Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Kate Emerson's Royal Inheritance, a refreshingly honest novel of an uncommon Tudor woman's life

While other novels on flashier 16th-century subjects may get more exposure and critical attention, Kate Emerson continues to produce reliably engrossing novels about lesser-known women of Tudor England.

I was impressed by so many aspects of Royal Inheritance: the clear and easily readable style, how Emerson evokes her heroine's changing character through her dual-time structure, the detailed imagery of many aspects of London life, and the fact that it hasn't been molded to a formula.

The plot follows Ethelreda Malte, nicknamed Audrey, from childhood through her twenties.  In 1556, suffering from a lingering summer fever and believing she has little time left, Audrey decides she must tell her eight-year-old daughter, Hester, the story of her life and her true relationship with England's late king.  Her narrative begins in 1532, when she's nearly four.

Young Audrey has always had red-gold hair of an unusual hue, which causes rumors to spread. The child of a London laundress, she grows up knowing she's a "merry-begot," but is her real father the royal tailor who takes her in, John Malte, or someone of much higher station?

The circumstances for her upbringing are unusual for a tailor's daughter: music and dancing lessons, her own tiring woman, and frequent visits to the court to see King Henry, who gives her a "glove-beagle," a dearly loved pet she calls Pocket and carries with her everywhere.  And then there are the king's large grants of land to her father.  Her Malte siblings, especially the eldest, Bridget, are jealous and don't understand why Audrey gets special treatment.  

The story-within-a-story format enables readers to see Audrey's growth from a curious and vibrant girl to a pensive woman.  Audrey feels obliged to be up front about her background but debates how to do so without tarnishing the image of Hester's father, Jack Harington, her former music tutor.  For me, the realistic depiction of Audrey's not-quite love story was one of the book's great strengths.

Readers looking for Tudor court intrigue certainly have a smorgasbord of options, and if that's what you go for, the political backdrop here is finely drawn, in particular the ongoing rivalry between the Howards and Seymours and the lead-up to Wyatt's Rebellion.  Even more interesting for me, though, were the details of merchant life and country traditions.

The writing has a searching quality throughout as Audrey pursues the mystery of her birth, but in so doing, she uncovers even more questions. She gets drawn into exalted intellectual circles and is sought in marriage by an undesirable man, but she's always left to wonder why others seek out her company.  

In all I found Royal Inheritance a refreshingly honest and quietly daring novel, one I can highly recommend even to those who are experiencing Tudor overload.

Royal Inheritance was published by Gallery on September 24th ($16.00, pb, 368pp).  Thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC.


  1. I think to myself that I'm through reading Tudor novels, and then I read a review like this, and add Royal Inheritance to my wish list.

    1. Any novel set in Tudor times has to offer something new and different for me, because I don't like reading the same type of novel (or about the same characters) repeatedly. Fortunately, this one stood out in many respects.