The Queen's Rival, Diane Haeger
I was honored and excited to receive this a couple months ago to review. As this newest novel by Diane Haeger is about the life of a character that is mentioned mostly in passing in most historical fiction about the time period, I was even more intrigued to dive into its pages. I am happy to say I was not disappointed.
The story Ms. Haeger focuses on in her newest novel is that of Elizabeth (or Bessie) Blount, King Henry VIII's first "well known" mistress and mother of his first, though illegitimate, son, Henry Fitzroy. The story follows her life from her early years at Henry's court, to which she arrived when she was fourteen, through her short time as Henry's mistress, the birth of their son, and her following years of a new marriage and forced separation from her child, ending with her returning to visit Henry upon the death of Fitzroy. What intrigued me most about this novel was the fact that though it is set in a time period that I am extremely familiar with, it focused on a person who I am NOT overly familiar with and gave me a version of a familiar story from a new and much different view point. Most Tudor readers know who Bessie Blount is and why she was, for a short time, so important to Henry VIII. However, in the majority of Tudor historical fiction she is only going to be mentioned in passing with absolutely no time devoted to her, her life, or who she really was. She wasn't Henry's first mistress while married to Katherine of Aragon but she was (I believe) the first that was publicly known and acknowledged as such. The fact that she gave Henry his first living son gave her a very special position of (potential) power, though she never used it. In fact, despite her surroundings, she managed to maintain a certain innocence and kindness while still becoming a strong female character who could handle the ups and downs of her life. I found it interesting to follow Bess as she struggled in the court environment with all its backstabbing and mystery and her relationship with the King. Compared to some of his other well known mistresses, Bessie's "reign" was quite brief, cut short by her pregnancy and being sent away from court to have the child; she never returned to Henry's court. After Henry Fitzroy's birth the novel focuses on her life in the country with a new husband and family and her thoughts and reactions to all the news and gossip surrounding the Tudors.
I was pleasantly surprised by this novel. I have not read much by this author so I wasn't sure what to expect. It was well written with good characters and good description of details of life in the middle of the Tudor court. There are appearances from much more familiar figures in Tudor history and I never felt that their characters seemed "out of character" but the story really does focus on Bessie and her life, which I really liked. I am so familiar with this time period that it was very refreshing to read about someone knew and not really read the same old story once again. I enjoyed Ms. Haeger's portrayal of Bessie, never feeling that she was too sweet or too innocent and I really did find her story interesting. I do have to say that I almost cried when she realized, after sending their son to him for a visit when he was just a few years old, that Henry was going to keep Fitzroy with him and give him his own household. As my review copy did not include author notes I have no idea how much of Bessie's life is actually recorded in history for authors to use as reference and how much of this story is the author's creation; I would be interested to find out though. That aside, I really enjoyed reading this novel and its high rating is mainly because it gave me a fresh look at this time period. I would highly recommend this novel to any fan of Tudor historical fiction, especially those who are tired of reading the same old story over again!