Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Queen’s Gambit includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Elizabeth Fremantle. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
This brilliant work of historical fiction brings to life the remarkable story of Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth and final wife. Widowed for the second time at age thirty-one, Katherine Parr reluctantly returns to the court of Henry VIII, where she finds herself falling deeply in love with the dashing courtier Thomas Seymour. She believes she might finally be able to marry for love, but, captivated by Katherine’s honesty and intelligence, Henry Tudor has other plans. When Henry Tudor proposes marriage, Katherine has no choice but to become his wife. Katherine must draw upon her instincts to navigate the treachery of the Tudor court. Yet, even as she treads the razor’s edge of court intrigue, she never quite gives up on love.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Elizabeth Wilhide has praised Queen’s Gambit, saying, “Fremantle…sheds an intriguing new light on Katherine Parr, one of history’s great survivors.” Aside from surviving her marriage to Henry VIII, in what ways is Katherine Parr a survivor? What do you think her greatest act of survival is? Why?
2. Neither Katherine nor Meg will talk about what happened at Snape. How have the events affected each of the women? Do you agree with Dot’s decision to keep Meg’s secret? Why does Dot finally tell Katherine the truth about what Meg endured at Snape?
3. Clothing is important throughout Queen’s Gambit. The first time we encounter Henry, he is “absurd in his minstrel garb.” (p. 25) How does this color your impression of him? Why does Henry wear this costume? Katherine, too, places a lot of importance on her jewels. She “insists on wearing her finest things, the most bejeweled of her dresses, her heaviest hoods, in spite of the cloying heat,” and, although she tells Dot that she would give up all of her jewels, “still she insists on wearing them.” (p. 218) Why do you think Katherine adamant about wearing her heavy clothing and jewels? Do you believe her when she says that jewels mean nothing to her?
4. The first time we encounter Henry, he invites Katherine to play against him in a game of chess. When she makes her first play, she employs the queen’s gambit. Henry accepts the play and tells her “You mean to route me at the centre of the board.” (p. 28) How does this game foreshadow Katherine’s relationship with Henry? Why do you think that Fremantle has chosen Queen’s Gambit as the book’s title?
5. When Katherine becomes regent, she thinks “My enemy’s enemy is my friend.” (p. 145) In what ways do you see this sentiment playing out in the Tudor court? Are there any allegiances that were surprising to you? Which ones?
6. Although Huicke is originally sent to care for the dying Lord Latymer in order to gather information about Katherine for Henry, the two forge an close friendship. Why do you think that Huicke reveals the true purpose of his visits to Katherine? When back at court, Huicke will not tell his peers “of his genuine fondness for her. The air is too thin for friendship at court, so this is precious to him.” (p. 149) How does their friendship evolve as Katherine’s favor with the King ebbs and flows? Why is the friendship so valuable to both Katherine and Huicke?
7. The power of the written word is a major conceit throughout the novel. While the papers, containing the last testimony of Anne Askew, that are found on Dorothy’s person lead to her imprisonment, it is her ability to read them that saves her. In what other instances does the written word prove dangerous? How does the book that Elwyn gives Dorothy while she is imprisoned cause her to rethink Anne Askew’s actions?
8. Elizabeth Tudor tells Jane Grey, “Think of the power. I would like the feeling of that, to have all the women in the world do your bidding. I would make a good man I think.” (p. 323) What do you think she means when she says, “I would make a good man”? What sort of power do the men in the Tudor court wield over the women? Do they abuse their power?
9. When Dot visits her mother after being married, she “felt distant from her, as if she was a foreigner and a great ocean separated them.” (p. 295) In what ways has Dot changed? Why is Dot’s mother unwilling to meet William? Do you agree with her decision?
10. Both Katherine and Dot “had married for love. A daft thing to do really”. (p. 319) Why is marrying for love seen as folly in the Tudor Court? Compare and contrast Katherine’s and Dot’s marriages. Do your opinions of Thomas Seymour and William Savage change throughout the course of the book? In what ways?
