Elizabeth Fremantle, author of the “Queen’s Gambit” returns with a new novel of the Tudor court, this one involving Frances Grey, Duchess of Suffolk. Fremantle tells her story through the eyes of Frances’ daughters, Catherine and Mary, as well as a close family friend, the painter Levina Teerlinc. The story begins shortly after Frances’ daughter Jane Grey (the “nine day queen”) was deposed by Mary Tudor, later Mary I. Levina has grown close to the Grey family over the years and is by Frances’ side when Jane and Jane’s father Henry Grey are executed as traitors. The story of the Grey family continues through the eyes of the girls, Catherine and Mary, as well as Levina who watches over the girls at court after their mother remarries. The story describes the perils tied to the Greys’ Tudor blood through the reign of Mary I and into the reign of Elizabeth I. Catherine is the more outgoing of the two girls, easily swayed by love, and prone to rash, selfish acts that often endanger the family more. In sharp contrast is her younger sister Mary, a “hunchback”, whose small stature and deformity hide a sharp and insightful mind. Mary arguably has the hardest position of all as she is treated as each queen’s “pet monkey”, a position that insults her status as well as her intelligence. Levina is the loyal friend and surrogate mother to the girls, as she carries on in her role as the court’s portrait artist. Levina is torn between loyalty to the Greys, whose lives are lived upon the edge of a razor, and the devotion she owes to her husband and son. Her attachment to the Greys causes a rift in her marriage, with her husband George resenting his self-sufficient wife and her career that is their main source of income. Even after Elizabeth I comes to the throne and the Greys think their prospects have improved, Catherine’s shenanigans and Elizabeth’s jealousy result in an uneasy peace that Levina and Mary struggle to preserve.
I confess Mary was my favorite character in the book. Clever but shy, she wins you over with her keen observations, thoughts that mark her as far more mature than her older sister. Mary knows the dangers they face as Greys, and she takes actions to protect her family that are frequently undermined by Catherine’s thoughtless antics.
At first I thought Levina an odd choice as co-narrator, but she serves as a much needed balance to Catherine’s “irrepressible sense of fun”. Steady, independent, and loyal, Levina tries to protect the girls as much as she can, particularly after the untimely death of their mother. But she does this at great cost to herself. I was captured by the relationship between Levina and George, which was often rocky, and I was sorry that we see relatively little of it because I thought it a fascinating dynamic: a sixteenth century working woman and the price she ultimately pays for her independence. Obviously this book is primarily about the Grey girls, so Levina’s story comes only in highlights, but I thought Levina a wonderful and unusual observer with her painter’s eye revealing much about the characters of the Tudor court. I would have loved to see even more through her eyes.
This is an engaging look into a troubled family who are deemed guilty by association and live in fear most of their lives. Fremantle makes these women come alive, giving voices to those whose stories are largely lost to time. Their tales are seamless, with one picking up after the other leaves off, and Fremantle achieves a balance of the three perspectives that is remarkable. The reader gets a deep sense of their dilemma and how their lives are forever altered because of it. Highly recommended!
(For another story involving the captivating Frances Grey, I also recommend Susan Higginbotham’s “Her Highness the Traitor” reviewed here.)
Amazon link for “Sisters of Treason” is here.