Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Heretic's Wife.
This novel bristles with religious fervor and the malice of opposing factions, whether in the leanings of bookseller Kate Gough, the commoner, or Henry VIII, the king about to make his historic break with the Catholic Church over the matter of the dissolution of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon: “It would be very easy to catch faith, as one would catch a fever.”
The entrenched power of the Church is not to be trifled with. Booksellers such as Kate and her brother, John, who secretly sell copies of the Bible to be read by the common man, threaten a system meant to keep power in the hands of a church that profits greatly from “penance pilgrims” and firmly dictates the path to heaven. Thanks to the efforts of such translators as William Tyndale, heretical copies of the Bible appear all over the country to the outrage of the king’s chancellor, Thomas More. More becomes ever more obsessed with burning heretics than with attending to Henry’s “great matter.”
Rickman Vantrease is adept at weaving the fictional with historical fact, her characters defined by their willingness to suffer for their religious beliefs. But John Gough’s brush with prison renders him ineffective and broken, while Kate falls into an adventure that delivers her from London to Antwerp as the wife of translator John Frith, who shares Tyndale’s goals. Both men encourage efforts to flood England with Bibles and other tracts to educate the commoner and facilitate his personal communication with God. The result is a cauldron of violence and betrayal, Henry lusting after Anne Boleyn, Thomas More secretly flagellating himself and burning unfortunate heretics in the privacy of his enclave.
Alternating between Kate’s marriage to Frith and her husband’s zeal for the cause, Thomas More’s obsession and Henry’s discontent with a recalcitrant Church, the author describes a country in the throes of upheaval, a place far too dangerous for the likes of Frith - except for Boleyn’s sympathy for the reformist cause. As Henry considers Boleyn’s religious instincts and the simplification of religious observance, with himself as the head of church and state, the times are yet too unpredictable and More too powerful, even though Thomas Cromwell waits in the wings to replace the chancellor.
“Isn’t it a shame what God-fearing folk will do to God-fearing folk?” Of course, this is the heart of the matter: the battle for the authority of God’s word as personal agendas set the characters on a collision course with tragedy. Add in a fearless ship’s captain and the good-hearted souls who shelter Kate and Frith, and you have a recipe that is a winner for an author who appreciates the nuances of politics and the personal stories that put a human face to history.