11. When Katherine ultimately marries Thomas Seymour, she does so without the blessing of the king although she could be charged with treason for doing so. Why do you think that she agrees to go along with the clandestine wedding? Why do you think that Seymour delays asking the king for permission?
12. Although Katherine is committed to religious reform, when Henry dies, she stops the archbishop from praying over him in English, asking that instead that they pray “In Latin. He would have liked that.” (p. 285) Why do you think she does so? Although Katherine’s beliefs remain, her “dreams of bearing the torch are gone.” (p. 307) What do you think precipitated this change in her?
13. Family is particularly important to Katherine. When Huicke suggests that Elizabeth be sent away after it seems she’s gotten too close with Seymour, Katherine will not because “that would mean breaking up her fragile family and she will not do that.” (p. 306) Why does Katherine ultimately sent Elizabeth away? Do you think that she is justified in doing so? Compare Katherine’s views on family to that of her brother Will who “has never really thought of [Katherine’s] happiness.” (p. 287)
14. Before Katherine sends Elizabeth to Lord Denny’s house at Chestnut, Katherine tells Elizabeth, “There are events in life from which we learn our most profound lessons and sometimes those events are the ones of which we are most ashamed.” (p. 317) Do you agree with Katherine? What shameful things has Katherine done throughout the course of her life? Do you think that she’s learned any lessons as a result? If so, what sort of lessons has she learned?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Much of Queen’s Gambit takes place at Hampton Court Palace. Visit the official site (http://www.hrp.org.uk/HamptonCourtPalace/stories/palacehighlights/ALivingTudorWorld.aspx) to find out more about the Palace, take a virtual tour of the Hampton Court Palace Gardens and watch a video about the clothing that Katherine Parr wore on her wedding day.
2. To learn more about Katherine Parr and Henry VIII’s other wives, visit http://tudorhistory.org/wives/.
3. There are many magnificent feasts in Queen’s Gambit, including one celebrating Katherine’s marriage to Henry. Visit http://www.sixwives.info/tudor-food-recipes.htm to see how the members of Henry’s court ate. Then, adapt the recipes for modern times and bring them to your book club.
4. To read more about Elizabeth Fremantle and to read more about her research, visit her official site at http://www.elizabethfremantle.com/
A Conversation with Elizabeth Fremantle 1.
Congratulations on the publication of your first novel! What has the experience of publishing your first book been like so far? Given that your day is working as a reader for Literary Scouts, how does the experience of being on the other side of the process, as a writer, compare?
My role as a reader for Literary Scouts was not truly as a publishing insider. I was employed to judge and analyze fiction from an entirely impartial perspective so would most often be sent material with no idea which agent was submitting or which publishers were interested, giving me a blank canvas on which to form an opinion. Looking at such a vast number of novels from all genres honed my critical eye more thoroughly even than my Masters study of Creative Writing, giving me too, an invaluable perspective on the market. So when I came to write Queen’s Gambit I had an awareness of what it is that a contemporary readership seeks and expects, but also a sense of what grips a reader and what drives a narrative.
My advice to hopeful writers is to read widely and always form an opinion on what you read–if you don’t like it, why; if you feel it lacks pace, why; if you don’t find the characters appealing, why–this has been invaluable work for my own writing. I also approached my writing with full knowledge of how difficult it is to get published and make a mark as a debut author. The work has made me understand more clearly that you cannot second guess the market and that a novel written with true feeling comes over as such, but more than that I have learned that there is no mysterious alchemy to novel writing – it is more about discipline, hard work, and being prepared to start over than anything. 2.
Katherine Parr is such a fascinating historical figure, not least because she’s the only wife of Henry VIII who survived. Why did you decide to make her the focus of Queen’s Gambit?
