Friday, August 4, 2017

Review and Guest Post: The Woman in the Shadows by Carol McGrath

Title: The Woman in the Shadows
Author:  Carol McGrath 
Format: Paperback
Publisher: Accent Press
Publish Date: August 4, 2017 (Today!)
Source: Publisher

What's the Story?:

From "When beautiful cloth merchant’s daughter Elizabeth Williams is widowed at the age of twenty-two, she is determined to make herself a success in the business she has learned from her father. But there are those who oppose a woman making her own way in the world, and soon Elizabeth realises she may have some powerful enemies – enemies who also know the truth about her late husband… 

Security – and happiness – comes when Elizabeth is introduced to kindly, ambitious merchant turned lawyer, Thomas Cromwell. Their marriage is one based on mutual love and respect…but it isn’t always easy being the wife of an influential, headstrong man in Henry VIII’s London. The city is filled with ruthless people and strange delights – and Elizabeth realises she must adjust to the life she has chosen…or risk losing everything."

My Two Cents:

"The Woman in the Shadows" is the story of Elizabeth, the wealthy daughter of a cloth merchant who is determined to be the master of her own success in a time where it was unseemly to do so. Married and widowed at a young age, Elizabeth is actually hopeful that her widowhood will give her more flexibility to pursue her own passions. And then she meets Thomas Cromwell (yes, that one) and her life will change as her life suddenly revolves around what is going on at court.

I know that I've said this but I'll say it again: I love how history books and historical fiction (perhaps more so historical fiction) gives us the ability to see historical figures in a different way. Our history books are mostly limited to a few facets of a single person. Thomas Cromwell is definitely one of those people where there seems to be the same focus on him in many different places so it was interesting to see him as a spouse to Elizabeth and a parent to children, facets not often focused on since Cromwell and what he did in his life seems so tied to Henry VIII.

And Elizabeth herself is such a fascinating character. We get to know her well before she meets Cromwell. Her first marriage is one of convenience. Her husband is kind to her but is using her to protect himself from the scrutiny of having a male lover. They respect each other but it is by no means a love match. Even after her husband's death, Elizabeth cannot fully escape his shadow, a thread that plays over and over again in surprising ways throughout the book.

I loved seeing a different point of view of Cromwell and this book shows that there still may be stories yet to uncover about the Tudors. It exemplifies why the Tudors and those on the periphery of their court continue to inspire curiosity about uncovering more about them!

Author Guest Post:

