Tuesday, June 26, 2012
Privy Seal by Ford Madox Ford
Katharine caught at one of her hands.
"Your grace," she said, "Queen and high potentate, this realm calleth out that some one person do lead the king aright. Before God, I think I do not seek powers or temporal crowns. Maybe it is sweet to sit in a painted gallery and be queen, but I have very little considered it; only, here is a King that crieth for the peace of God, a people that clamoureth aloud to be led back to the ways of God, a land parched for rain, swept by gales of wind and pestilences, bewailing the lost favour of God, and the Holy Church devastated that standeth between God and the realm."
I enjoyed Privy Seal more than The Fifth Queen, the first book in Ford's Katharine Howard trilogy, though it's not very different. Probably it was simply easier to read, its characters familiar and not needing to be established, its central conflict--between the Catholic Kat and Thomas Cromwell, Lord of the Privy Seal and Protestant scion--being reproduced wholesale from the first novel.
But I think that I was looking at the entire series with unjust expectations. I was hoping for a serious account of the Catholic-Protestant divide, which Ford delivers in The Good Soldier, but the Fifth Queen books have more modest aims. Privy Seal, like The Fifth Queen, is primarily an adventure-and-espionage tale, pulp intrigue pasted over a 16th-Century map. Sitting down to write a review, I even had trouble remembering--as one does with a "beach read"--what plotline was.
As best I can recall, Privy Seal opens on an England where the King's affection for Kat is an open secret. Cromwell's worst nightmare is the dissolution of the pact between the King and the Protestant Duchy of Cleves in the Holy Roman Empire. If the Duchy decides to throw its lot back in with the Emperor, the King's rocky marriage to Anne of Cleves becomes politically useless, and he may divorce her and marry the fiercely Catholic Kat. Cromwell schemes to have Kat's cousin Thomas Culpepper returned from France, knowing that the impetuous Culpepper would be too stupid to conceal his amorous feelings for Kat at court, exposing her to accusations of carnal immorality. At the same time, Kat's allies, like the double agent Throckmorton and the lusty professor Udal, scheme to keep Culpepper in France and feed misinformation about Cleves to Cromwell
For her part, Kat tries earnestly, and only partially successfully, to stay out of the fray. She refuses to take part in the lies, and instead chooses to be straightforward with Cromwell, saying to his face, "Sir, my lord, your servants go up and down this land; sir, my lord, they ride rich men with boots of steel and do strangle the poor with gloves of iron." And yet at times, Kat's righteousness seems like unflexibility, and perhaps an ingratitude for those that, through their subterfuge, help keep her honor intact and her head on her shoulder. The question asked by Privy Seal and The Fifth Queen, I think, it not any thorny religious one, but purely political: Is Kat's idealism a form of wisdom, or foolishness? These novels cannot be praised for their historical accuracy, but those of us who know what ended up happening to Kat Howard may be more clued in to the answer.
Kat's righteousness leads her to visit the Queen, Anne of Cleves, sequestered in her lonesome palace, so that Anne might relinquish her marital rights over Henry. Ford's Anne--lonely, trapped in a foreign land, hated by an entire nation without knowing why--is the most striking in an otherwise modest novel. "Men have handled me as they would, as if I had been a doll," she says. It's a stark reminder that though Kat wishes to rise above the game, there is a deeper sadness in having no game to play or not, or in being a piece and not a player.