issue 34 > nonfiction > watson
City of Ladies
(Book 2 in The Cross and the Crown Series)
New York, NY: Knox Robinson Publishing,Review by Courtney D. Watson
2014. 318 pp.
Fans of Sarah Kennedy’s 2013 novel The Altarpiece will be riveted by City of Ladies, Book Two in her Tudor-era The Cross and the Crown historical fiction series. Like its predecessor, this beautifully written novel is gilded with historical details that bring to life an exciting period of English history. One of the many hallmarks of this excellent series is the depth of Kennedy’s descriptions of 16th century England; the vividness and consistency with which the author illustrates her heroine Catherine Overton’s world rivals Hilary Mantel and thrills the reader on every page. Most absorbing, however, is Kennedy’s unflinching depiction of how fraught and dangerous life was for women, particularly one who would dare to imagine a city of ladies.
The story opens with a nightmare of grisly death during the gray chill of a Yorkshire winter. The binary of life and death that will follow Catherine Overton (née Havens) throughout the novel is established on the first page as she awakens beside her newborn daughter to the news that a corpse has been discovered on the grounds of Overton House. Three years have passed since the events in The Altarpiece, and life has changed dramatically for Catherine, who shed her vows and married William Overton, a former priest and younger brother who was thrust into the position of lord of the manor after his brother’s death. It’s a role he’s ill-suited for, and his effort to run his family’s estate changes the course of Catherine’s life—and English history—forever.
Being lady of the house presents new challenges to Catherine, and life at Overton House is no less treacherous than the one she left at the doomed Mt. Grace Priory, which fell under siege and was looted by Henry VIII’s soldiers at the end of The Altarpiece. Catherine’s life has become more complicated, though, and the threats against her now come from unknown sources. The stakes are altogether higher in this book, as the former nuns that Catherine brought with her to seek refuge at Overton House begin disappearing and turning up dead. These deaths, along with the specters of three recently dead English queens, imbue the narrative with a sense that no woman is safe in Henry VIII’s newly “reformed” Britain.
The Protestant Reformation is in full swing, and while in The Altarpiece Kennedy explored the obliteration of the Catholic Church in England, in City of Ladies she examines how it changed the day-to-day life of the average person. It was clearly a time of uncertainty, upheaval, and no small amount of fear, as described by Catherine’s maid, Eleanor: “I go to the church that’s there and don’t say a word about it. I been christened in the old way, but I walk in and do things the new way. They’ll throw you in the gaol if you say your prayers wrong, but I misremember them so I try to say nothing atall, just open and close my mouth when the business gets started” (25). People are trying to reconcile the Reformation and adhere, sometimes on penalty of death, to the capricious king’s new rules but without really understanding why or the larger political implications of what is happening in their country. Kennedy does an admirable job vividly depicting the confusion the Reformation caused, as well as its consequences: “People say all sorts of silly things. They’re for the king, they’re against the king. They’re for the queen, but against the nuns. We run in every direction at once. We draw and quarter our own island” (60). England has been torn apart at Henry VIII’s command for reasons that aren’t well understood by the common people; the result is a world that is new, bewildering, and, above all, dangerous.
No one faces greater peril in the new England than the Catholic nuns who have been forced to renounce their vows and surrender their lands to the crown. In an effort to keep them safe and out of poverty, Catherine convinced a reluctant William to take in the former nuns from Mt. Grace Priory at Overton House. For a brief time, the nuns’ presence was accepted in the village, as were their efforts to educate and heal the local community. This tenuous peace did not last, however, as the nuns begin to disappear and turn up dead. Though they did help the villagers, their contributions were often met with suspicion and fear in a culture that frequently conflated education and learning with witchcraft: “It’s the women. They say the lady here is married against the king’s law. They say the women here keep a convent against the king’s law. Some say they go to the daughters of the village to turn their minds against the new church. They use bewitchments and potions. It will lead us all to the gallows” (28). The nuns, and even Catherine herself, are hated for many reasons, but especially for their attempts to empower women.
