Lucy Worsley, chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces, and the BBC’s star popular historian, presenter of Britain’s Tudor Treasure amongst many others, has now successfully turned her hand to children’s books. Eliza Rose is the first in a new series of books for younger readers. She talked to Geraldine Brennan about it for Books for Keeps.
As chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces, the charity that manages Hampton Court and the Tower of London, Lucy Worsley is uniquely placed to create Henry Tudor’s world; visit Hampton Court and you can spot some of the rich detail of his resplendent surroundings described in her book, the red silk hangings and fine tapestries that fascinate new arrivals at court. Henry’s court is the centre of the universe for everyone in Eliza Rose and in particular Henry’s fifth wife, Katherine Howard.
Sandwiched between older and less attractive Anne of Cleves and Katherine Parr who survived Henry, among Henry’s wives Katherine shares the titillation factor and the unhappy ending with her cousin, Anne Boleyn. Lucy however is committed to establishing Katherine as an intelligent young woman playing by the rules of her time (one rule being to hide her intelligence) rather than that traditional portrayal as sexy but not too bright.
‘There is no evidence from history that she was a hussy, but that is how is she often portrayed, also as somehow light-headed, someone who didn’t know what she was doing. In fact I believe she didn’t do anything without a reason.
In the fictional world of Eliza Rose, Katherine has another cousin, Eliza Rose Camperdowne, who is her companion, often her rival and occasionally her only true friend in the cut and thrust of the Tudor marriage market, and it’s Eliza who tells their story. In real life, Lucy says, ‘Katherine had loads of cousins, but not one called Eliza. I wanted someone to witness what happened, and be in the same position as Katherine but make some different choices.’
Eliza and Katherine are sent to a kind of finishing school run by a richer family to prepare them for life at court. They are their families’ chief assets in an age when a well-born woman’s only recognised ambition was to marry as well as she could and give birth to heirs. They must play their cards of youth, reputation, beauty and fertility to the highest bidder within a brief window of opportunity.
They are trained to be decorative and submissive yet compete with each other for a powerful man’s attention, with the ultimate prize to be noticed by the King. The hothouse atmosphere is like that of a stage school or model agency, only with much higher stakes.
Their story is of any young girls sent away from home who must work out the rules of the new world: most importantly ‘watch, wait and be ready’, as the Mistress of the Robes explains when they finally arrive at the royal palace as maids of honour.
Lucy describes the atmosphere at Henry VIII’s Hampton Court (where she now has an office) as a cross between Hollywood and the World Economic Forum in Davos.
‘The cult of celebrity and the wheeling and dealing of political life was all in one place. You could not succeed without investing heavily in your appearance and being seen in the right places.’
Having chronicled the Russian Romanov dynasty and the Georgians for television, she says: ‘It’s always fascinated me how people work out the routes to power and choose the steps to take.’
Eliza Rose, for readers aged 11 and above, is also frank about the sexually predatory double standard culture at court, with young girls at risk of exploitation and severely punished for trying to match men in experience. Romance is rarely a factor in liaisons and friendships are more like strategic alliances.
Lucy works just off the ‘haunted gallery’ at Hampton Court along which Katherine, when finally married to Henry and accused of adultery, is said to have run to beg for her life and where her ‘ghost’ can still be seen in an installation.
‘We’d been doing research on whether the events the ghost is said to depict were real. I thought I could write a work of non-fiction about the events but there wasn’t enough evidence for my theory about what happened.’
She grew up reading Jean Plaidy on The Young Elizabeth and The Young Mary Queen of Scots. ‘What annoys me is when people criticise historical fiction on the grounds of accuracy. It’s fiction so you have to judge it as a story. I tend to choose areas for fiction where I am already very secure on the historical facts so I can concentrate on the story.’
So another Historic Royal Palace, Kensington, is the setting for her next novel, about the young Queen Victoria’s life until her accession at 18. ‘I’m getting help with the German dialogue at the moment.’
Victoria was brought up under the Kensington system, which meant she was kept isolated from other children. ‘She was very much under the thumb of her mother, the Duchess of Kent and her mother’s household comptroller, Sir John Conroy. And in real life Sir John Conroy had a daughter, who was also called Victoria, who appears in the book.
I believe the way Victoria was brought up was the key to her later character. There were a lot of people expecting to control her as a young ruler but the strange, isolating, semi-abusive way she was brought up made her self-reliant.’
As in Eliza Rose, Lucy is able to exploit resonant places and objects.
‘We’re lucky that we’ve got so many of Victoria’s clothes in our collection, even her baby shoes, and the dark velvet tartan dress we believe she was wearing on the day she met Albert, when she was 16. It was a rebellious choice for the time, Victoria in her goth phase, or maybe she was an emo. From her diary, I know the spot in Kensington Palace where she first set eyes on Albert, from a landing outside her bedroom. You can feel the story waiting to happen.’
Geraldine Brennan is a journalist specialising in children’s books and education. She regularly reviews for the Observer and has judged several literary awards.
Eliza Rose by Lucy Worsley is published by Bloomsbury £6.99