Book Review: The Queen's Fool
I remember being extremely impressed by Ms. Gregory's first novel, Wideacre, a sprawling family saga whose protagonist made Scarlett O'Hara look like a Girl Scout. Although she has been writing historical novels for a few years, this is the first one I have read, and I enjoyed it immensely.
Hannah Green (nee Verde) and her father are secret Jews (at least to the extent that Judaism has been passed down to them) who have fled from Spain after the arrest and burning of Hannah's mother, and Hannah, who has "the Sight," is brought by John Dudley, the Protector of the young Edward VI, to the king's court as a "holy fool" and spy. Dazzled by Dudley's son, Robert (the future favorite of Queen Elizabeth I) and caught up in the intrigues of court life, Hannah lives through the turbulent final months of Edward's reign, the short-lived attempt to place Lady Jane Grey upon the English throne, and the five-year reign of "Bloody Mary." Torn between conflicting loyalties to those she serves and to her family, including her betrothed, later her husband, she moves back and forth between the public and private spheres, giving a unique perspective on both the historical events and on the lives of "the People," as she calls the Jews. She moves from resentment to acceptance and finally to embrace of her responsibilities to both family and faith.
To me, this book is unusual in that it offers a rare sympathetic and primary view of Queen Mary. Although those that focus on Elizabeth usually do portray Mary with some understanding, she is always subordinate to her younger sister, who outshines her in fiction as she did in life. Hannah's view of Elizabeth, on the other hand, while sometimes admiring, sometimes censorious, is much more objective than her warm regard for Mary. Perhaps it is her status as a Jew, but she seems able to look upon both as living, breathing women rather than as the symbols of religious and political power that they can often be to other characters. Other historical personages also have depth and ambiguity, including Lord Robert, who is ambitious and a practiced seducer but ends up having a real regard and respect for Hannah. I thought she was a little hard on Robert's wife Amy, portraying her as not only virtually illiterate and incurious but also mentally unbalanced.
Hannah and her family, particularly her faithful husband and her scholarly father, also feel like real, vibrant people, although her disapproving in-laws may hew a bit too closely to stereotypes. I would like to have seen more exploration of the motivations and background of Daniel's mother.
I don't know if Ms. Gregory has any real-life connection to Judaism, but the thing that I found most powerful about The Queen's Fool, apart from the scene where Hannah finds herself unable to burn her father's "heretical" books, even to protect herself, is the haunting sadness of a culture that is being lost generation by generation, as her father and mother-in-law struggle to remember the prayers and practices that have been passed down to them, and to pass them on to their children.