Even though I am sick to the point of death with revising my novel, I still love historical fiction. There is something uniquely satisfying about exploring history through the lens of fiction.
While I’ve been working through said revisions, I’ve allowed myself the treat of reading a truly page-turning historical novel: THE CROWN by Nancy Bilyeau.
Set in Tudor England, THE CROWN centers around one of the most tumultuous, yet least known, chapters in English history–the suppression of monasteries. Henry VIII, aided by his able Master Secretary Thomas Cromwell, began closing convents and monasteries throughout England under the auspices of “reforming” religious houses. It quickly devolved into a brazen grab of the Church’s wealth and lands.
Bilyeau deftly tells this story through the voice of Joanna Stafford, a young aristocratic novice at Dartford Priory–one of the oldest and most prestigious in England. Joanna runs afoul of the King when she is caught giving consolation to her dearest cousin who has been sentenced to burn at the stake for her Catholic faith.
Sister Joanna is taken to the Tower of London where she is enlisted by the mercurial Bishop Gardiner to find an ancient relic that, he intimates, could save her priory and all the monasteries in England. That’s when the thriller begins. She sets forth on a mission that will take her intelligence, determination and courage to accomplish. Throughout the novel, we see Joanna grow from a religious, naive girl to a determined, but no less pious, young woman of resolve.
What Bilyeau does so well, I think, is to allow her characters to be of the time. The nuns at Dartford Priory are not some 21st century feminists in coarse wool habits. She draws each of them with nuance, empathy and authenticity. They are strong women; intelligent and determined to live their lives for God. They are not all saints, to be sure, but each one is very real.
It was a particularly fun read for me because many of the places and people in my novel appear throughout THE CROWN. Bilyeau sets the bar high for immensely readable, accurate historical fiction.
Now, I better get back to my you-know-whats.