A Historical Fiction that proved me wrong, or my review of Maid in the King’s Court

Maid of the King's Court

Maid of the King’s Court

By: Lucy Worsley 

Publisher: Candlewick

Publication Date: March 14th, 2017

Format: ARC


Clever, headstrong Elizabeth Rose Camperdowne knows her duty. As the sole heiress to an old but impoverished noble family, Eliza must marry a man of wealth and title — it’s the only fate for a girl of her standing. But when a surprising turn of events lands her in the royal court as a maid of honor to Anne of Cleves, Eliza is drawn into the dizzying, dangerous orbit of Henry the Eighth and struggles to distinguish friend from foe. Is her glamorous flirt of a cousin, Katherine Howard, an ally in this deceptive place, or is she Eliza’s worst enemy? And then there’s Ned Barsby, the king’s handsome page, who is entirely unsuitable for Eliza but impossible to ignore. British historian Lucy Worsley provides a vivid, romantic glimpse of the treachery, tragedy, and thrills of life in the Tudor court.

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I have a thing about historical fiction. Being a history major myself, I tend to get really annoyed when authors ignore the actual historical happenings in favor of a good story. I was hesitant about picking up Maid of the King’s Court for that very reason. My thoughts, though, are the opposite–the history was accurate, but the story was uninspiring.

Maid of the King’s Court follows Elizabeth Camperdowne into the snakepit of the Tudor Court. However, rather than doing the hundredth historical fiction about Anne Boleyn, Worsley wrote about her cousin, Catherine Howard. She was Henry VIII’s fifth wife, convicted of the same crime as Anne and the same sentence, although in an altogether less dramatic fashion. Eliza is a made-up character in a very real historical happening–Catherine’s distant cousin, fellow maid of honor, and witness to the events of history.

I thought the details of Eliza’s life were well-researched and well-described. The small details of an arranged marriage, ‘school’ at the manor of a distant relative, and the everyday duties of a maid of honor are things that don’t normally get included in fictional books. I felt like Lucy Worsley was subtly correcting all of the details that previous authors had skimmed over, and I appreciated it. I also liked how she portrayed the weird pressure that went with being a maid of honor in Henry’s court–be faithful to the Queen, but flirt with her husband at every opportunity. Be a good little virgin until you get the chance to jump into the King’s bed.

Eliza herself was a fairly interesting character. She was outspoken, sassy, but more than a little naive as to the games she was expected to play and the ways in which she was trapped. It took her until the last part of the book to realize that she had been groomed to find a wealthy, powerful husband by any means possible, and she got herself into a stupid situation more than once simply because she didn’t understand what was going on. Still, it seemed that her role was to just be a witness to Catherine, not be a character in her own right. She felt a little dull sometimes as a result.

And while it’s hard not to feel pity for Catherine, it’s also hard not to think that she was an absolute idiot. I appreciated how her romance was portrayed within the pressures of the time (getting pregnant with a little princeling, albeit to a man who was impotent). It was nice to read a portrayal of her where she wasn’t a dirty rotten whore who deserved to suffer for her actions. But it was also hard to feel very involved in the story. Although I liked the refusal to inject drama into Catherine’s narrative, I thought that the plot was more than a little lackluster, and the parts of potential drama (Catherine’s race to Henry after being accused of treason) were toned down.

The ending felt both fairly rushed, and fairly unrealistic. I got Eliza’s desperate attempts to survive, especially after everything else that had happened. But it also felt like the author was also searching for a convenient escape from a story that, sans Catherine Howard, was no longer gripped by any kind of historical tension.

Although I liked the book and its attention to historical detail, it’s made me wonder whether good historians also make good storytellers. I guess what I truly crave in a historical fiction is a good balance between historical fact and compelling narrative.

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Disclaimer: The synopsis and cover picture were pulled from the book’s Goodreads page. Neither belong to us.

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