A few years ago, I wrote an article1 about (many) historical novels about Anne Boleyn, using that theme as a way to think about the historical romance qua genre. Elizabeth Fremantle's Queen's Gambit dropped me right back into those novels and their narrative forms. Oh, the queen in question is Katherine Parr, to be sure, not Anne Boleyn, but Queen's Gambit's structure and its gender politics alike are virtually identical to those earlier tales.
Although Queen's Gambit is told in third person, Fremantle mediates the plot through the POV of three main characters, all Protestant or Protestant-leaning (about which more in a moment): Katherine Parr; the physician Robert Huicke (who has been turned into a gay man); and Katherine's servant, Dot Fownten. The straightforwardly linear narrative tracks Katherine from the mercy killing of her second husband, Latymer (an event not exactly present in the historical record), through her courtship by the Byronic and decidedly jerkish Thomas Seymour, her stressful marriage to Henry VIII, her misguided marriage to Seymour, and finally her death of puerperal fever. For effect, Fremantle ratchets up Katherine's various and sundry traumas: during her marriage to Latymer, an (invented) Catholic rebel rapes her stepdaughter and impregnates Katherine; she poisons Latymer as he dies horribly from stomach cancer; she is repeatedly left "bruised" by Henry VIII during their (repulsive) sexual encounters; and she has the bad fortune to witness Seymour in a post-coital state with the teenage Elizabeth (as opposed to something less sexual but still compromising). By the same token, Fremantle elevates Katherine's status as a friend to all living things, what with her mastery of herbal healing, her disregard for the niceties of social class (she's nice to the gardeners! she's friendly with her servant!), and, of course, her rather astonishing tolerance for gay men. (Huicke's sexual orientation seems primarily designed to display Katherine's ahistorical awesomeness, and demonstrates that Rules #3 and #4 are alive and well outside of the neo-Victorian novel.) Even what Katherine regards as signs of her own sinfulness--poisoning husband #2, plotting to murder Henry VIII--are represented as either not really sinful (Latymer has no other option besides dying in agony) or understandable given the circumstances (Katherine fears herself in danger again).
In other words, Fremantle translates Katherine into a standard-issue historical romance heroine--victimized by the patriarchy, but independent-minded and plucky--with a cosmetic dollop of Protestantism on top. However, like the Anne Boleyn novels, Queen's Gambit is an anti-romance, here with a conventional romance subplot pointing up the tensions in the main plot. Late in the novel, after Henry VIII has died but before Katherine gives in to Seymour's proposal, Katherine thinks to herself that she has "the sense that she has tasted freedom at last, has unfurled her wings, and that marriage would clip them again" (385). But, faced with Seymour's "hyperbole of romance," a still-guilty Katherine opts to swap the "lure of freedom" for "pleasure" on earth (385-86). Seymour is the traditional romance's bad boy, dangerous but sexually alluring, supposedly salvageable by the romantic heroine's heartfelt love. Moreover, he represents the possibility of Katherine's choice, of sexual self-determination after three marriages contracted under greater or lesser degrees of constraint. And in the historical romance, individual erotic freedom frequently stands in for all other forms of liberty. Nevertheless, like the Anne Boleyn novels, The Queen's Gambit denies the possibility of authentic choice under a court regime, where all emotional relationships are terminally infested by politics; as I put it in my AB article, unlike the conventional romance, in which the characters find true love after a few bumps along the road, in the antiromance "successful communication reveals the extent to which the 'discourse' created an illusionary ideal partnership--and thus lays bare the emptiness of politicized sexuality" (4). Katherine, whose class-busting behavior sticks out against her brother's "ambition" and the snobbiness of almost everyone else around her, believes that she can contract a marriage of her own desire and free will, whereas Seymour's years-long pursuit of her is a tactical negotiation intended to feather his own nest. "That man couldn't manage to get himself a Princess of the blood," sneers Elizabeth, "so the Queen was the next best thing" (429). In historical anti-romances such as this, romantic love and desire are delusional fantasies, bubbles easily burst at best, potential prisons (literal or figurative) at worst. To think of the "I" in terms of a freely-desiring self, that is, is the anti-romance's most dangerous error, especially for the heroine: the anti-romance heroine misunderstands her function as just one node in a larger network of power relations conducted among men (and, sometimes, more powerful women), and presumes an agency she does not actually possess.