As in The Altarpiece, the condition of women is the beating heart of this story. In a time when nuns are hunted, no one is safe from the king’s whims; even queens can be divorced, exiled, or executed. Catherine is one of the only people in the novel brave enough to question Henry VIII's actions:
He [Henry VIII] is anointed by men in large hats, and queens have sat their thrones by themselves. But in England, the price of queens has fallen. There is a cheap market for them since our Lady [Katherine of Aragon] was thrown into the dirt...The Lady Mary’s mother was once queen of this island, and her mother was queen of Castile. Queen. She had a husband and still she ruled. God did not frown upon it. The king of England did. That is all. (158).
As Henry VIII’s England reforms around her, Catherine envisions a new world that is altogether better for women. The foundation of this world would be education for women, something that Catherine believes in above all things, especially since the birth of her daughter. With this passion for learning in mind, readers will delight in seeing Catherine exert her influence over the bastard princess who will later be the renowned Queen Elizabeth I, that extraordinarily gifted ruler, thinker, and woman of letters.
Though her contact with the young Lady Elizabeth--already bearing a resemblance to the powerful leader she will become--is one of Catherine’s more exciting acquaintances in this story, the girl is not the only famous face to make an appearance in this novel. There are several interesting, moving passages with a gloomy but fiery Mary Tudor, who suffered as much as anyone from the shifting winds of King Henry’s favor: “I have nothing. I am nothing. My father would sell me to a footman if he could get him a new wife for the trade. He would like me in the tomb next to my mother. No. Not next to my mother. He would fear that we would rise together to haunt him”(94). Though Mary Tudor is often relegated to an historical footnote beneath the towering shadows of her father and her half-sister, she has some of the best lines in City of Ladies: “Mary Tudor’s eyes glowed again. ‘I will have the head taken from the shoulders of anyone who removes you’”(95). Her words about Elizabeth in particular serve as a strong reminder that the misunderstood young woman whom Catherine befriends at Hatfield House will one day be better known as Bloody Mary: “No. Go tend to the little bastard’s bellyache. God forfend that she die too soon. Or too speedily” (114). Like Elizabeth, Mary is formidable, even though she has been cast aside by Henry VIII, whom Catherine also encounters during an unforgettable scene in the novel.
While several well-known and influential historical figures feature prominently in City of Ladies, the novel’s true kindred spirit is perhaps Christine de Pizan, the brilliant, and largely forgotten, author of the original Book of the City of Ladies. In Kennedy’s novel, Catherine is given a copy of this daring book by her father and she treasures it, saying, “I own this. It is genius. She writes of women’s virtues, and how learning and discipline make the world go forward” (111). De Pizan, herself highly educated, argued in the early 15th century that women would only find agency and enlightenment and purpose through learning; she wrote passionately about the condition and treatment of women and about the necessity of education. Over a century later, Catherine takes up de Pizan’s cause and encourages the women around her—everyone from peasants to titled ladies—to devote themselves to the cultivation of their minds.
City of Ladies is an absorbing novel that draws the reader ever deeper into Catherine’s world and answers the questions that lingered at the end of The Altarpiece. Catherine is a compelling heroine to follow because of her determination, intelligence, and steadfastness despite being born during a time where women like her are feared and punished simply for desiring more. Catherine’s character develops in interesting ways in this installment, hinting at the great woman she is destined to become, provided she can survive the danger she courts at every turn and threats that come from the most unexpected places. City of Ladies is altogether darker and more urgent than its predecessor, partly because Catherine has a lot more to lose, but also thrilling as Catherine’s world expands and becomes more complicated. Kennedy is certainly up to the challenge, deftly taking the reader on a journey of blood, mystery, and intrigue tempered with bright moments of light and beauty. City of Ladies is a gripping installment in the The Cross and the Crown series, and beautifully delivers on the promises of its predecessor.