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The Woman in the Shadows: Tudor England through the eyes of an influential woman Paperback – 9 Aug 2017
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An engaging novel that invites us to step into the intimate world of Thomas Cromwell, as seen through the eyes of his wife Elizabeth' --Anne O'Brien
A delicate and detailed portrayal, absolutely beautifully done. Captivating. --Suzannah Dunn
A delicious frisson of danger slithers through every page of the book. Enthralling. --Karen Maitland
About the Author
Carol McGrath taught History and English for many years in both the state and private sectors. She left teaching to work on a MA in Creative Writing from Queens University Belfast, then an MPhil in English at Royal Holloway, London, where she developed her expertise on the Middle Ages. The idea to tell the story about the death of King Harold told from the viewpoint of his common law wife, Edith Swan-Neck, first came to her on a visit to Bayeux with the Launton/Gavray Twinning Society, which she chaired. Carol is married with two children and runs a business with her husband. She also reviews books for the Historical Novels Review.
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Elizabeth Williams, a widow who has inherited her husband’s cloth business, meets Thomas Cromwell, at her late husband’s funeral. She remembers him as a childhood friend, and from there a sturdy marriage alliance is begun. Like most marriages of the time, it is based on sound business sense as well as affection.We get a picture of an ambitious and somewhat closed man, one with latent power, who will later rise in society to be sa great player at the court of Henry VIII. But all this is to come, and The Woman in the Shadows is a book that shows us another side of Thomas Cromwell, that of husband and provider. Through Elizabeth Cromwell’s eyes the author provides us with fly-on-the-wall detail of Tudor living, and the minutiae of the common rituals associated with birth, marriage and death, all within a living context. We are privy to everything about Elizabeth’s cloth business from monastic sheep breeding to garment, including the sumptuary laws against certain classes wearing certain colours, and the difficulties that a woman at this time faces in trade.
The book is laced with subtle tension. Elizabeth fights off dangers from rivals in the business, unfaithful servants, an unwanted suitor and an arson attack, and she almost buckles under the discovery of her husband’s affair. However, the portrait we are left with, is one of a strong and capable woman, able to deal maturely with life’s trials. At no time does Elizabeth Cromwell seem like a modern woman in Tudor clothing – she retains her religion, and her position is always subordinate to her husband. Her life is one where she does not question her husband’s authority.
McGrath shows us the world of women and their servants. After one disaster, her mother urges Elizabeth to come home, but Elizabeth is quite clear that to do that would be to abandon her duty. As well as tender observations of female domestic life, there are also wonderful descriptions of gardens, churches, and the Augustinian Friary of Austin Friars where the Cromwells lived.
'Some afternoons, as I listen to them play, I wish that time would stand still for us all. I wish we were a moment captured in a painting and that the moment will last forever.’
Carol McGrath has succeeded in doing exactly that. Through her words, the life of Elizabeth Cromwell has truly been brought out of the shadows.
The result is a vivid immersion into the everyday life of the English merchant class in London and the domestic life of a Tudor woman. Elizabeth Cromwell is very much her own woman, refusing to be pushed around by her father, or re-married to a man she doesn't want after the death of her first husband – and it would have taken a feisty woman to hold the heart of a man like Cromwell and not be cowed by him.Unusually for her times (although permitted for widows) she launches herself into the cloth trade – not in a piecemeal manner but with a true entrepreneurial spirit.
McGrath is at her best describing the minor details of daily life – the smells of the city, the taste of the food and wine, the look and feel of the textiles Elizabeth trades in. There are unusual insights too into the cloth trade - the sumptuary laws that dictated the colour and texture of fabrics one was permitted to wear based on class, the manner of trading, the inspectors who presided over it, the petty rivalries between merchants. The dependence of families such as the Cromwells on their servants is also brought to life – rather than the distant dependents of later periods, these Tudor servants are almost part of Elizabeth's family and she has close attachments to them. Woven through all this are glimpses into the distant goings on at court, based on word of mouth, underpinned by Elizabeth's growing and prescient fears for her husband as he manoeuvres himself ever closer to the king.
All in all a well-researched and fascinating portrait of everyday life in Tudor England through the lens of a woman.
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