The Smallest Man – Frances Quinn
The Smallest Man is a fascinating story of an unusual man during the 17th-century reign of King Charles I of England. The religious conflict in Europe seemed focused on England and Charles was the King who contributed to England’s descent into civil war. The resulting Interregnum years when Parliament ruled under Oliver Cromwell and the restoration of Charles II, is one of the most tumultuous periods in English history. The fictional narrative plays on the backdrop of King Charles I, his young Queen Henrietta Maria and many characters of the royal court. The precarious nature of life and how it was typically exploited against the poor was wonderfully captured and it reminded me of the beginning of Pillars of the Earth.
The challenge for Frances Quinn was to decide whether the novel focused on the historical correctness of the events that defined the period or provide scope for the freedom to write an entertaining and creative story around a specific character. Frances Quinn’s decision to creatively use Jeffery Hudson as the protagonist to tell a story of the period with freedom from historical accuracy was a good call. To that end, she changed the name of the Queen’s Dwarf to Nathanial (Nat) Davy and gave him a voice and purpose that is totally imaginary.
Queen Henrietta Maria with Sir Jeffrey Hudson (1633) by Anthony van Dyck
At only eighteen inches tall when he was a child and young man, Nat was sold by his father to the Duke of Buckingham. The duke in return offered Nat as a curiosity, a ‘rarity of nature’, to the Queen. The distress it caused Nat’s mother to part with her son in that manner was heart-breaking and yet the unpleasant practice of selling children was all part of daily life. Nat was delivered to the Queen inside a pie to facilitate a surprise, which was actually true. It soon became apparent to Nat that the Queen was in a similar position, being wagered through marriage and living away from her family in an unfriendly environment.
“Queen Henrietta Maria was still only a girl, barely five years older than I was. The youngest daughter of the King of France, she’d been sent away from her home and family to marry a man she’d never met, who didn’t like her much, and she had the Duke of Buckingham stirring the pot to make sure it stayed that way.”
The pressure the Queen received from all sides was very well highlighted and it enabled a strong bond between Henrietta and Nat – two similar souls unsure of their destiny. As part of the many characters resident at the royal court, Nat made an unfortunate enemy in Charles Crofts, which provides speculation and the weave of fiction with imaginatively ordered fact. Close friendships were developed with Jeremiah as an older mentor, and Henry and Arabella, of similar age, which became the central theme of the second half of the novel. As feelings and vulnerabilities grew, Nat often wondered what chance a dwarf could have of finding love with a normal beautiful woman. Perhaps to see Arabella marry Henry would at least keep them close. There are a lot of uncertainties, misunderstandings and close encounters that tantalisingly evade the three friends.
As a personal criticism, the uncommitted love story played a little too long for me and the twists that kept relationships colliding with a confusion of true intentions dominated a lot of the story in the second half of the book. This is an aspect that may please many other readers. The rush of events towards closure at the end felt a little abrupt and it could have been extended.
I would recommend reading this book to those that enjoy historical events and something unique brought through from history. The flexibility of relationships and freedom to explore the attraction that goes beyond the physical appearance is served very well in this story. I would like to thank Simon & Schuster UK and NetGalley for providing me with a free ARC copy in return for an honest review.