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Posted on 13 Mar 2024 in Fiction |

TRACY RYAN The Queen’s Apprenticeship. Reviewed by Ann Skea

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Tracy Ryan’s latest novel evokes the social divisions of sixteenth-century France and the stories of two independent-minded women.

In The Queen’s Apprenticeship, Tracy Ryan tells the stories of two women. One, Jehane/Josse, the daughter of a journeyman printer who died in a fire when she was 13, is fictional. The other, Marguerite of Angoulême, is a noblewoman who, after her second marriage in 1527, became Queen of Navarre, and was one of the most powerful and admired women in the history of France.

Jehane/Josse tells her own story, from the time of her birth in Lyon ‘in the same year the new king was crowned, François, first of that name, by the Grace of God Most Christian King of France’, to the moment she is requested to write it by Queen Marguerite:

Now I tell that story, as I never thought I would need to. My story is real: only you may judge whether it is also true. If I offend, it’s from seeking not to please but to give account, with hope of forbearance.

Jehane goes on to tell how, in the course of a few turbulent, adventurous and dangerous years, she came to change her name and clothes and live as a young man – Josse; and how her path eventually crossed that of Queen Marguerite.

Marguerite’s story, too, begins with her birth: she is the eldest child of high-born Louise of Savoy and Charles, Count of Angoulême. Louise, widowed at the age of 19, is determined that her son, Marguerite’s younger brother, François, will become king of France, but his succession to the throne depends on King Louis XII dying without an heir. Louise will stop at nothing to achieve her goal, and her fiercely ambitious presence shapes Marguerite’s early life.

Marguerite, who is highly intelligent, well educated, and well schooled in court negotiations and diplomacy, avoids marriage to the elderly Spanish king, to the English Tudor king, Henry VII (‘an old man of 48’), and to his sons – Arthur and his younger brother, Henry (who would become King Henry VIII). Eventually, however, she is forced into marriage with Charles, Duke of Alençon:

I can see the purpose of this, and I am to be – to be traded as the solution to a lawsuit.

‘The king wishes only peace and goodwill between his house and the Alençon faction,’ Madame pointed out, ‘and to be the instrument of peace is surely a great calling.’

Instrument, thinks Marguerite, is the right word: she is ‘a piece of equipment’ to be ‘played upon’ for sounds ‘of their choosing’. She is already adept at dissembling, ‘acting a part’, and doing what is required of her, but she is a strong character and is determined to ‘still be myself’. As she writes many years later in the ‘spicy, witty, outrageous tales’ of her Heptaméron, which was published posthumously in 1558:

We [women] cover up our devil with the loveliest angel we can find. And under that cover, before we are recognised, we receive many favours.

Charles turns out to be mild, unintelligent and uninterested in sex with a woman, beyond a few brief attempts at what is necessary for the possible creation of an heir. Marguerite remains childless and, left to her own devices, she studies, writes poetry and plays and, more dangerously, she involves herself in the religious debates of the times, befriending Calvin and struggling to reconcile her Catholicity with the reformation of the Church sought by such prominent figures as Erasmus and Luther.

When her brother is enthroned as King Francois I, Marguerite and Louise become his most important advisors and negotiators. As sister of the king, Marguerite meets many of the most prominent figures of the time, including Henry Tudor, king of England; and, curiously, one of her court ladies is a young woman called Ann Boullon, later known as Anne Boleyn, who would eventually be married to this king.

Alongside King François, Marguerite and Louise attend all the important court events, especially those where diplomatic negotiations are essential. An extract from Louise’s journal notes that:

On the 7th of June 1520, which was the Corpus Christi feast day, around six, seven or eight after midday, my son and the king of England met in the said king of England’s tent, near Guînes.

This meeting became known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold, and Marguerite marvels at ‘this artificial valley of gold’ – clothes, tents, ‘a golden city’, everything ‘glinting in the sunshine’. There, too, is the king’s man, Guillaume Gouffier, Lord of Bonnivet, with whom, in Tracy Ryan’s account, Marguerite fought when he made a bizarre attempt to rape her. Ryan lifts that story from Marguerite’s popular Heptaméron, suggesting that it was written as the result of experience.

Chapters on Marguerite’s life, until the time she became Queen of Navarre, are interwoven with Jehane’s accounts of her own often dangerous life, from the time her mother remarries and she is forced to flee from a predatory stepbrother and adopt the identity of a young man named Josse, to her eventual, strange, imprisonment in Marguerite’s castle.

Josse, like Marguerite, is intelligent and resourceful. She longs to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a printer, in spite of being a woman, so she teaches herself to read and write. In the account of her life she writes for Marguerite, she tells of her struggles to survive, her wanderings, her friendships, and her determination to return to Lyon, where her father had worked, and find work herself. She writes of the plague that ravaged the country and disrupted the printing trades, and of the religious disturbances that threaten the lives of printers and bring her to Marguerite’s castle.

Those who wrote, printed and distributed religious texts challenging the established Catholic teachings were accused of anti-Catholicism and heresy. Marguerite, whose interest in the reformation of the Church endangers her, has her kingly brother and his advisors to protect her, but the young printer Marin, with whom Josse has fallen in love, has no such protection:

Bartholémy raised an eyebrow at him. ‘So, you are one of those who reads the Scriptures in our own French, then, despite the heresy bans?’

Marin did not react but continued to pack away the work materials. After some moments he said, ‘Do you think, Bartholémy, that truth is confined to one difficult language and that only the learned may approach it? Or does God put us all on this earth together to live and understand our lives?’

‘Too high for me to decide on. I know my place – but then I’m no bishop’s son. All I fear is, Master Marin, I can smell the smoke already curling around your fancy square-toe shoes!’

The lives of Josse and Marguerite could not be more different but both defy the expectations that women should not be independent and outspoken, and should not interest themselves in political or religious affairs. Marguerite was clearly a remarkable woman, known to have been learned, compassionate and loved by the ordinary people of France. Young Jehane/Josse, although fictitious, is equally remarkable for her determination, her loving nature and her endurance.

Tracy Ryan brings these women and their lives vividly to life. She sticks closely to historical facts; uses fragments from Louise’s journals to set the historical context (it is not clear if these are her own translations or are imagined); and quotes from Marguerite’s own writings and those of Marguerite’s favourite poet, Clément Marot, who, for a time, was attached to her suite at the court of the king. As the first in a proposed series of three novels about the Queen of Navarre, this is an intriguing and promising start.

Tracy Ryan The Queen’s Apprenticeship Transit Lounge 2023 PB 376pp $32.99

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages ( are archived by the British Library.

You can buy The Queen’s Apprenticeship from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

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