I admit when I found out Katherine Longshore had a book coming out about Mary Howard, I ground my teeth.
This is because I too am writing a novel about Mary for teenagers. As Anne Boleyn’s youngest maid-of-honour, cousin of both her and Katherine Howard, married at thirteen to Henry VIII’s bastard son, Henry Fitzroy, Mary was connected in different ways to all of the king’s six queens. So she’s an obvious subject for someone who wants to write about the court of Henry VIII from a teenager’s point of view.
Longshore has a fabulous track record on writing about the Tudor court. Her first book,Gilt, tells the story of teenage Katherine Howard’s marriage to the king, written from the point-of-view of her best friend. Her second Tudor novel, Tarnish, is about a young Anne Boleyn, before she hooked up with Henry, and follows her through the entanglements with Henry Percy and Thomas Wyatt that would later come back to bite her. Gilt established Longshore’s very distinctive and appealing style. She takes refreshingly believable teen characters and places them in a highly authentic setting, researched to a very great level of detail. Her characters banter, flirt and play games with each other. But because this is Tudor England, where female sexuality was tightly controlled, particularly for the aristocratic characters Longshore writes about, flirting and romance are dangerous and the stakes are frighteningly high.
In Brazen, Longshore focuses on the years from Mary’s marriage, up until she returns to Kenninghall in Norfolk, aged sixteen, giving us a ringside seat for the fall of Anne Boleyn and the brutal executions of Anne and her supposed lovers. Primarily, though, it is a love story. Longshore’s Mary falls in love with the young prince she marries, but they are kept apart due to fears that early marital relations might damage Fitzroy’s health as it was thought to have damaged the king’s older brother’s. (And, Longshore hints, so that Henry could keep his options open, in case a more advantageous match for Fitzroy came along and he needed to have this one annulled.) The novel charts their efforts to maintain their relationship in secret, with lots of stolen kisses and secret meetings. We have no evidence that this happened – in fact, we don’t even know for certain that they ever saw each other again after the wedding – but it could have done. Longshore is expert at finding the gaps in history where you can make a space for a story. (Completely different from my version then – phew!)
The first person viewpoint of the novel takes us vividly into the world of the Tudor court. Longshore’s greatest strength as a historical novelist is her ability to bring the past alive through tiny details, because she doesn’t just describe things, she shows you people reacting to them emotionally. One of my favourite scenes in her earlier bookGilt has Katherine Howard sneaking into a room in the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk’s house and sitting on a forbidden chair which has lions carved on the arms. I can never see an impressive piece of furniture in a historic house now without wondering who wanted to use it but wasn’t allowed to, and who did it in secret when no-one was looking. The key object in Brazen is what is now called the Devonshire Manuscript, a book which was passed around between Mary and her circle with poems and secret messages written in it. She’s equally effective with emotional responses to the rules and traditions of Tudor life: everyone made grumpy by Lenten fasting, or jostling over who has the highest rank and should therefore take precedence when entering a room.
It isn’t Mary who dominates the book, though, so much as her best friends, the forthright lady-in-waiting Madge Shelton and romantic Margaret Douglas, the King’s niece. Longshore’s Mary, in contrast, is awkward and introspective, nurturing a love of language (‘I run the word queen around in my head and roll it on my tongue. The beginning is tart and brittle like the skin of an apple. But the long e is bright and sweet.’ ‘Divorce tastes like a posset. Curdled and fermented and heavily spiced’). Fitzroy, made insecure by his royal father’s inconsistent affection, makes a moving and plausible love interest for her.
Anyone who has enjoyed Longshore’s previous Tudor books will love this one. Teens will enjoy the intensity of emotion and the stylishness of the Tudor setting, while adults will appreciate Longshore’s ability to introduce us to Tudor characters we haven’t met yet, and give us fresh perspectives on those we have.
Katharine Edgar: is a Yorkshire-based feminist who writes young adult fiction, including the forthcoming Five Wounds. She blogs about her historical fiction writing: Tudor history, women’s history, crafts and writing.