Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Elizabeth Fremantle - Author Q&A

Today I am delighted to share with you all a lovely author Q&A with historical fiction writer Elizabeth Fremantle. Elizabeth is the author of Queen's Gambit, recently published in paperback in the UK by Penguin.

I've read some wonderful reviews from other bloggers and reviewers of this novel, and it has been sitting on my TBR pile far too long, so I hope I can manage to read it soon.

If you're interesting in reading more, I recommend the author's website - link here.

Elizabeth Fremantle is also on twitter here @LizFremantle

Author Q&A with Elizabeth Fremantle

Can you tell us about your latest book?

Queen’s Gambit is tale of love, tragedy and politics. It tells the story of Henry VIII’s last Queen, Katherine Parr. Set in the turbulent and dangerous Tudor court at a time of great change we see how Katherine has to tread a political knife-edge to survive. Her loyal maid Dot offers a below stairs perspective on the machinations of the court giving a sense of what life was like for ordinary women during those uncertain and perilous times.

What kind of research did you do for your latest novel?

I spent months and months with my nose between the pages of books. Initially my research focused on primary sources, the surviving letters and contemporary texts (like Parr’s two books) and the biographies of Katherine Parr. I also read biographies of all the other main figures that appear in the novel, as well as histories focusing on the sixteenth century in general and social histories. Contemporary plays and poetry as well as etiquette books and cookbooks, were another source of information. I am lucky enough to live close to some extraordinary Tudor buildings, Hampton Court being one. It was there that Katherine married Henry and I spent days wandering about there absorbing the atmosphere. It was the Hampton Court kitchens that provided the inspiration for Dot’s character. They are vast, a collection of buildings almost as expansive as the palace above, and seeing them allowed me to imagine all the thousands of forgotten people whose hard graft kept the world of the court turning. Another conduit to the past is portraiture. Katherine Parr’s time was the moment in history when painting came off the church walls and became secular. Holbein was the court painter for much of that time and his work, even his rough sketches, are so brimming with life they give the impression of actually confronting people from the past.

Are there any authors who have inspired you?

So many: for sheer stylistic brilliance I love Stephan Zweig. His novel Beware of Pity is possibly my favourite book. It was criticised in its time for being too conventional – it was published at the height of modernism – but for me it holds a subtle experimentation that takes second place to the story, enhancing it but never subsuming it. I have long been a fan of Sarah Waters for her ingenious plotting and Rose Tremain for her humour. Elizabeth Bowen and Rosamund Lehmann, who though completely different from me as authors, have taught me much about how to tell a story with elegance; then there are the classics: Conrad, Fitzgerald, Hardy, Flaubert – I could go on and on.

What did you enjoy most about writing this book?

The whole process has been a great joy but I suppose the moment when having scrapped a whole draft and begun to rewrite from the beginning, I felt my characters really come alive and story begin to find its shape. But also all the research reading, coming upon new nuggets of information, is an enduring pleasure.

What sparked your interest of Women in History?

I have always been interested in the forgotten women behind the great men of history. When studying for my degree in English I explored the work of the early female writers of the Renaissance. These writings (and there are more of them than you’d think) allow us access to women’s voices from a past from which they have been largely erased. I wanted to give them a voice for the twenty first century.

What drew you to Katherine Parr specifically?

I was always attracted to the label of ‘survivor’ that was applied to Katherine Parr, and she was one of those women writers I mention above. She was one of the first women to write an original work in the English language – her style is intimate and lyrical and made a great impression on me. She wrote two books, the second was a highly controversial political text and was written at great personal risk which made me think there was more to her than met the eye. She had always been touted as the dull wife who nursed Henry through his dotage and was eclipsed by her more glamorous predecessors. But her books and letters spoke of another woman altogether and I wanted to show that intelligent, vibrant, daring woman and set the record straight about Katherine Parr.

Which of Henry VIII’s wives do you like the least?

Probably Jane Seymour. She didn’t live long enough to really show her colours and seems a very pale, ghost-like creature. Though she must have had something going for her to have snagged Henry at the height of his powers.

What were your favourite books as a child?

I tended to read the books I enjoyed over and over again – I loved Jean Plaidy’s historical fiction, which I read voraciously and happily she was incredibly prolific, writing three novels a year under her different pseudonyms so it was almost impossible to run out of her work. A favourite series was the Narnia books as well as Laura Ingles-Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie novels, which I read until they fell apart. I can’t forget Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, which was sheer escapist joy.

Which book particularly inspired you to write?

No one single book – any of those I have already mentioned and many more, but if I had to pin down a single text I would probably say reading The Great Gatsby as a teenager and seeing how he got so much narrative into such a short space – the cleverness of his writing and the way he invoked emotion – that made me want to tell stories.

What have you read recently?