The Inspiration for ‘The Woman in the Shadows’.
My new novel The Woman in the Shadows is released on August 4th. It is about Elizabeth Cromwell, wife to Henry VIII’s infamous statesman, Thomas. Why on earth would I write a novel about this unknown Tudor woman? I must admit I hesitated. Anything written about Thomas Cromwell in the realms of Historical Fiction could risk a serious danger, that of living in the shadows of Hilary Mantel’s eloquent prize winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. Yet when I thought about it, I saw an opportunity to take a glance at Thomas Cromwell’s early career and domestic life through the eyes of his wife. I had written in detail about realism and romanticism in Wolf Hall in a Creative Writing MPhil thesis and therefore knew Mantel’s territory well. I also read History at University. The narrative thrust of Mantel’s book concerns Cromwell’s involvement with the King’s Great Matter. I was more curious about how he arrived at this point and what Elizabeth thought about her ambitious husband. What was marriage like to such a man? Who might Elizabeth have been? What was it like to live in early Tudor London? What might Elizabeth have thought about Catherine of Aragon? I wanted to give Elizabeth a plausible life and so, since her father was a cloth merchant, I suspected that her first husband’s family might have had this involvement too. After all, Tudor marriages, especially a first marriage, was a marriage between families.
Elizabeth was a shadowy character to research. Only her birth, death and marriages are recorded history and the fact that her previous husband was a Yeoman in the King’s Guard. She was apparently a comfortably off young widow. Thomas Cromwell worked as a merchant and was a self-taught lawyer. He was involved in legal transactions for The Merchant Adventurers. Both families came from Putney, and both had some involvement in cloth. His father was not just a Blacksmith: he was a brewer, owned land, grazed sheep, had been a JP and he owned a fulling mill where cloth was cleaned before the dyeing process. Elizabeth had no children by her first marriage, so I speculate about her first marriage. I am, after all, writing Historical Fiction.
By 1520 she had three children with Thomas Cromwell.
I was curious about their domestic life. I invent Elizabeth’s early widow-hood, her desire to have her independence through running her own cloth business, her father’s determination to see her remarried and her meeting with Thomas. I believe most of what I have written to be plausible but do not claim it as ‘the’ truth. It is a ‘truth’.  Widows could run their own businesses and have apprentices. I suggest that her second marriage is one of mutual respect and possibly a romantic match. There is evidence that charming, sociable Thomas Cromwell was no more ruthless any other upwardly mobile Tudor in this early period of his career. Connections mattered especially for a young man with intelligence, ambition and personality. Thomas Cromwell owned all of these qualities. It was through his own family connections that he came to work as steward of York Place circa 1516, one of Cardinal Wolsey’s residences. It was not through any ruthless move. Thomas Cromwell owned a phenomenal memory, was a man of new learning, humanism, and spoke Italian and French fluently. He was curious early on about Church Reform. He, like, Wolsey came from a modest background.
I was also interested in investigating the world of the early Tudor merchant class, women in trade, and domestic life.
At this time, England was competing with Flanders for trade in fabrics. Elizabeth, as I write her story, wanted to sell cloth abroad. She was purchasing and selling new fabric mixes with exotic names such as bombazine, as it was one way she could stand out as a female trader. Other aspects of the fabrics trade that interested me were The Sumptuary Laws of the period and how these could be circumnavigated. The merchant class liked to ape the nobility and the nobility wanted to keep them in their place. Laws about what people could wear were reinvented throughout the Tudor period to discern between the classes! I use this within the story line. Even so, Thomas dressed modestly throughout his life. Yet, the inventory of Austin Friars indicates they both loved jewels, beautiful fabrics and tapestries and, interestingly, clothing so maybe he wore other than sombre colours and rich fabrics privately. We know not!
I enjoyed imagining the Cromwells’ domestic life as they moved from her modest Wood Street house after they were married to Fenchurch Street, and finally to Austin Friars a lovely Tudor home beside the ‘good’ address of Austen Friary. It was an upper middle class neighbourhood. There, they lived beside wealthy Italian merchants, minor nobility and later, Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador. I was fascinated by the everyday detail of early sixteenth century home life, especially child-rearing, girls’ education, servants, cooking, furniture and clothing. I loved how the year was marked by the ritual of festivals and saints’ days, that London was smelly, dangerous and thrilling full of cut-throats and ambition and thrilling and colourful. I incorporated all of this into the fabric of the novel to recreate the Cromwells’ world.
Austin Friars features at strategic points throughout the novel as Elizabeth’s story is revealed. On a Midsummer’s Day in 1526, Elizabeth moves from room to room and from these points of reference the readers are transported back into Elizabeth’s life, her life with her first husband, her life with Thomas, her mistakes and her high points, her hopes and sorrows, always with political events shading the background. I chose this particular date because I wanted to end the book on a high note before her death and before Thomas gets swept into Cardinal Wolsey’s fall from power and into Thomas Cromwell’s life at court. He is just on the cusp of entry into the King’s service.
Finally, where I found facts I kept to these and hopefully have been successful in doing what novelists do best- put the flesh on the bones of history, because the historical novelist is in the position of balancing an aesthetically distant past and an engagement with the present. Fiction is a way of knowing about the past, a meditation on history rather than an entirely accurate retelling of historical truth. I hope that if you read The Woman in the Shadows you enjoy it and feel that you have had a glimpse into Elizabeth’s world.


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