From the publication of “Wolf Hall” in 2009 until the release of “The Mirror and the Light” last March, devotees of Hilary Mantel’s portrait of Tudor statesman Thomas Cromwell always had more to look forward to. Now, her acclaimed trilogy complete, fans must go elsewhere for historical novels with the complex characters, luminous descriptions and period authenticity that are the trademarks of Mantel’s fiction. One of these excellent, ambitious novels might be just what you’re looking for.
Ford Madox Ford’s “The Fifth Queen” (1906) concerns Catherine Howard, the unfortunate young Englishwoman chosen by Henry VIII in 1540 to replace the disappointing Anne of Cleves as his wife. The tale begins with a chance meeting between the king and erudite, pious Catherine in the treacherous court where Cromwell presides like Darth Vader, menacing and all seeing. In Ford’s portrait, Henry is weary, choleric and mercurial, while Catherine is completely sympathetic, nothing like the girl – frivolous and promiscuous – that many historians describe. The storytelling is less propulsive than Mantel’s: Ford labors over scene-setting and, like a playwright, uses speech and action to reveal motivation rather than explicating his characters’ thoughts. But he vividly captures the uneasiness felt by many in England at the loss of Catholicism, “the old faith,” and his artful use of archaic language transports a patient reader directly back into the heart of Tudor-world.