I have had a fascination with the Tudor queens since I read my first Jean Plaidy novel as a child and so when I began my search for a protagonist I knew that, though the Tudor period is hugely oversubscribed in fiction, it was was the place to start. Katherine Parr was for me already fascinating, by dint of the fact that she was the least reported on of Henry VIII’s wives, though she was the one who was Queen during the time when he was at his most irascible and despotic and I found the notion of her as the one who survived most appealing. The more I read about her the more I realized that, as I had suspected, history had miscast her as the perfect, dull nursemaid figure. She was one of the first women to write an original work in the English language, was highly intelligent, diplomatic, political, and I felt strongly that I wanted to explore her story through the medium fiction, which allows a different, more personal, imagined inner perspective than that of a historian. 3.
Nancy Bilyeau praises your “scrupulous attention to factual detail” in Queen’s Gambit. What kind of research did you conduct to get the details of the Tudor court right? Was there anything that surprised you?
My research was largely textual: history books–both biographical and those of social historians; letters; documents; images, and I spent a good deal of time wandering around old houses and palaces imagining what life must have been like living in them with none of the modern luxuries. The Hampton Court kitchens provided much inspiration for Dot, bringing to life her environment, and many hours spent gazing at Early Modern portraits trying to get beneath the skin of the sitters, feel the discomfort of the elaborate dress, helped me to understand a little of the people I was writing about.
Much was surprising–learning about some of the horrific punishments for minor crimes; the extraordinary culinary feats such as pies with live frogs inside, or monstrous creatures made out of the parts of different animals and birds stitched together to adorn the festive table; the fact that Tudors didn’t wear underpants, or use forks and that they travelled constantly between palaces for reasons of hygiene, and also the horror of the statistics of death in childbirth and infant mortality. But what surprised me too is the ways in which we are still so similar to these distant cousins. 4.
What would you like your readers who are interested in Tudor England to take away from Katherine Parr’s story?
First and foremost I hope that I have managed to bring into vivid life these people who lived almost five hundred years ago and given something too of the sights, sounds and smells of the palaces and places they inhabited and the small details–the food they ate, the complication of their clothing, the general discomfort of life then. Hopefully too, I have ignited a curiosity in readers to further explore the women of the period many of whom have extraordinary stories. 5.
You begin Queen’s Gambit with Lord Latymer’s death. Why did you choose that moment to begin telling Katherine’s story?
I felt this was the place my story began not only because Latymer’s death marks the beginning of Katherine’s love affair with Seymour and of her being courted by the King, but also as it is the beginning of her great friendship with Huicke. This prologue offered the opportunity to show a little of Katherine in her previous life and allow us to have a perspective of her from someone outside the story, in Latymer. But the most cogent reason for beginning the book with this scene is that it allows us to see the complexities of Katherine’s character, not only to see her caring side but also that she is prepared to risk her immortal soul to save Latymer from his suffering. This sets up the theme of poisoning that runs through the novel. 6.
Although Dorothy “feels like a child with no understanding of an adult world,” (p. 217), the reader learns a lot about the workings of Henry VIII’s court through her eyes. When you began writing Queen’s Gambit, did she always have such a prominent role? In your author’s note, you say that she was “almost certainly more gently born than I have made her.” Why did you decide to give her more humble beginnings?
A version of Dot was a protagonist from the earliest stages–though in a first draft she was called something else before I decided to base her on Dorothy Fountain. I wanted to show the court from another perspective (a perspective of the ordinary person, if you will) to have a contrast to Katherine’s story, but also to explore the possibilities of social mobility within the court environment.
I had been conflicted about basing her on Dorothy Fountain because the woman herself was certainly more gently born and therefore did not fully fit with my agenda. But by this time I had introduced the homosexual Huicke, already an audacious speculation, and I had been cogitating long and hard on the differences between history and fiction, finding fiction seeks to tell a different kind of truth. So Dot came fully into being, and I think it adds something extra to the experience of the novel, that there was a woman of that name in the service of Meg and Katherine, and little details, like the four pounds a year Meg left her in her will and the marriage to William Savage, are accurate, which is, I think, rather satisfying. 7.
