Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Sisters of Treason 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.
After mere days on the English throne, sixteen-year-old Lady Jane Grey was overthrown and beheaded for treason. Her sisters, Katherine and Mary, must navigate the treacherous political intrigue first at the court of Queen Mary and then of Queen Elizabeth, guided by their close family friend, court painter Levina Teerlinc. Sisters of Treason is a compelling story of love and friendship, politics and tragedy in a gilded world where peril is ever present.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Sisters of Treason opens with Jane Grey’s execution. What portrait of Jane emerges from her brief appearance in the prologue and from the way other characters remember her? Even after her death, how does Jane continue to influence her sisters, as well as Frances and Levina?
2. “I have tried to understand why there was no letter for me,” thinks Mary Grey. “I am brimming with silent envy of Katherine . . . for being the one Jane chose to write to.” Why does Jane write to Katherine but not to Mary? What does this decision reveal about each of her sisters?
3. Discuss the theme of women’s friendship in the novel, including Katherine’s relationship with Juno and Levina’s bond with Frances. Levina is “a common painter from Bruges and Frances the granddaughter of a king.” What accounts for their deep friendship?
4. Is Levina’s husband, George, correct when he accuses her of prioritizing her friendship with Frances over their marriage? Why does Levina feel such a strong sense of loyalty to Frances and her daughters?
5. Mary longs for the solitude of the country, while Katherine craves the excitement of court. Yet in what ways is Mary more astute than her sister at managing the political minefields of the royal inner circle? Why does Mary become a favorite of both Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth? Why does she both hate and admire Elizabeth?
6. Marrying without the Queen’s permission is considered treason. Why is Katherine willing to take such a risk? What about Hertford’s motivations? Was Juno right or wrong to advise Katherine to marry first and then ask the Queen’s permission?
7. What is your opinion of the two queens as they’re portrayed in this book? Do you think Queen Mary is right to have Jane executed? Do you think Elizabeth’s imprisoning Katherine is justifiable? Why or why not? Why would Elizabeth see Katherine’s secretly marrying Hertford as a threat to her throne?
8. Why is Levina criticized by some, and regarded with suspicion, for her profession? What compels her to stay at court despite the danger and “permanent sense of dread” she feels? How much of it is due to her promise to Frances and how much is ambition?
9. What do you think of Frances’s marrying Stokes and retiring from court life? Is it fair of Frances to ask Levina to look after her daughters, especially given Katherine’s precarious position as a possible heir to the throne?
10. How is religion a significant political factor during the reigns of Mary and Elizabeth? Compare Mary Grey’s feelings about faith to those of the other characters. How is she especially vulnerable in a society that places such great emphasis on religion?
11. After Katherine is sent to the Tower, Queen Elizabeth tells Mary that she hasn’t been vociferous in her sister’s defense. Meanwhile, Levina laments that she was in Bruges when Katherine was arrested. Is there anything that either woman could have or should have done differently to help Katherine?
12. “‘I sometimes wonder if she isn’t attracted to the danger of it all,’” says Frances about Katherine. Is Katherine a victim of circumstance or the architect of her own fate? Were you surprised at the way she died? Why or why not?
13. Why does Mary marry in secret despite what happened to Katherine? Why doesn’t Mary regret her decision despite the outcome of her actions?
14. “‘We all deceive ourselves sometimes, Mouse. You will learn that with age,’” Frances tells Mary. In what instances does Frances deceive herself? How about Levina, Katherine, and Mary? What are the repercussions?
15. How does Sisters of Treason compare with other historical novels your group has read, particularly ones set during the reigns of Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Double the Tudor intrigue by reading Queen’s Gambit, which features Katherine Parr, the sixth wife of Henry VIII and Levina Teerlinc’s former patron.
2. Serve English fare at your book club meeting. Use recipes on Epicurious.com (http://www.epicurious.com/recipesmenus/global/englishscottish/recipes) or purchase delicacies from BritishDelights.com or other specialty food websites.
3. A royal palace, fortress, and prison, the Tower of London is a key setting in the novel. See photos and read about its place in royal history at www.hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon. Follow a link on this website to see photos of and read about Hampton Court Palace, where Katherine and Mary spent time at court, or go directly to http://www.hrp.org.uk/HamptonCourtPalace/.
4. Visit www.ElizabethFremantle.com to learn more about the author and her books. Go to http://www.elizabethfremantle.com/sisters-of-treason.html to see miniature portraits of the Grey sisters attributed to Levina Teerlinc.
A Conversation with Elizabeth Fremantle
What was your inspiration for writing Sisters of Treason?
The story of the Grey girls was a natural progression from my previous novel, Queen’s Gambit, allowing me to continue exploring the themes of women and power as Mary and then Elizabeth came to the throne. The fate of the Grey sisters was intrinsically bound up in the political power play of the period, so their stories provided the perfect lens for my narrative.
Why did you decide to unfold the story from the viewpoints of Katherine and Mary Grey and Levina Teerlinc? Did you ever consider telling it from a single character’s perspective?
