Click here to read reviewer Karyn Johnson's take on The Queen's Dwarf.
The Queen's Dwarf combines the fascination of a Grimm’s fairy tale with the heft of history. In the court of Charles I of England in 1629, the young French Queen Henrietta-Marie finds distraction in an unfriendly environment with her “Royal Menagerie of Freaks and Curiosities”--among them a beautiful rope dancer, an acrobatic animal trainer, a giant and two dwarves, soon to be joined by a gift from the Duke of Buckingham, Jeffrey Hudson, aptly named “Lord Minimus.”
Snatched from poverty by a scheming Buckingham, who misses no opportunity to ingratiate himself with the king, the duke is the king’s closest confidant. Jeffrey is prepared for insertion into the menagerie as a spy, rigorously schooled in what is expected of him and threatened with harm to his beloved brother Samuel if he fails to meet the duke’s approval. Attempting to remain objective in his new surroundings and follow orders, Jeffrey is nevertheless gradually seduced, not only by the easy affections of his compatriots but by his growing affection for the lonely and isolated Henrietta-Marie. He is torn between his relationship with the others, especially the kind-hearted giant Will Evans, and his mission. While participating in the theatrical entertainments for the queen, Hudson is tasked with instigating events that inspire enmity toward the foreign queen, who is already suspected of treason on behalf of her French family.
Penning a tale of royal intrigue from the perspective of a court fool offers a unique glimpse into the queen’s inner circle, the machinations of both friends and foes, particularly in a marriage that has exacerbated the usual contentious Catholic-Protestant relations that riddle political affairs. Secret letters from the French court harangue the queen to more dramatic action. As a pawn of her country, Henrietta-Marie is bedeviled by demands to further the French agenda in England, a little-loved queen in love with her English king. It is Buckingham’s intention to stir up as much mischief as possible, trusting the queen into ever more dangerous predicaments so the king will have no choice but to send her back to France. Jeffrey Hudson is just one of Buckingham’s weapons in a full arsenal, Charles refusing to see any flaws in his staunch supporter.
The queen’s menagerie, her curiosities, are ensconced in a world of their own with all the trappings of the theater—costumes, stages, ropes and pulleys, a merry band of players—each hiding private thoughts behind the façade of their commission. Used to being scorned by society, they have immersed themselves in fantasy and play-acting, buffeted by the political exercises of the royal court, their fortune tied to their ability to make others laugh, even in a country on the cusp of revolution. The harsh religious zealotry afoot in England, whether Puritan or Catholic, fosters a mutual distrust that renders common folk fodder for the demands of kings.
Refusing to acknowledge the needs or demands of the commoners, the nobility struggles to maintain its hold, pulling tighter on the reins of power as citizens chafe, ripe for exploitation. Spies are everywhere, greed and need begetting an endless supply of those willing to create trouble or spread gossip, nowhere as fertile as the court of Charles and Henrietta-Marie. It is these unusual characters, these “curiosities,” who breathe life into a tale of Stuart England, a king offering his trust to a man who would manipulate his friendship; a lonely queen weeping for her barrenness and finding distraction in masks and plays; factions instigating war between England and France and plotting the destruction of a royal marriage; and “Lord Minimus,” the smallest and most powerful weapon in the queen’s own court, meant for destruction but caught unawares by love and a sense of family. Hudson’s fear: “Buckingham would soon own something only I could surrender: my soul.” His heart, alas, belongs to the queen.