My next installment in the parade of M.M. Bennetts Award finalists is The Queen’s Dwarf by Ella March Chase. The Queen’s Dwarf takes place in early 17th Century England, in the court of Charles I. The intrigue of the court focuses on Charles’ marriage to Henrietta-Maria of France, and the efforts of George Villiers (the duke of Buckingham) to maintain his power at court. Buckingham employs a dwarf, Jeffrey Hudson, to spy on the queen for him, but Jeffrey quickly becomes sympathetic to the queen instead.
This book was a very enjoyable read, with a large cast of characters from the lowest to the highest ranks of society. The “queen’s dwarf” of the title is based on an actual historical figure, Jeffrey Hudson, who as “Lord Minimus” was considered one of the wonders of the age and engaged in an amazing life of intrigue and adventure. Many of the incidents of the book are likewise based on incidents from the life of the real Jeffrey Hudson.
I was happy to see Hudson portrayed with sympathy and nuance as he deals with the condescension, disregard, and prejudice of those around him and tries to find the right course of action in a world filled with double-dealing. Chase captures the sensibilities of the era well, and there’s lots of action to keep the plot moving. I’ll be the first to admit that the ins and outs of the English court are not a subject that I usually find interesting; I can never keep all those dukes, earls, and whatnot straight. But this book held my interest despite my predilections. And if you are a British royalty buff, this one will fascinate you!
SW: First, congratulations on The Queen’s Dwarf! I’m wondering how you became interested in the court intrigues of this era. Have they been an interest of yours for a long time?
EMC: I fell in love with The Three Musketeers as a teenager and my love of that era began then. I also fell in love with The Three Musketeers– in fact, I’ve had King Charles Cavalier Spaniels named Aramis and D’Artagnan. The Stuart era has always fascinated me. There is something so romantic about the time period. The most amazing fact I discovered was that the incident featured in the Dumas tale, in which Queen Anne’s diamond studs are stolen from the duke of Buckingham really happened! The woman who stole the diamonds from the duke is featured in The Queen’s Dwarf. Lucy Hay, the Countess of Carlisle was the inspiration for Milady de Winter.
SW: I was surprised to read in your afterword about how many of the characters in the book are actual historical figures. How much is known about the real Jeffrey Hudson?
EMC: A fair amount since he was so beloved by the queen. His performances in masques and many incidents from his life at court have been recorded. He was immortalized in poetry, plays and diaries kept during that time. He was even captured by pirates twice and was exiled for killing a man in a duel. Quite an amazing life!
SW: To a modern reader, the idea of having a “menagerie” of human beings around for amusement seems quite bizarre. But I gather that this was a fairly common practice. What was the role of this sort of group in a royal household?
EMC: It was common practice to employ dwarves as royal jesters– their role was to entertain their mistresses or masters. As Henrietta Maria’s fool, Jeffrey would have served in that capacity. He would also perform in the elaborate masques the queen adored. He once performed as a devil’s imp, driving a chariot drawn by two spaniels. Jeffrey, and his best friend, giant Will Evans, often played roles opposite each other. Jeffrey also would have had “the privilege of the coat”, liberties afforded a court fool. The fool was allowed to speak of things no one else dared to in front of the monarch. It was a position of rare emotional intimacy, between Jeffrey and the queen. He would see her in her most vulnerable moments and be her confidant.
SW: Although many of your characters are actual figures, many others are not. How did you balance the need to stick to history with the need to create an original story?
EMC: While I try to stick close to history, and be as true to characters that actually lived as possible, my books are fiction. Creating characters to flesh the story out and move the story forward was great fun. What I found remarkable about The Queen’s Dwarf was that the most fantastical characters in the book were real. Giant Will Evans, tiny Jeffrey, the duke of Buckingham and Lucy Hay– they seemed far more fictional than the characters I added. I do try to blend my creations into the story so carefully that they’re hard to detect.
SW: George Villiers, the duke of Buckingham, figures prominently in this novel. What do you find interesting about this character?
EMC: What fascinated me most about Buckingham was his rise from a nobody, on the fringes of court, to the most powerful man in England, save the king. Buckingham fascinates me. He bewitched two kings. Rose to unimaginable heights. Despite some despicable behavior, and acts of incompetence, he inspired great loyalty and love in his wife and King Charles. History is populated by women who rose to great power because of their physical beauty. Buckingham is their mirror image. He was groomed to become King James’s favorite, but those behind his rise expected him to remain their puppet. Instead, he seized power for himself– all because he had a beautiful face and a well-turned leg.
SW: Like many American readers, I suspect, my knowledge of British royal history is pretty thin. Do you keep an idea of your envisioned audience’s knowledge level in your mind as you write? And is there a need to “educate” your readers as you go, or do you have to trust them to figure out the history as they read?
EMC: I try to set the stage, build the framework so that people without a wide knowledge of the time period are able to follow the history. I hope to make it intriguing enough that they will want to learn more about the Stuart world. I also want to include tidbits fans of the Stuart-era will find new and exciting.
SW: What’s next for you?
EMC: I’m currently working on getting my backlist titles up as e-books. I’m also in the middle of a novel set in Paris during World War II.
Thank you so much for this chance to talk about Jeffrey and congratulations on your own work!