“If a man’s not content in his soul it really doesn’t matter where he lives,” observes one character in Brenda Rickman Vantrease’s latest novel, The Heretic’s Wife. An idealistic and passionate sentiment, it’s an emotion typical of many of Vantrease’s finely wrought and multi-layered characters.
Vantrease is the author of two earlier novels: The Illuminator, set in England during the fourteenth century, and The Mercy Seller, set in fifteenth-century Prague. With The Heretic’s Wife, she brings her characters and readers into the relatively modern age of early sixteenth-century England. Henry VIII is king, and Vantrease’s main protagonist is the beautiful Kate Gough, a descendent of characters first introduced in The Illuminator.
A former Nashville teacher and school librarian, Vantrease once again returns to the theme of censorship and faith, this time ably conveying the intensity and danger of the Tudor period. Kate and her brother “grew up on stories of martyrdom and heroism,” and their father died in prison “because he stood fast for his beliefs”—in this case, daring to support those who “call for the Scriptures to be translated from Latin into English.” Today, a love for books isn’t so much a mark of zealotry as an excuse to spend too much money in bookstores; in the historical world which Vantrease so successfully recreates, however, it’s cause for criminal prosecution and public burning.
Kate and her brother run a bookshop and press. “It is not a good time to be a printer in England,” she says. “We can print nothing that is not licensed by the king, and he will never grant a license to the kind of books that have been our stock-in-trade”—damning heretical works such as English-language Bibles translated from the Latin (“so that every man could discern the truth for himself”), and treatises and pamphlets espousing the ideas of Martin Luther. In the eyes of the powerful lawyer, accomplished scholar, and “heretic hunter” Sir Thomas More, too many booksellers are radicals, willing to spread incendiary ideas, and “wherever the Bible is read in the vernacular, ignorant peasants misunderstand its lessons. It incites them to murderous rebellion.”
The Protestant Reformation is at hand, but these characters have been “engaged in the struggle for liberty” for well over two hundred years. When Kate’s brother is jailed, she faces a choice: either abandon the cause or proceed forward on faith alone. A “brilliant young scholar” and strident Lutheran named John Frith courts her, but Kate is overwhelmed; a marriage to John would mean even more risk. Nevertheless, he is as devoted in his love for her as he is ardent in his beliefs. “We are free to make our own choices,” he says. “Kings and bishops shall not forever determine the fate of free men.”
Vantrease is a master of the intricacies of good historical fiction. Her narratives are deftly woven—the history accurate yet finely detailed, the storytelling layered with depth and emotion (and with healthy dose of romance and sex thrown in). As she has before, Vantrease presents a range of characters, and in The Heretic’s Wife, she takes on their multiple points of view. In addition to Kate, her brother, and John, there are the bigwigs of history: Henry VIII is large (both in girth and personality) and spoiled, and he’s intent on securing from Rome an annulment of his marriage to Katherine of Aragón on grounds of incest as she was his brother’s wife first. Anne Boleyn, Henry’s intended second wife and a secret Lutheran sympathizer, is constantly managing her way through the treacheries of court. Then there’s Sir Thomas More, one of Vantrease’s more vividly rendered characters. His rigid, religious devotion and sinisterly executed political maneuverings prove that the modern-day zealot/blowhard is not so modern after all. As a “man more devoted to the old faith than any cleric,” More wears a hair shirt and, every Friday following mass, whips and flagellates himself in Catholic penance. A complicated man, he believes in educating his daughters to be intelligent and accomplished women, yet he also relentlessly pursues (then tortures and imprisons) the many “‘sons of iniquity’ who [are] spreading Luther’s poison across England.” Cardinals and bishops, servants and merchants, ship captains and noble-born ladies and lords: it’s a marvel of authorial engineering that Vantrease can keep so many characters separate while she is at the same time weaving together their stories into such a comprehensive and complex whole.
There’s an elegance to Vantrease’s writing, a sense of great respect for the history she explores, coupled with a determined, truth-seeking creativity. In The Heretic’s Wife, she renders for her readers a world as fully realized and alive as it is for the characters—both real and imagined—of whom she writes. Early in the novel, Kate and her brother argue: “A wise man ought to know who to pick a fight with,” Kate says. Her brother replies, “Sometimes we don’t get to choose our fights….Sometimes they are chosen for us.” So superbly has she executed these novels exploring faith and fear and human nature, it seems Brenda Vantrease was almost chosen to write them.
Brenda Vantrease will appear at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Nashville on April 15 at 7 p.m.