above, there’s a certain, overdramatized mood of torrid affairs, amongst a mess of other scandalous dramas that beset the political court with much more prosaic things to settle, rather than focusing on some war in some other distant, but neighboring European nature. All of this is essentially secondary, to the much more pressing drama, and anything in the way of interesting morsels of character development or even historical content becomes slight white noise that would otherwise distract the reader from the much more Sex and the City mood of the sixteenth century English court.
I would consider myself a moderate fan of Showtime’s Tudor, because the affairs were portrayed in a way that was far too overwrought, far too unrealistic, and I always felt that the political drama or tension was merely a second-class element to the torrid drama in that show. So, I was very much surprised, and greatly overjoyed by the fact that Elizabeth Fremantle’s fantastic historical drama, Sisters of Treason, is much more self-aware of it’s need for balance and precision, when it comes to fusing many different story elements to truly intrigue the reader into this very fascinating frame in history. Whereas some historical dramas focus again on either Queen Elizabeth, King Henry VIII, or Anne Boelyn, Sisters of Treason focuses more on the side of the large Tudor family that sometimes gets pushed to the outskirts of historical drama or portraits. This is a story about the otherwise forgotten personalities of history, who never took the throne, but tried to survive the tense political mood of a court, where one spurious rumor about wrongdoing or treasonous behavior, could land any of the Grey sisters, on the chopping block.
And, from the outset of this very engrossing historical drama, we start with a rather somber, nightmarish world of an England, where Protestants must be surreptitious about how they express their Protestantism. Lady Jane Grey, the eldest sister of both Catherine and Mary Grey, has just been executed right along with her father for seditious plots, being hatched to take a throne that does not lawfully belong to them. As such, the sisters, Catherine and Mary Grey, already face the strife of having the English political court distrust them, due to familial connections with these duplicitous family members, and both Catherine and Mary Grey have their own personal impediments, either by behavior, unspoken subversive thoughts in their minds, or a disability in Mary Grey’s case that has made her the victim of being incessantly told that she will never find any suitor, willing to marry her.
Even though the above Emilie Autumn song is satirical in nature and pokes fun at the devalued position of women in royalty at the time (and the fact that many tv dramas depict it as sensational and fun), it still depicts a common source of frustration and hardship for the loves of the outlying women of the court, whose main job really is to marry a male suitor with a good, commendable reputation, produce offspring for the male suitor (a healthy, lively, strong son, even though a daughter is only just “fine”), and be sure to be very circumspect about how they present themselves outside of the court, and the quality of their thoughts (are their thoughts seditious? How do they make sure these thoughts-which might be blasphemous or otherwise- are not expressed in a documented way, which could make them be the next people to arrive at the chopping block). Elizabeth Fremantle does a superb job, giving us a rich, psychological dimension to all the characters in this novel, who are sometimes relegated to a footnote or two in a history book.
One of my personal favorite characters was easily Levina, the patron artist for the court at the time, and we are offered some very trenchant perspectives of the Grey sisters and others, as Levina lives vicariously through their hardships and personal adversity that sometimes keeps them from living prosperously, and free of suspicion in the English court. In many ways, Elizabeth Fremantle’s seamless style of showing the interior lives of the Grey sisters through both the rule of Queen Mary Tudor, into the days of Queen Elizabeth, is modeled somewhat after the way Levina tries to portray that ulterior dimension of the various subjects that she tries to paint. That is the way Elizabeth Fremantle masterfully approaches these otherwise forgotten personalities, she exhumes them from the forgotten realm of a few disparate details in a history volume, and breathes new, artistic life into these characters, offering readers, in effect, a very intriguing, poignant portrait a whole different dimension altogether of some of the most fascinating piece of English history.
Also, women and their relationships play a huge, pivotal role in this story, more than just their affairs and relationships with men, which always get overplayed in books of this type. We always get stories of how these women’s lives are ruled and dominated by the obtuse patriarchal rules of the English monarchy, and how their affairs with men secure them a true sense of personal identity and agency, even though their relationships with men only allow one part of themselves to flourish. So, the biggest feature of Elizabeth Fremantle’s books that really made me pleased, as a reader that grows tired of the books that show women only having exclusively close, sexual relationships with men as the true source of personal fulfillment for them, was the fact that Elizabeth Fremantle spares some pages to evocatively display the close emotional ties between two sisters, both Lady Mary and Katherine, the friendship that have, along with their mother, with the portraitist Levina. None of these women are entirely subordinate to the needs and wishes of the men; they are of course interested in this part of their lives. But, this is not the only facet of their character, and I really enjoyed reading just how carefully Elizabeth Fremantle developed their relationships, which sadly still continues to be a very overlooked and forgotten feature of Tudor and Elizabethan type dramas, where the Sex and the City vibe sometimes completely erases the importance, complexity, and vitality of the close emotional relationships women have with other women.
Finally, Sisters of Treason displays the hidden, rich lives of women, which are sometimes bowdlerized and left understated in the history books, since we want to stupidly believe that just because patriarchal society dictates that the lives of women in the monarchy was only about marriage and reproducing, they are also denigrating the more nuanced portrait of any and all characters in history. And, this novel does a very fantastic job, really conveying all the dimensions of the lives of the women in this story, and not just the affairs (and there are affairs in this story), but the one thing that really separates Sisters of Treason, from other historical dramas depicting this period, is once again, the profound talent Elizabeth Fremantle has with taking the time to show the underplayed emotional, familial relationships women had with other women. So, if you’re looking for a meticulously researched, deep, nuanced look at the lives of forgotten individuals in this very fascinating period of English history, I would highly recommend Elizabeth Fremantle’s Sisters of Treason, which was so good that I am really excited to read her other book Queen’s Gambit very soon, as well.
Next week, I will be posting an interview with Elizabeth Fremantle herself!! If this book picques your interest, remember to enter the contest, by heading to the Rafflecopter App, designed specially for this giveaway!! (Winner chosen at random/contest only open to those living in the US)