In The Next Page, Erin Newcomb reads stuff she likes and reflects on things eternal and earthy in the popular literature of our time.

The Taming of the Queen is Philippa Gregory’s latest novel in The Tudor Court series, which I have read in its entirety, along with her Cousins’ War series and her historical essays in The Women of the Cousins’ War. Among others. I am something of a fan, to say the least. Given that Gregory holds a doctoral degree from The University of Edinburgh and focuses on women in her historical fiction—a subject ripe for costume dramas—her work is the stuff my escapist literary dreams are made of. And her latest novel is no exception, weaving an intricate web of sex, politics, and theology, all of which are dangerously entangled in the waning years of Henry VIII’s court. The difference this time, for both King Henry and Gregory’s readers, is that the protagonist actually survives the story.

Whether we know it or not, we female Christian bloggers stand upon the shoulders of giants like Kateryn Parr.

Kateryn Parr married Henry VIII in 1543, the last of his six wives. She didn’t get set aside like Katherine of Aragon or annulled like Anne of Cleves. She didn’t get beheaded like Anne Boleyn or Kitty Howard. Nor did she die from childbirth complications, essentially abandoned by a husband terrified of illness, like Jane Seymour. Somehow sidestepping the terrifying prospect of providing another Tudor boy as heir (or in this case, spare, given Jane Seymour’s son Prince Edward), Kateryn brought her royal stepchildren together under one roof and established a respectable, learned court. Only she and Katherine of Aragon were ever entrusted by Henry with the role of regent while he was at war. Gregory portrays her as passionately studious, committed to the Protestant Reformation even while Henry wavered dangerously back toward Rome, and this characterization holds up in light of Parr’s place as the first English woman to publish her own work under her own name. Her text, The Lamentations of a Sinner, appeared in print in 1547, a year after Henry’s death. And let’s be honest, her ability to keep her head in Henry’s court hints at a remarkable woman without even knowing these other impressive accomplishments.

That’s not to say that her life and reign weren’t dangerous, because undoubtedly they were. The challenge for Gregory, then, is to illustrate this remarkable woman’s voice within a context that called for her submission not just due to her gender but also as wife and subject of a monstrously, capriciously violent king. Gregory imagines Parr giving up a lover (Thomas Seymour, whom she would wed after the king’s death) to occupy her place by Henry’s side. Gregory writes:

The smell from the king’s room is diminished and I know once again my deep pity for him in his pain and illness. His rumbling snore has grown quieter and I am glad that he is sleeping well. Hardly believing my own sense of being uplifted, I feel as if I can hear the voice of God, as if He is with me, as if He has come to me in this night of my trial, as if His mercy can look on me, a sinner, a woman who has sinned and has longed for sin, who still longs for sin, and that, even seeing all this, He can forgive me.

This passage combines many of the traits that make Kateryn unique, though she’s certainly not the most famous (or infamous) of Henry’s queens. Her marriage took place in the years of Henry’s declining health, when an ulcerated leg wound stunk to high heaven and the king’s obesity made mobility challenging. Yet Parr was expected to fulfill every wifely duty, and Gregory doesn’t shy away from the discomfort of sex scenes that meant life or death to Kateryn.

Indeed, sex was and is always a political issue, not less so because we in the U.S. don’t subscribe to a hereditary monarchy. One needs only to look back at the Clinton years or the more recent Duggar scandal and Ashley Madison hack to remember that the private and the political are inextricably intertwined. Yet Kateryn’s meditations on the physical form of the King are balanced by grace, by a spiritual maturity and devotion present also in her own writing and the voice Gregory crafts on her behalf. Essentially coerced into marriage with the king (who says no to Henry VIII and lives?), she strives to make good use of her precarious position as a devoted wife and stepmother and a committed religious reformer.

One of the central religious concerns of Kateryn’s time was the publication of prayers and the Bible in English, making the sacred texts available to all who were literate. There was further debate about translating the liturgy from Latin into English, so that even the unlettered could understand the service. For modern-day Protestants, these practices serve as essential foundations for the faith, but during the Reformation, and particularly in Henrician England (where the king’s emphasis on reform seemed more about his own power than about religious conviction), these were dangerously political issues. It’s no wonder, then, that Gregory focuses on Kateryn’s role as reformer. In Gregory’s novel, more radical reformer Anne Askew (burned at the stake as a heretic), exclaims “this is to use your education and your position for the good of all true believers, and especially for the good of women. To be a woman and to write! To be a woman and to publish!” It’s hard for me, a woman writer of faith, not to feel awed and a little humbled in reading this fictional account of Parr’s life. Whether we know it or not, we female Christian bloggers stand upon the shoulders of giants like Kateryn Parr.

And it’s that awareness of my own small place in the world and in history that draw me to historical fiction. Well, that and the previously-mentioned potential for costume dramas. Much of my pleasure reading transports me to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and though I often read contemporary versions of the text, I’m always aware of how little we humans change. I once tried to excuse myself for reading what appear to be “trashy” novels (especially with some of the cover art), and my friend reminded me, “Please. People are trashy. History is trashy.” It’s true.

The Taming of the Queen is a worthwhile read, though I would say it gets repetitive in some places and could use better editing for that issue. To be fair, my husband says I make that claim about almost every book. While Gregory portrays Henry’s efforts to “tame” Kateryn and the powerful femininity of queenship (and we can say he was, by and large, successful), Parr’s story speaks of resilience, of a spirit that cannot be squelched. She does more than survive Henry VIII and his deadly policies; she embodies an intellectual faith that can serve as a model of grace even centuries removed. We can ignore the messy wreak of humanity or we can, as Kateryn Parr does in Gregory’s work, embrace it. Beyond the madness of a wife-killing king with a stinking leg wound, there is grace—if only we seek to find it.