As the Grey sisters were so young (Mary is only nine at the novel’s opening), I felt it was important to have a more mature and knowing perspective on the story. Levina Teerlinc, as a female painter, was a figure of fascination for me; and the fact that she had painted Katherine Grey, possibly also Jane, and was both an insider and outsider at court made her a good observer of the complex politics of the time. I felt strongly too that the two girls should tell their own stories to give a sense of how differently they approached the challenges of their lives.
How much of the book is based on historical record? What research did you do for the novel?
The novel is entirely based on the historical record; it is the interior worlds of the characters that provide the fiction, as their thoughts and fears can only be extrapolated from the decisions we know they made. My research involved a huge amount of reading, not only texts pertaining to the central characters but also minor figures, as well as state papers and letters and the work of social historians. Contemporary buildings, etiquette guides, cookery books, and portraiture also helped me build a convincing world around my characters.
Smart, spirited Mary Grey is an intriguing character. What information was available to draw on in creating her? If she hadn’t been born into an aristocratic family, what would have become of her?
There is not much literature on disability in the sixteenth century, but there are one or two studies that I drew on, as well as exploring the lives of people living with disabilities in other eras, to have a sense of what life might have been like for someone like Mary. Even in an aristocratic family she might have been consigned to a life hidden away, so it is remarkable she was educated with her sisters and participated fully in life at court. Her life would certainly have been different had she not been noble and would always have been challenging, but she might have found greater happiness in a simple life had she not been full of Tudor blood.
How unusual was it for a woman to be a court painter in the Tudor era as well as the family breadwinner?
It was extremely unusual. There were one or two painters on the Continent and there had been a female miniaturist named Susannah Horenbout at court, prior to Levina Teerlinc, though her role had been defined by that of her painter husband. Women were supposed to be confined to the domestic arena; and though many women earned their living through necessity, it was rare for a woman to express herself artistically in such a public way. Women’s primary role was that of childbearing and supporting their husband, so Levina was a woman who bucked convention in a daring and extraordinary way.
Mary Grey longs for a place “where girls are not used as pieces in this game of crowns.” In what ways were women especially vulnerable during the era portrayed in the book?
As there were no boys or men in the royal succession during this period, the focus of power play was on the women, all young girls who were the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the first Tudor king, Henry VII. Mary, Queen of Scots, was one and the Greys were the others, with Henry VIII’s daughters, Mary and Elizabeth (who many believed to be illegitimate due to her father’s marital complications). These women were regarded as the site of potential power and also as potential mothers to male heirs and so plots built up around them that put them often unwillingly and at times unwittingly in great danger.
In what ways do you think modern women can identify with Frances, Levina, Katherine, and Mary?
I think it is the love relationships—mother and daughter, sister and sister, between two women—where the strongest parallels can be drawn between these women and women today. Their situation and attitudes may differ greatly but the spirit of loyalty and love remains universal.
Frances Grey describes the political situation in England under Queen Mary as “a house of cards.” How dangerous was it to be in a high-born family like the Greys at the time Mary and Elizabeth ruled? Was it unusual for someone to voluntarily retire from court life like Frances did?
The stakes were very high for those with Tudor blood, as the dynasty had no established plan of succession; this was borne out by the tragic end of Lady Jane Grey. I deliberately have her haunt the novel as a means to remind the reader of the permanent danger facing those close to the throne. History is littered with Icarus stories of those who flew too high and ended up on the block. It required permission to retire permanently from court if you were born into royalty, as even those who lived primarily on their estates were required to participate in state occasions and were at the Queen’s beck and call.
At one point in the story, Queen Elizabeth’s life hangs by a thread when she is stricken with smallpox. How might history have unfolded differently for Katherine if Elizabeth hadn’t survived the illness?
It is impossible to know, but one can speculate. Elizabeth, believing she was dying, requested that Robert Dudley be made Protector until the succession was settled. Whether this would have come to pass is debatable, as he was incredibly unpopular and it was Cecil who really held the political reins of England. Who knows, Katherine Grey, or her son, might have been put on the throne only to be overthrown by a Continental Catholic faction with Mary, Queen of Scots, at its head. It is likely there would have been a bloodbath in any circumstance. That is why there was so much general anxiety about the Queen refusing to name a successor.
What drew you to writing historical fiction? To whom will you be introducing readers in the final book in your Tudor trilogy, which follows Queen’s Gambit and Sisters of Treason?
I had studied the writings of early modern women for my English degree, which led to a fascination for the period and particularly for the lives of women. I wanted to explore this time of unprecedented female power through the medium of fiction. The protagonist of my final (for now) Tudor novel is Penelope Devereux, sister of the Earl of Essex. Penelope was remarkable not only for being the muse for Philip Sidney’s poetry and a royal favorite but also as a woman who flew in the face of convention by publicly taking a lover, and was also deeply involved in her brother’s coup against the aging Elizabeth, which ended with Essex on the block.