The Plot: England, 1539. Kitty Tylney and Cat Howard are two teenage girls, living at the home of Cat’s grandmother, the Duchess of Norfolk. The Duchess may be rich and powerful, but she is also old and absorbed in her own affairs. Kitty, Cat, and the other girls who live crowded together in the maiden’s chamber are there because they have no where else to go. No one is really interested in them. Some are like Cat, younger sisters of younger sons, who have a name and connections but hand me down clothes and neither money nor power. Others are like Kitty, sent away from home simply because her parents don’t want her. Then there are girls like Joan and Alice, married off by their parents to husbands who have left their wives behind as they pursue their own interests.
Young, pretty, bored. Dreaming of life at court, with dances and pretty clothes and handsome men. In the meanwhile, making their own fun, in ways not quite proper. Late night festivities that include dancing and drinking and boys.
Kitty, abandoned by her family, values Cat and her friendship more than anything, because it’s the only thing Kitty has. She’ll do anything for Cat, follow her anywhere, help her with anything. All of Cat’s dreams come true when she captures the eye of the King, and she brings her friends along for the good fortune. Dreams sometimes turn to nightmares; how far will Kitty go to help her friend?
The Good: It’s not a spoiler if it’s history. Wait, was I the only teenager who adored English history?
Some books, like Grave Mercy, are about historical time periods that are not well known. Others are about more famous time periods. Longshore plunges into the Tudor Court, one of the more fascinating time periods in English history. It is the court of Henry VIII, known for his six wives. Catherine Howard was one of them. Henry’s wives get labels, and Catherine’s is flighty. Or young. Or guilty. The challenge, here, is how to tell the story of the tragedy of Catherine Howard? A teenage girl married to an older man, in a court where intrigue ruled, family mattered, connections were everything, but when push came to shove it was every man (or woman) for himself. A place of beautiful clothes, rich food, and elaborate etiquette. Love, lust, sex, and marriage were four very different things. Romance and relationships were not simple, and politics, power, and the long game mattered more than feelings or one individuals wants or needs.
Gilt is told not through Cat’s eyes, but through that of her best friend, Kitty. One of the fascinating parts of Gilt is the details about the daily life of Kitty and Cat, starting with the maids chamber, one room with a hodgepodge of beds. Chores or other duties may occupy the day, but at night Cat turns the room into party central, full of young men and dancing. Kitty and Cat have less (privacy, room, clothes, and jewels) than the Duchess; yet they have much more than others. They are the fortunate girls: they have a place to sleep, even if its a crowded chamber; they have clothes, even if they are hand me downs. They have something else: hope of one day, somehow, escaping by going to the King’s Court, where anything is possible. Raised to marry who their families decided, with little or no education, the best they can dream of is the parties and dancing of court life. As Cat describes it, “The English court is beautiful and cut throat, and anyone going there has to be both. Or at least act as if she is.” Cat’s goal is to get there; Kitty’s goal is to remain friend’s with Cat.
It’s not a spoiler that Cat gets to court; her family ignores her earlier wild days and presents her to the king as young, virginal girl. Cat is the life of the party, and the king falls for that vibrancy. “Former queens had helped the poor, changed the king’s view on religion, or begged for mercy for rebellious commoners. Cat enabled him, in his decrepit old age, to enjoy life again.” Cat is also a teenager; about fifteen at the start of the book, and the book explores just why Cat does what she does. Trouble comes from two fronts: her relationships before she met the king, which she and her family hid; and, then, what she does at court. On paper, knowing what happens, it seems stupid for Cat to do what she does; Longshore shows a Cat who is impulsive and self-centered, who isn’t sure who to trust or what to do so does what she wants. In other words, she is a typical teenager in a very untypical situation. She realizes there is danger (“all talk is dangerous“) yet just can’t help herself.
While Cat’s fate is known to the reader going in, Kitty’s is not. I’d guess that most readers may be familiar with Cat’s place in the wives hierarchy, but not as familiar with the other players. Kitty is based on a real person, as are almost all of the characters in Gilt. Every now and then, a name is tweaked or an age made more convenient. The question becomes, then, not will Cat survive, but will Kitty? And at what cost?
Along the way, Kitty has her own romantic intrigue: two different men that she likes, in different ways. Upon meeting one for the first time, “I pressed the name into my memory like a late summer bloom into the leaves of a book.” I won’t say that one is “good” and one is “bad,” but, rather, they each are trying to work the system of the Tudor Court. Do they like Kitty — or do they like that she is Cat’s friend? Who will they be loyal to, when the end comes? And when the end does come — ARGH. I want to say specifically why I adored the ending, but I don’t want to give the ending away.
Gilt is part of a three book series; I love that it covers 1439-42,when Henry was in his late 40s/early fifties, rather during his younger, handsomer time period. It also makes me very curious as to who the next book will be about! Because, and you know I love this with a love that is pure and true, the Tudor Series are a series about a time period not one person. From the author’s website: “All the books are set in the court of Henry VIII. They are all about real people and actual events, embellished by my imagination. They won’t be follow-on stories, but some characters will pop up in all three books with varying degrees of importance.”
If you haven’t guessed from all the gushing so far: yes, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.