Book Review: The Queen’s Rival
Keeping up with the Tudors
by Diane Haeger
New American Library, 2011
Considering the frightful load of history that hangs around the neck of Elizabeth Blount, it’s puzzling that she hasn’t been the subject of more biographies – and more historical fiction. “Bessie” Blount was the mistress of a young King Henry VIII for almost a decade, far longer than most of his marriages lasted, and their affair produced a healthy boy, which so many of those marriages famously failed to do. Henry was unusually affectionate to the little boy, and as little Henry Fitzroy grew older, the king made him Duke of Richmond and lavished titles and preferments on him. As the death of baby after baby haunted the nursery of Henry’s queen, Catherine of Aragon, court speculation became rife that he would go that one step further and make the Duke of Richmond his heir. Bess Blount had originally come to court as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine, who now must have viewed her as more of a threat than all the subsequent mistresses Henry had ever taken.
That tension informs the title of Diane Haeger’s latest Tudor-era historical novel, The Queen’s Rival, and it fills the book with forebodings that flash across the twenty or so years the narrative covers. Haeger’s Bess is as far from a Boleyn-style schemer as she can possibly be, a naïve and day-dreaming girl who looks on the king and his queen as larger-than-life. As one character scornfully says, “Bess Blount believes in the image of the king and queen, their happy marriage, and equates everything she sees here with the romantic tale of Lancelot. She looks at our king as a legend and a fantasy, not a man.”
Haeger does an effective job describing her awestruck early days at court in the company of her old friend (and future husband) Gilbert Tailbois:
“Will you dance?” Gil asked then as he extended his slim hand, interrupting her thoughts.
“Are we even permitted to dance, not just the important few?”
Bess realized, like so many other things, that she did not have any idea of what one might do in front of the king.
Gil only smiled at her question. “Wolsey says the king prefers dancing to the lot of us sitting here, staring at him.”
Soon – thanks to her ready wit and, believe it or not, her fondness for the verses of John Skelton, she’s doing a good deal more than staring at the king; the long second act of Haeger’s compassionate and well-researched book is taken up with intertwined revelations – Bess learns all the ways in which a flesh-and-blood king may be both less than the mythical Lancelot and more, and Henry learns all the welcome ways in which Bess is different from his pious, un-English queen. It’s the strong point of Haeger’s style that it contains no outright villains (even scheming Cardinal Wolsey is likable enough at times), and her Henry has moments of appealing vulnerability scarcely ever given to him in today’s glut of Tudor fiction – this is a Henry who cries, and who remembers his losses.
There are losses to come, as those familiar with this story will know: it was an early death, not the bar sinister, that prevented the Duke of Richmond from becoming Henry IX. Its autumnal passages are the strongest in The Queen’s Rival, and the might-have-beens that Haeger summons will linger with her readers long after they’ve finished her book.