HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘The Woman in the Shadows’ by Carol McGrath

The powerful, evocative new novel by the critically acclaimed author of The Handfasted Wife, The Woman in the Shadows presents the rise of Thomas Cromwell, Tudor England’s most powerful statesman, through the eyes of his wife Elizabeth. When beautiful cloth merchant’s daughter Elizabeth Williams is widowed at the age of twenty-two, she is determined to make herself a success in the business she has learned from her father. But there are those who oppose a woman making her own way in the world, and soon Elizabeth realises she may have some powerful enemies – enemies who also know the truth about her late husband… Security – and happiness – comes when Elizabeth is introduced to kindly, ambitious merchant turned lawyer, Thomas Cromwell. Their marriage is one based on mutual love and respect…but it isn’t always easy being the wife of an influential, headstrong man in Henry VIII’s London. The city is filled with ruthless people and strange delights – and Elizabeth realises she must adjust to the life she has chosen…or risk losing everything.

cover and blurb via amazon

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Thomas Cromwell is one man I have read from all angles. So I jumped at the chance to read a book about his first wife, out at the same time as my own Cromwell novel, which I set right after his wife’s death. It was the easy read I was looking for.

Elizabeth Cromwell was already a widow when she met Thomas Cromwell. With a father and husband working as merchants, Elizabeth is no fool when she comes across Cromwell. Elizabeth and Cromwell were a business match, but one also of mutual… like, maybe? Love never felt present. Affection? Kindness? Rather than focusing on what Cromwell would have been like in his earlier years, the book is written entirely from Elizabeth’s personal view, and goes into tiny detail on life for Elizabeth, such as birthing rituals of the time and the reality of marriage.

Life as a merchant’s wife is also written in tiny detail, and Elizabeth spares the reader no detail on what it was like for a woman in trade, as well as every every detail on her knowledge in wool products.

Elizabeth had to sit through adultery, arson, suitors and unfaithful staff. But Elizabeth is a woman of her time, subservient in every way and strong enough to pull through anything life gives her – after all, she had no other choice. So many novels paint Tudor women as feminists modern-day style, but Elizabeth is a servant-wife, a religious woman who had to adhere to the suffocating reality she lived in, and never questions anything. Being able to find a female character who adheres to those traits can be hard to find in any Tudor-era book, so kudos to the author.

Elizabeth was part of Cromwell’s lesser known time, one where he worked for himself and Thomas Wolsey, a far more quiet period. Elizabeth knows nothing of politics, nor seems interested in anything her husband hopes to reach for. The book is heavy on the more simple life of people in the time period, as opposed to the glamour of the court, which has been written over and over (hell, I write it myself). King Henry doesn’t matter in Elizabeth’s mind, Anne Boleyn doesn’t matter.

The book totally lives up to its name; Elizabeth was a woman in the shadows. She is just another wife of just another merchant. Cromwell hasn’t yet become the man he is destined to be, and Elizabeth is a woman trapped within the limits of her time and gender. If you love Tudor drama, this is not the book for you, but if you want a new angle on a well-used time period, then you have hit the jackpot. I must admit the ending left me feeling a bit flat and deflated, but everyone knows the sad fate of Elizabeth, dead (probably) in her thirties of sweating sickness. Elizabeth achieved no greatness and lived in the shadow of a man who also lived in the shadows of the time.

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