Rose Tremain’s Merivel – hilariously clever; Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies – darkly thrilling; Andrew Millar’s Pure – visceral; Rachel Joyce’s Perfect – poignant; Helen Walsh’s The Lemon grove – steamy; Jane Thynne’s Black Roses – intriguing; Nell Leyshon’s The Colour of Milk – exquisitely narrated; Leanda de Lisle’s Tudor: The Family Story; a brilliant broad brush-stroke view of England’s most dysfunctional family and Linda Norton’s Crown of Thistles – meticulously researched history of Mary Queen of Scots. And then of course there’s my research reading…

What books are next on the reading pile?

As I’m nearing the end of the first draft of my third Tudor novel I will be starting to research the next one in earnest. I have a huge pile of books about the early Stuart period, focusing in particular on Arbella Stuart and poet Aemelia Lanyer who will be my next heroines. I hope to get in some reading for pleasure and will probably turn to some of the Bailey’s prize longlist: I bought Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers recently and I’m drawn to Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing.

What are you working on next? (If you can tell us of course!)

My third (as yet un-named) Tudor novel is about Lady Penelope Rich, the sister of the Earl of Essex. She was a cousin of Queen Elizabeth and not only a beauty who inspired great poetry but was a shrewd political operator as well as a free spirit who lived openly with her lover at a time when such things simply were not done. She was embroiled in her brother’s disastrous coup against the queen. It is set in the dying days of the Elizabeth’s reign, a time when Shakespeare, Donne and Sidney were writing plays and poetry that still resonates today and Ralegh and Drake were opening the world and changing it forever.

When can we be expecting your next title?

Sisters of Treason, which tells the heart-rending story of the two younger sisters of the tragic Lady Jane Grey, is coming out in May. Beginning in the aftermath of Jane’s execution, the sisters’ Tudor blood has become more a curse than a blessing. Queen Mary’s succession is by no means stable; many covet the crown, and some say the Grey sisters have a better claim to the throne than the queen.  Neither sister is well suited to a dangerous life at court.  Flirtatious Lady Catherine, thought to be the true heir, cannot control her compulsion to love and be loved, and clever Lady Mary is burdened with a crooked spine and a tiny stature. For either girl to marry without royal permission would be a potentially fatal political act, perceived as a treasonous grab for the throne.

I have woven the Grey girls’ story in with that of painter Levina Teerlinc who helps them negotiate the perilous terrain of the court. But when Mary’s hot-headed sister Elizabeth inherits the crown, life at court becomes increasingly treacherous for the Grey sisters. 


About 'Queen's Gambit'...

The court of henry VIII is rife with intrigue, rivalries and romance – and none are better placed to understand this than the women at its heart.

Katherine Parr, Widowed for the second time aged thirty-one, is obliged to return to court, but, suspicious of the aging king and those who surround him, she does so with reluctance. Nevertheless, when she finds  herself caught up in a passionate affair with the dashing and seductive Thomas Seymour, she believes she might finally be able to marry for love. But her presence at court has attracted the attentions of another.
Captivated by her honesty and intelligence, Henry Tudor has his own plans for Katherine and no one is in the position to refuse a proposal from the king. So with her charismatic lover dispatched to the continent, Katherine must accept the hand of the ailing egotistical monarch and become Henry's sixth wife - and yet she has still not quite given up on love.


About Sisters of Treason

Two young girls tread dangerously close to the throne after their sister, the deposed queen, Lady Jane Grey, is executed.

Lady Catherine and Lady Mary are reeling after their elder sister, the seventeen-year-old Lady Jane Grey, is brutally executed. Their Tudor blood is now more a curse than a blessing. Queen Mary’s succession is by no means stable; many covet the crown, and some say the Grey sisters have a better claim to the throne than the queen.      

Neither sister is well suited to a dangerous life at court.  Flirtatious Lady Catherine, thought to be the true heir, cannot control her compulsion to love and be loved, and clever Lady Mary has a crooked spine and a tiny stature when physical attributes are thought to reflect moral character.  For either girl to marry without royal permission would be a potentially fatal political act, perceived as a treasonous grab for the throne.  

 It is the royal portrait painter, Levina Teerlinc, who helps the girls survive these troubled times. She becomes their mentor and confidante; with her painter’s observation she is able to see more at court than the sisters, who are watched closely.  But when the hot-headed Elizabeth inherits the crown, life at court becomes increasingly treacherous for the Grey sisters.  Ultimately each young woman must decide how far she dares to go to defy her Queen and risk her life for love.


  1. Great interview!

    I think that it is easy to forget when reading one just how much research and work can go into a historical novel. The amount of effort described above is insightful and impressive.

  2. Interesting and informative Question and Answer post. As Brian says it is easy to forget how much research can go into these books, sometimes to the point where fact and fiction blurr.

  3. I, too, am a big fan of Sarah Waters, She is an elegant creator of contemporary Gothic fiction.

    You might enjoy my blog and book of 'new' Victorian ghost tales:



    Best wishes, Paul (Freaky Folk Tales)


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