Book Review: Mistress of Mourning
Keeping Up With the Tudors
by Karen Harper
New American Library, 2012
Karen Harper’s 2011 novel The Queen’s Governess revolved around Katherine Ashley, the tutor and chief lady’s maid to Queen Elizabeth I, and it was shot through with glints of humor and ambiguous pathos. This year’s Harper novel, Mistress of Mourning, is an altogether more somber affair, set a century earlier than the time of Elizabeth: the time is 1501, and the Elizabeth of these pages is Elizabeth of York, the daughter of Edward IV, the sister of the much-debated Princes in the Tower, the wife of the royal usurper Henry VII, and the mother of his children, including his two sons – Arthur, the heir, and Henry, the spare.
Elizabeth of York narrates her own segments of the book, and she shares that duty with Harper’s other main character, the widowed young candlemaker Varina Westcott, who’s summoned to court by Elizabeth and commissioned with crafting elaborate wax figurines of the new queen’s lost ones: the two children she lost in while they were still infants, and the two brothers she lost in one of history’s greatest unsolved crimes. Varina is an intelligent, inquisitive young female lead, although Harper never quite succeeds in making her likeable – and in that regard, the character has a lot of company in this book … one exception being Nicholas Sutton, the handsome young courtier who liaisons with her while the work is in progress.
Varina and Nicholas come to the attention of the new king and queen as being both trustworthy and discreet, helpful traits in the solving of mysteries, and Harper’s stroke of genius in Mistress of Mourning is to link the two big mysteries at the start of the whole Tudor dynasty. The first of these is of course the disappearance of the two male heirs to King Edward, the aforementioned Princes in the Tower who went missing from their protective custody in the Tower of London in the summer of 1483. Their disappearance allowed Edward’s brother Richard to seize the throne (he had them declared illegitimate too, because you can never be too careful about these things). The second big mystery involves the aforementioned Prince Arthur, a hale and healthy young king-in-waiting who was married to Catherine of Aragon and sent to the Welsh border to conduct a miniature court there in training for the real thing – but then suddenly died, age 15, in 1502.
Varina and Nicholas thus encounter a court in chaos and grief, from the more stately mourning of Arthur’s tragedy-toughened mother, to the much sharper (and nicely-caught) sorrow of the newly-widowed young Spanish bride:
She pressed her forehead, then her mouth there in a farewell kiss. Tears blurred my eyes as we three held the covering over her. “Adios, adios, my esposo, mi amor,” I heard her whisper over the patter of the rain on the cloth above us. Then she added, “Que te vayas con Dios.“
Elizabeth of York is hoping that Varina’s relatively obscure occupation will help her to investigate just what happened in Wales, as she tells her husband:
“My dear lord, they can inquire sub rosa, go about the grounds or trace Their Graces’ steps without drawing attention – at least I pray so, lest some of our enemies mayhap yet lurking about that area ferret them out.”
Unfortunately, that ‘mayhap’ also has plenty of company in Mistress of Mourning, which has an annoying but hardly fatal soft spot for such pasteboard Prince Valiant stuff. But mostly the writing is unobtrusive, hurried along by the plot – and by the ever-present hint that there’s more linking the death of the Princes and the death of Arthur than tragic mischance. As our (very) amateur sleuths can’t help but notice, some of the same names keep cropping up:
If there was foul play in Wales, someone else was to blame – perhaps someone Tyrell had sent or encouraged, even sheltered. But the biggest puzzle of all was this: Since it appeared Sir James Tyrell had ever been a Yorkist at heart, why would he have harmed the two young Yorkist heirs, unless someone else had bribed him or forced him to do so? Yes, my uncle Richard could have urged Tyrell to be that killer, to clear his way to the throne. The dreadful thing was that their deaths had also cleared the way for Henry Tudor, my beloved husband.
“My uncle Richard” in this case is of course Richard III, that touchstone figure in British history, reviled as a monster and defended as a victim. Richard’s ghost hovers over every moment of Mistress of Mourning, and Harper manipulates the unavoidable fact with considerable skill.
There’s a good deal here to satisfy Tudor fiction fans – including some climactic bits they might not see coming – and the very premise of the thing is a welcome relief: better a solidly-crafted novel set in the reign of Henry VII than yet another dashed-off confection set during the time of his famous son or his famous granddaughter. If Varina is going to have more adventures, let’s hope she sticks with these monarchs, instead of retiring to the countryside and indulging in only candle-related detections.