Queen's Own Fool by Jane Yolen and Robert J. Harris;
Philomel Books: New York, 2000; $19.99
My dictionary tells me that "history" is a record of significant events in the past. It is a perfectly valid explanation of the word, but it leaves some things out. While poring over our history books in school, we often do not fully grasp that these people were real. They loved and feared and grieved, as we in the twenty-first century do. It takes a truly gifted author to take a piece of history and make it a fascinating tale. Jane Yolen and Robert Harris have won a place among these talented few with their novel, Queen's Own Fool. They have taken the true story of a remarkable young girl who led a daring life when women were considered to be inferior to men in every way. And they have brought this tale, overlooked by the history books, to the present.
This girl, Nicola, is an intelligent, talkative, friendly person, one that we can sympathize with through all her dangers and hardships. Through her own point of view, she tells the story of the famous Mary Queen of Scots.
The supporting characters—not all of them likable—expand the reality of the tale. Madame Jacqueline, Nicola's tutor, is one such character. She is a complete tyrant. Jacqueline demands that Nicola's intelligence be harnessed to the restrictive standards of her society. She also stifles Nicola's originality and innocent wit, trying to force her pupil into a conventional female role.
However, the reason Madame Jacqueline is so interesting is that she can be viewed as the opposite of Queen Mary. For example, in the beginning of the book, Nicola and her uncle's family are lodged in a bleak, gray room, symbolizing their lowly position in society. When the queen arrives, she brings comfort and warmth to the room. Later in the book, Nicola is in a similar position, but this time she is alone in the coldness, without Pierre, Annette, or any of her old friends to comfort her. And worse, it is not the kind, merry queen who enters the bleak room, but the stern, stiff, unsympathetic tutor. Instead of bringing joy and hope to her surroundings, Madame Jacqueline makes a bad situation terrible.
Some likable characters hold interest for the reader as well. One is Davie Riccio, a dwarf who has risen above the place his society demands that he take. Rather than being a jester that everyone laughs at, he has become one of the most important politicians in the royal court. But the price for his defiance of his culture's standards is great when his pride and audacity overcome his caution.
My father owns a garden that I visit often. It is a place of renewal and rebirth, where plants spring up from the seemingly lifeless dirt. Nicola has similar experiences among gardens, but it is she who is renewed. It is at gardens that her life is changed—first, when she meets the queen, who takes Nicola out of her former impoverished life. Later, when she encounters La Renaudie, the Protestant outlaw, her idealized, happily-every-after view of the royal court is destroyed.
The only major flaw I found in Queen's Own Fool was that it presented a misleading image of Queen Mary. In the story, she is portrayed as a kind, courageous, freedom-loving woman. In all probability, this is not the truth. Some historians claim that she plotted against Queen Elizabeth and played an important part in the plan to murder her husband. In addition, I thought the queen was too perfect to be very believable.
But this book is well worth reading. Through authors like Jane Yolen and Robert Harris, history rises from the grave to reenact itself before us!