Desert Isle Keeper
The Queen's Handmaiden
When I read the blurb on the back of the Queen’s Handmaiden I thought, “Ugh, it takes place over a decade.” I generally dislike sagas. When I started reading the novel, I thought, “Ugh, it’s in the first person”. I generally find it harder to get into the story when it is in the first person. When I finished the first chapter, I thought, “Ugh, this is going to be hard going.” When I finished the novel, I thought, “Boy, was I wrong. A first person saga can be as riveting as a suspense novel.” Setting the novel in the turbulent years after Henry VIII’s death certainly helped raise the tension level of the book.
Ashley’s book explores the period following Henry VIII’s death through the ascension of Queen Elizabeth I through the eyes of Eloise Rousell, who is fostered out to her Aunt Katherine at age five. Katherine Ashley (a real historical figure) initially served as governess to Elizabeth, and later became First Lady of the Bedchamber. The older woman introduces her niece to the defrocked princess and Eloise becomes companion to Elizabeth. A friendship develops between the two girls, but always with the distinction of rank preserved. When Eloise shows promise as a dressmaker, Elizabeth recognizes her talent and claims her for her own personal seamstress. This gives Eloise an insider’s view of Elizabeth’s life and a role in the intrigue that surrounds her, starting with the Thomas Seymour Affair.
Thomas Seymour, married to Catherine, the widow of Henry VIII, was handsome, ambitious, and a womanizer. Eloise is at first dazzled by the man, then disillusioned when he gropes her. Seymour actively pursues Elizabeth under the guise of step-fatherly interest and affection, but his real purpose is to seduce her into marriage – eventually. Eloise does her best to keep Seymour at bay but without much success.
Seymour is eventually arrested – and beheaded – for treason. Elizabeth’s loyalty to the crown is called into question and she is held under house arrest. Ashley, who approved of a match between the two, is jailed for promoting the idea. It is Eloise who advises her aunt on what to say to her jailers. The Seymour affair taught both Elizabeth and Eloise the value of caution and discretion.
It is during the short reign of Jane Gray that Eloise begins to work with James Colby, a young officer, in protecting Elizabeth. Mary’s reign proves even more troublesome for Elizabeth. Mary, the eldest of Henry’s daughters – and a devout Catholic – now sits on the throne, determined to bring Catholicism back to England. Mary’s reign causes great conflict in the country. There are plots to overthrow Mary and place Elizabeth on the throne. Mary has Elizabeth imprisoned. James Colby supplies Elizabeth with outside information through Eloise. James and Eloise marry in a secret ceremony. Colby is eventually arrested, tortured, released, and sent to France. Fighting for Mary’s husband, Philip of Spain, he is pardoned and allowed back in England. The two are re-united.
Elizabeth becomes queen when Mary dies. Eloise is there to make her coronation gowns. She is now head seamstress and has her own staff. James is granted knighthood. England’s fate is not totally settled though. There are a few more secrets yet to be revealed, and the Robert Dudley affair to endure. When Katherine dies, Elizabeth gives Eloise another duty – to be her conscious, the one person in the kingdom who can speak plainly of her faults. It is a reward for the loyalty Eloise has shown her Queen since childhood.
Jennifer Ashley does a wonderful job of bringing this period to life. I kept stretching out my lunch hour (AKA main reading time) to read a few more pages. The intrigue, suspense, characters, and even the fashion are all compelling. So my apologies to the author for being so prejudiced before reading the book.