The Bookseller calls you “a major new voice in historical fiction” and calls Queen’s Gambit “the answer to the question about what Hilary Mantel fans should read while waiting for the final part of her trilogy.” Was Hilary Mantel an inspiration to you when you wrote? Who were your other influences?
I am, without doubt, a huge fan of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels and feel it is an honor to be mentioned in this way. Jean Plaidy, who wrote dozens of historical novels under several pseudonyms, was a childhood favorite who left an indelible mark on me and I have great respect for Alison Weir, both as a biographer and novelist; I have also enjoyed many of Philippa Gregory’s books. Susan James, Elizabeth Norton, and Linda Porter’s biographies of Katherine Parr were an inspiration too.
I have been much influenced by film and television and remember distinctly being allowed to stay up and watch Anne of a Thousand Days and Keith Michel as Henry VIII on the BBC when I was a child. More recent screen inspiration was derived from Chereau’s La Reine Margot, the BBC version of Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl (quite different from the feature film version), Helen Mirren as Elizabeth I and Shekur Kapor’s films about Elizabeth, which though largely inaccurate, are a feast for the eyes. Lastly I have to name check our very own William Shakespeare, always and forever an inspiration, whose masterful works continue to speak through the centuries. 8.
In the world Dot has risen into, to be a woman is “to be still and silent and pretty, in public at least.” (p. 299) Do you think that women in Henry VIII’s court had any power? How were they able to exercise it, if at all?
Hopefully the novel speaks for itself on this issue…but yes, absolutely, though their power was necessarily mediated through their male relatives. My interest really lies in this issue and I hope that the novel works as an exploration of the position of women in the Early Modern period. It has long fascinated me that these women manage to emerge as powerful characters in what was a truly misogynistic culture.
In my view it is the ways they found to circumvent the prevailing mores of female silence, domesticity and modesty, that is of interest. In my next novel one of the protagonists is a female court painter who holds a unique position as a woman with a means to express herself through her art. Katherine Parr too, as an author, found her voice through an expression of her faith. It is this process of finding the fissures in the conventions of society through which women have found ways of being heard that I find fascinating. 9.
There seems to be perennial interest in the Tudors, from books to television shows and films. Why do you think the public is so fascinated with them? What makes you so interested in the Tudors?
To borrow the words of Andrew Marvell: If I had but world enough and time…I suppose the period was one in a state of flux, both religiously and culturally; England’s position in Europe shifted significantly over the century, and those times of change are always fruitful in terms of the emergence of new and interesting ideas. England was also flourishing with an extended period of relative peace in the wake of the endless bloodshed of the Wars of the Roses. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries marked the beginning of modernity with the burgeoning merchant classes and the social mobility that went with that, allowing men like Wolsey and Cromwell to appear from nowhere.
And of course figures like Shakespeare, Elizabeth I, Bloody Mary, and inevitably Henry VIII all hold a glamour that perhaps cannot be found in any other century. For me too it is a time of women – the first two reigning Queens of England (if you don’t count Matilda), the first women writers, the beginnings of education for women, all came in the sixteenth century. 10.
Elizabeth Tudor becomes quite a presence at the end of Queen’s Gambit Will you be writing more about her in an upcoming book? Can you tell us more about your next book?
Elizabeth certainly does make an appearance in my next novel Queen Jane’s Shadow as does Mary Tudor her older sister. The novel is set some six years after the end of Queen’s Gambit, after the boy king Edward VI has died and there has been a struggle for the throne between the protestant backed Lady Jane Grey and the Catholic Mary Tudor, who wins with great public support.
As the novel opens that support is waning as Mary is about to make an unpopular Spanish marriage. The story is focused around three women: the four-foot hunchback Lady Mary Grey, Lady Catherine Grey (the younger sisters of Lady Jane) and the court painter Levina Teerlinc who helps them negotiate the troubling and dangerous times of Mary’s reign. When Elizabeth inherits the throne, though the religious conflicts settle, things become increasingly treacherous and complicated for the girls.