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The smallest man

Frances Quinn, £ 14.99, 381 pages, Simon & Schuster, 2021

________ ________.

One of the most impressive scenes in The Smallest Man dramatizes the creation of a portrait of Van Dyck. In reality, Queen Henrietta Maria, the French princess who married Charles I in 1625, posed as a double comment on his height with her pet monkey and a courtier, Sir Jeffrey Hudson, a dwarf in their household nicknamed "Lord Minimus" and advancement in favor of the royal family. The novel uses the hours it took Van Dyck to complete his sketches as an opportunity for a touching conversation between the young queen and the dwarf – reinvented here as Nathaniel Davy, a young lad from the East Midlands, who was given by his father turned down if it turns out to be too short to help with work on the family farm.

Frances Quinn's debut novel looks like a modern Three Musketeers with its espionages, sieges, besieged queens, duels and warriors with a pen.

After this betrayal by his father, first haunted by greed and then by his beer, Nathaniel is brought to the court of Stuart by the Duke of Buckingham, whose strict trust unfortunately no more accords with his ability than his good looks and morals . For the next two decades at the palace, Nathaniel witnessed the dramatic end of Buckingham's career and then the beginning of the Civil War. Or, if the Hibernian pedant is permitted in it, the wars of the three kingdoms. While King Charles I doesn't quite emerge from The Smallest Man with the Anglican halo intact, the novel is refreshingly frank about the brutality that prevails on the parliamentary side. Frances Quinn's debut novel looks like a modern Three Musketeers with its espionages, sieges, besieged queens, duels and warriors with a pen. Like Dumas, Quinn populates her story with a mix of historical characters alongside the fictional ones, including Nathaniel Davy as the transmogrified Jeffrey Hudson. The latter is a decision that pays off by allowing Quinn to bring her eponymous character into moments in the story when the real Hudson was absent and, it is believed, to spare him some of the more soul-destroying horrors, the Hudson, who claimed endured he was repeatedly sexually assaulted by slave traders from North Africa when they captured his ship in 1644.

Quinn is particularly good at creating the superstition and suffering around dwarfism in the 17th century. By juxtaposing Nathaniel's personal struggles with the problems that land at the foot of the Stuarts throne, Quinn offers a novel with the right balance between heart and story. Reading it, The Smallest Man's potential for an entertaining television series is easy to see when adapted to preserve Quinn's portrayal of prejudice, piety, politics, and personalities.

It deserves special praise for its characterization of Henrietta Maria, who has too often been portrayed as a shrew. Even the more benevolent interpretations of her tend to portray her as gullible stupid, and even more so through her husband's indulgence. Here she is equally passionate in her anger and kindness, loyal, intelligent, if occasionally blinking, extravagant, generous and devoted. The marriage contract between Charles I and Henrietta Maria, the youngest sister of Louis XIII, had promised British Catholics greater tolerance. In the novel, as in reality, the queen struggles with it in the face of increasing hostility towards her and her fellow believers. The novel dramatizes historical events such as the Queen's controversial decision to publicly process and pray in Tyburn, the place where so many Catholics were executed under Charles' two immediate predecessors. Through the actions of a puritan mob, Nathaniel experiences firsthand the extent of urban sectarianism and makes him think of the attacks on the queen and later on the monarchy: "You will wonder how we did not see it coming. Looking back, I am amazed me. But even when the trouble started, no one could predict where it would lead. That the King and Queen might be at war with their own people? It was impossible and if anyone had said so I would have thought she was soft Head are. "

Quinn delivered the best kind of historical adventure.

There is a time jump after the first section of the novel, jumping from the year of Nathaniel's courtly debut to the eve of the royal family's escape from London, and this is the only moment the novel doesn't feel as light as it would he flow easily. Otherwise, Quinn delivered the best kind of historical adventure with well-planned and appreciated escapism for the stupidity of the lockdown.

Gareth Russell is the author of Young and Damned and Fair: The Life and Tragedy of Catherine Howard at the Court of Henry VIII (William Collins)

This article first appeared in the March 2021 issue of The Catholic Herald.

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