Replete with detail, this story is set in sixteenth century England in the middle of the tug of war between Henry VIII’s Catholic and Protestant heirs. Many of London’s Jews had escaped the Spanish Inquisition as had Hannah Verde and her father who now ran a book shop not far from the royal court in London. Their books on alchemy were as closely guarded as the truth about their Jewish heritage. Hannah, although betrothed to a fellow Jew, hid her femininity beneath the breeches and the boots of a boy apprentice. However, she could not hide what she saw in the spirit- her “sight” came unbidden and unwanted like the time she saw the angel, Uriel, accompanying the alchemist, John Dee, on a visit to her father’s shop. To make her ‘gift’ available to John Dee and the other politicians who served the Protestants, she was ‘begged for a fool’ to serve, first the dying boy, King Edward, and then his sisters Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. The setting is the English court but the story is about the young Jewish girl growing up in the midst of the intrigue, ceremony, conflict and lasciviousness of the court without betraying her roots or her family.
Hannah, the holy fool, becomes the confidante of both the rival queen sisters as she carries messages between them, still dressed in breeches: this time, made of the bright yellow, that was reserved for the livery of the court’s fools.
Her mentor and protector was the older fool, Will Somers, whose foolery was a type of wisdom indeed. Hannah resists her fiance’s suit, falls in ‘puppy’ love with a lord who is a practiced seducer of women, and remains fiercely loyal to both queens without being disloyal to either. Her misadventures take her to the Tower, across the channel to Calais, and back to London again. By the end of the story, Mary is dying; Calais has been lost; Elizabeth is about to regain England for the Protestants; and Hannah has made peace with herself, her Jewish heritage and with her husband.
Gregory adds a fascinating texture to the story with her background details like when the maids line a bathtub with a sheet to prevent the queen from getting splinters. It is an authentically elaborate setting for Hannah’s more familiar tale of awakening adolescent sexuality and her search for identity in a time and a place which does not allow for much individuality. The book is well written, a bit too sensual perhaps, but believable and satisfying.