I recently finished another book by Julia Stuart. The first I read was heavily centered on the Tower of London and the curious people who live inside its walls. I reviewed it, and talked about the history of the tower itself, in this post.This time, Julia Stuart chose to set her book at Hampton Court Palace. I’ve also been to HCP, so I thought I would do the same thing: talk about the book and the setting.
First, I’ll tackle a bit of history. HCP started out as property of the Church of England. Cardinal Wolsey (a close adviser to Henry VIII during the pre-Reformation period) took over the house and spent lots of money turning it into an incredibly lavish and luxurious private residence. He included some ‘state apartments’ specifically for Henry VIII and his entourage, and they were used almost as soon as work on the palace was completed. Unfortunately for Wolsey, he fell out of favor with the tempestuous king and only enjoyed his palace for a few years before he started a long journey out of power (he died before he could be imprisoned in the Tower of London, but that’s the only thing that ‘saved’ him from that fate). He gifted the palace to Henry, presumably in an attempt to curry some favor, but it did not work. Henry took ownership of the palace and started further expansion and upgrading of the property. Notably, he added the Great Hall, the tennis court, and the “post-Copernican astronomical clock” as the Wiki calls it. I found this clock by far the most impressive part of the entire palace. It tells you the phases of the moon, the current astrological sign, the time (obviously) and the state of the tide on the Thames at London Bridge. If you’re wondering why you would need that last bit of info–the best way to reach HCP was by boat, but if the water level was too low at London Bridge it made for a perilous journey. It’s a seriously gorgeous clock:
Henry and a great many of his wives spent time at HCP. Jane Seymour gave birth at HCP to Henry’s only legitimate son (and died a few weeks later). After Henry died, his daughter Mary I lived there for a while, as did Elizabeth I. I would say the most famous Tudor residents of HCP, however, are the ghosts. More on that in a moment.
After the Tudor period, James I and Charles I (of the house of Stuart) spent time at HCP. The King James Bible was commissioned from HCP. Charles I was imprisoned there before he was beheaded in London.
During the English Civil War and the Restoration period afterward, the palace was largely ignored. It wasn’t until William and Mary came to the crown that it experienced renewed interest and new inhabitants. They hired the architect of the day, Christopher Wren (you may recognize him from such buildings as St. Paul’s Cathedral and Kensington Palace in London) to slowly strip away the Tudor style of the place and remake it to be something to rival Versailles across the channel. If you go to visit the palace now, they’ve done a lot to recreate the Tudor way of life, but much of the interior is clearly from the later period. I found some of the murals to be the most beautiful part of the palace:
After George II (mid-18th century), no monarch has resided at the palace. After the 1760s, the palace was divided into apartments for ‘grace-and-favour residents’. These were people (usually upper-class ladies) who had fallen on hard times, but had a reason to be of interest to the monarch. Often they were widows of war heroes or noblemen, or daughters of the entitled, or had worked in service to the crown for a long time. They were granted (by the monarch) a place to live at the palace, free of charge. Michael Faraday (the scientist) had apartments on the Green. This is something that still happens, though not at HCP.
Queen Victoria opened the palace to all visitors in the first few years of her reign (1830s).
If you want to visit, I definitely recommend it! The official website, here, has info on visits and tours, etc. Here are some of my top things to see:
The Tudor kitchen–warning to all vegetarians that it’s a bit meat-heavy, as one might expect. Everyone talks about what Henry VIII ate, and my own vision of him does tend to include a turkey leg in hand. The HCP historians have recreated the Tudor kitchen, from the tradesmen dropping off the ingredients, to cooks preparing the feasts for Henry and his (very large) court. If you’re wondering just how many animals they slaughtered to feed Henry and his entourage, there is a helpful (and slightly nauseating) infographic on the official site:
Anyway, the kitchen is really cool and I imagine if you’re a happy carnivore you’d enjoy it far more than me.
The great hall–another of the aspects of the palace that go straight back to the Tudor period. Not only is it an immaculate example of a ‘Great Hall’, it was also the biggest theatre in the period. Shakespeare and his men performed there for James I for one winter season.
The maze–One of the most famous aspects of HCP is the maze in the garden. Stuart discusses the maze in her book, describing the flocks of tourists who visited it in the 19th century, when its fame was just beginning. I’ve been through the maze and it wasn’t that challenging, but in the book people get lost in it so often that one of the characters is a man employed just to yell instructions to lost people inside.
Apparently, mazes were less complicated in the 18th and 19th centuries. The maze is off the main gardens, which are gorgeous. Unlike the Versailles gardens, which I thought were a bit too cultivated, the HCP gardens are a bit more natural. They’re still looked after, obviously, but they have more grass and less gravel. Symmetry was a huge part of the aesthetics of the 18th and early 19th centuries, and the gardens reflect that. I went in early Spring, and everything was impossibly green.
So, what of the ghosts? Not as active as Tower of London, HCP is still a home to many ghosts, if legend is to be believed. The fifth wife of Henry VIII, Catherine Howard, has been seen many times screaming and running along the Haunted Gallery. It is said that she escaped her guards and ran down this gallery to beg for her life from Henry. The guards caught her and dragged her (screaming) back. She was later executed.
Jane Seymour, another of Henry’s wives, is often seen gliding down some stairs in the palace headed toward her newborn son’s rooms.
There are a few other ghosts, but the one that honestly and truly gives me chills has the nickname Skeletor. I think it scares me most because it was CAUGHT ON CCTV in 2003. The video is on youtube, if you want to see. The palace offers ghost tours at night, but you have to book in advance.
So, enough about the palace. What about the book?
The book takes place in the 1890s. Mink (a nickname for an Indian princess) has just lost her father, the Maharaja, and is granted a grace-and-favour residence at HCP because of her status as a foreign royal.
Soon after she takes up residence at HCP and begins to meet the eccentric residents therein, one of them is murdered. The General, a corpulent and lascivious man disliked by all, is poisoned by arsenic. Mink’s maid, Pookie (an Indian woman as well) is the prime suspect, because of her suspect Pigeon Pies. If you don’t know (I didn’t), Pigeon Pies are not a euphemism. They are pies with pigeon meet in them, and usually feature a few pigeon legs sticking out of the top. Gross.
This doesn’t really function like a mystery. There is no sense of doom or impending disaster; everyone dislikes the General and no one is sorry to see him go. But because her maid is accused, Mink takes it upon herself to find out who actually did the crime. On her way, she discovers more and more about her oddball neighbors (the other grace-and-favour residents, a local doctor, a homeopath, and some of the palace staff).
Similar to her last book, Julia Stuart has created a lot of very strange and somewhat goofy characters, but doesn’t seem to be capable of taking any of them seriously. Everything is lighthearted, except for the insertion of a few paragraphs sprinkled throughout that seem to acknowledge the difficulty of life. I think she did a better job than with the last novel, but it was still too light. She also has a tendency to add so many characters, with such odd names, that even with the help of a character list in the front matter, I’m unable to keep them straight.
The story has a lot of good aspects: burgeoning love, grief, tragedy, secrets and mysteries. They all could be made into a really moving story, but it doesn’t work out as well as it could. I hoped I would enjoy this book more because it’s set in the Victorian era, but it still relies more on lightness and comedy than on truth and honesty. It’s too light for me. I find it unrealistic and therefore lacking in meaning.
The saving grace of both this book and her last one were the setting. Having the story take place in such an iconic and interesting location, one that many tourists have visited, adds some interest and grounds the story in a lovely world. I enjoyed spending time thinking about the life of a grace-and-favour resident, and loved the exotic aspects inherent to that sort of life.