Monday, June 15, 2009

"I'm a courtier, get me out of here!" A Historical Novel Review

Secrets of the Tudor Court: The Pleasure Palace
By Kate Emerson

Cover: Just another Headless Girl wearing period clothing, so nothing different from the norm. The coloring, however, is gorgeous and definitely stood out on the shelf when I was buying it.

Summary: Jane Popyncourt, born Jeanne of Brittany in the late 15th century, is a courtier born and bred. Though her father was a “common” merchant, her mother is gently-born and a lady-in-waiting to Queen Anne of France. But when she is only eight years old, Jeanne and her mother achieve a mysterious escape to England and are taken in to serve Queen Elizabeth, wife to Henry VII. Jeanne changes her name and abandons her French heritage, embracing the skanky life of the Tudor court.

The “Pleasure Palace” of the title refers to Jane’s nickname for Greenwich Court, Henry VIII’s favorite palace. She grows up amid the revelry, debauchery, and tumultuous years of the two monarchs as a friend of the younger Henry’s sister, Mary, and easily finds herself drawn in among the English. Though confessing she is not a great beauty herself, she entertains the attentions of famous court lover Charles Brandon, and even the King himself.

When Henry VIII finally accepts France’s overtures of war, Jane becomes caught in the middle. She cannot figure out where her loyalties lie: with a handsome French duke held captive by Henry, the duke’s attendant and Jane’s childhood friend, or with the English King. Deciding wrongly could cost her life.

Among the court intrigue lies Jane’s personal mystery: why did her mother spirit her away to England and never explain the reason? Did she have a hand in the King of France’s supposed murder? And whatever compelled the elder Henry to take care of them in the first place? Jane struggles through war, love affairs, and dangerous liaisons throughout this romantic Tudor novel.

My Review: This was a good, breezy summer read. It caught my eye while I was shopping at Target and I proceeded to read it in two sessions of basking in the sun.

The novel is written in the first-person from Jane Popyncourt’s perspective, and our heroine spends most of her time relating events and background information in a gossipy voice. I loved the fact that Emerson didn’t put a 21st century woman’s mind in a 15th century woman’s body. Jane knows and accepts the woman’s role in the Tudor court: women must obey the men’s decisions, and sex can be used like currency. She plays into it when Henry VIII forces her to use her affaire with the Duke de Longueville to spy on the French, and we even see her assisting Henry’s various paramours from being discovered by Queen Catherine.

At the same time, Emerson still manages to comment on the sexual behavior of the Tudor court as being hypocritical. Henry is a womanizer, and yet he insists there never be “lewd” behavior at his court. Affaires are thus, if possible, more clandestine and exciting for these people than ever. In this regard, the actual historical bargain that the Princess Mary makes—she gets to choose her next husband for herself when her husband, the old French King, dies—is kind of awesome and very interesting to read in this book.

I had only a few problems with this book. The largest plotline is Jane trying to figure out her own past and why she and her mother fled France. Since Emerson spends so much time emphasizing the difficulty of keeping secrets at court, I just find it hard to believe that as few people as in the novel would not have guessed the truth long before she does. The mystery is wrapped up perhaps too succinctly at the end of the book, and I would have liked to see more interaction between Jane and her lover prior to their marriage (it is a romance, after all!). However, I overall had fun reading this book and will look for the next Tudor novel to come from this author.

Some notes I took while reading:

  • On p. 115 of my paperback— The elder Sir Thomas Brandon leaves his son Charles’s rightful property to his best friend’s widow. Jane muses on this mysterious allocation of property, saying, “[Thomas] must have felt sorry for her.” My thinking? Given the nature of this court, the two were probably going at it behind everyone’s back. And thus we know we’re dealing with an unreliable narrator… interesting!
  • The “missing past” plotline reminds me of that old scary story… a girl and her mother check into a hotel, when the mother becomes violently ill. The hotel sends up a doctor, who requests that the daughter drive out to pick up a prescription. The girl does so, but on her way back her taxi takes her all around the city, rather on a straight path back to the hotel. By the time she gets back to the hotel, her mother has disappeared, the room is entirely different than she remembers, and the hotel staff act as though they had never seen her before… alright, so maybe it’s not that similar. But Jane interrogates quite a few courtiers who claim not to have known her mother, and then turn out to have had a hand in her fate. Then again, it also reminds me of that Julianne Moore movie where she loses her kid and everyone pretends she’s crazy… which is the same plot device used in that Jodie Foster movie… Ok, I guess this is a weird story line that has been tossed around a lot lately.
  • In the amazing Showtime series The Tudors (which will probably merit it’s own review at some future date in this blog), Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, looks like this: charles brandon 2... since I kept imagining Brandon thus while reading this book, I found it very difficult to believe that Jane could keep turning down his advances. I realize this is a personal problem.
  • charles brandon 3 That was one more, just because I felt like it.

The Author’s Website: Kate Emerson Historicals

*Note* There appears to be another "Secrets of the Tudor Court" novel slated to come out in 2010 called Between Two Queens

Buy this book on Amazon

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