By contrast, the novel offers alternative romance subplots that locate emotional possibilities elsewhere. In the successful subplot, Dorothy (Dot) Fownten finds love and domesticity in a cross-class relationship with a musician, William Savage--despite an initial bump (itself characteristic of the romance genre) when Dot belatedly discovers that William already has a wife. Once said wife is conveniently dispatched offstage, however, the wayward William proves himself suitably chastened, and Dot and William remove themselves from the immediate court atmosphere (only William, the professional man, still travels back and forth) to the literally and figuratively healthier air of the seaside in Devon. Here, Dot and her sister can "search for clams in the shallows with their skirts tucked up like farm girls" (444), moving back and forth between "ladylike" and "unladylike" behaviors in the relative freedom of life outside the court. To be free means to abandon not only power, but even proximity to power; the only happy woman is the one nestled away in the country, with a family to raise. By contrast, in the less successful subplot, Huicke, afflicted with a severe but unspecified skin disease, has a not-particularly happy relationship with Nicholas Udall (whose possible homosexuality has a bit more on the historical record to say for it). Along with (the soon-deceased) Latymer and William Savage, Huicke is one of the few "nice" men in a novel populated by male brutes (although his sketchy biography suggests that the niceness is about as accurate as the homosexuality), and like Katherine's lust for Seymour, Huicke's own desire for Udall seems out of proportion to the love-object's actual attractions. ("You disgust me with your reptilian skin" [198-99], Udall tells Huicke at one point, which one would think would be a permanent deal-breaker.) Seymour, Savage, and Udall all mirror each other, but of the group, only Savage willingly relinquishes personal ambition and selfish desire in order to marry a woman valued entirely for her innate qualities, whereas Seymour prioritizes politics and Udall rampant (and sadistic) sex. But then, the novel doesn't take an overly optimistic view of male sexuality, straight or gay: Huicke's monogamous instincts derive from his identification as both masculine and feminine (405-6), and he doesn't blame Udall for his "excessive promiscuity" because "he can't help it" (406). Given that even the "nice" Savage was happy to sex things up with Dot before the death of his wife, it's hard to avoid concluding that the novel takes Huicke's position seriously.
To put things another way, characters interested in being historical don't fare well at the novelist's hands. "We'd have our place in history," Will Parr excitedly tells Katherine when the king's desire for her becomes apparent (81), and Katherine's irritation with his "ambition" (81) later gives way to her own desire to "leave something behind on this earth, a legacy, to be seen by history as a one of the torchbearers for the new religion" (213-14). When Katherine's first book is published, Cat Brandon exclaims "[t]his makes history, Kit" (237), and Katherine is sure that her second will mark her out as the "Reformation Queen" (256). (Indeed, Fremantle elevates her importance by having her and not Anne Stanhope aid the imprisoned Anne Askew.) Nearer the novel's end, however, Katherine reflects that "Reform is happening anyway without her," and reproaches herself for imagining that she had been an "intrinsic part of it" (406). To desire world-historical status is a dangerous flaw; better to be Dot Fownten and William Savage. No wonder that the youthful Elizabeth comes off so badly.
But for all Queen's Gambit's warnings about the dangers of political ambition, this is a novel written very much from the point of view of the eventual winners in the Reformation sweepstakes. Although Queen's Gambit does admit some Walter Scott-ian nostalgia for the lost world of the shuttered abbeys, and hardly represents the aristocratic Protestants as embodiments of moral virtue, neither of these things is actually out of line with classic narratives about the English Reformation: Protestants have frequently been skeptical, to put none too fine a point on it, about the motives of both Henry VIII and his court, and have always been perfectly happy to denounce them for profit-mongering when it came to appropriating monastic lands. But because all of the viewpoint characters are Protestants, there is no "outside" to their uniformly vicious responses to the key Catholic players, like Gardiner and Wriothesley, both represented as physically as well as morally repulsive. Gardiner looks like he is "made of melting wax" (29)--a refugee from Raiders of the Lost Ark, maybe?--and even suffers from dandruff (180), while Wriothesley has "mud-colored eyes" (29), permanent sinus issues, and purses his lips "like a dog's arsehole" (307). Moreover, Protestantism consistently appears as purely commonsensical. "Reform has become a force for reason," Katherine tells Huicke (54), and she finds that the "idea of reform [...] seems so reasonable" (55); Dot finds "the whole idea" of transubstantiation "quite disgusting" (75), and Katherine mentally rolls her eyes at the notion that a "man of such acute intelligence" as the king could actually believe in it (143). Similarly, Anne Askew's devotion to her faith is clearly a heroic sign of her moral purity. By contrast, Mary Tudor is "rooted to the old beliefs in memory of her mother [...] Her loyalty is blind" (213-14). Protestantism offers the rational route of free thinking, free speech, and free science; Catholicism, by contrast, offers only the chaos of sexual and political violence. We have been here before, I think.
1 "The Fictional Afterlife of Anne Boleyn: How to Do Things with the Queen, 1901-2006," Clio 37.1 (2007): 1-26.