Historical Fiction

The Smallest Man – Frances Quinn

on
May 23, 2020
The Smallest Man Book Cover The Smallest Man
Frances Quinn
Historical Fiction
Orion
February 6, 2020
Kindle
384

When should my story begin? Not when I was born, a butcher's son, in a tiny cottage just like all the other tiny cottages in Oakham. Who'd have thought then that I'd ever have much of a story to tell? Perhaps it starts when people began to nudge each other and stare as I walked with my mother to market, or the first time someone whispered that we were cursed. But I didn't know then. No, I think my story begins on the day of the Oakham Fair, in the year of 1625. When I was ten years old and I found out what I was. Nat Davy is a dwarf. He is 10 years old, and all he wants is to be normal. After narrowly escaping being sold to a freak show by his father, Nat is presented to Queen Henrietta Maria - in a pie. She's 15, trapped in a loveless marriage to King Charles I, and desperately homesick. Nat becomes a friend to the woman who'll become the power behind the throne and trigger the Civil War, but in the eyes of the world he's still a pet, a doll to be dressed up and shown off. Nat longs to ride and hunt like the other boys at court. The real boys. But he will never be accepted. Loosely based on a true story, this epic tale spans 20 years; during which the war begins, Nat and the queen go on the run, Nat saves the queen's life, falls in love with the most beautiful girl at court, kills a man, is kidnapped by pirates and sold to a harem in Morocco. Told from his unique perspective as the smallest man in England, with the clever and engaging voice of a boy turned man yearning for acceptance, this story takes us on an unforgettable journey. He's England's smallest man, but his story is anything but small.

Distinctiveness

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.

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. The rush of events towards the end felt abrupt and cut too short. I would recommend reading this book.

I would like to thank Simon & Schuster UK and NetGalley for providing me with a free ARC copy in return for an honest review.

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Peter Donnelly
Ireland

Founder of The Reading Desk, supporting readers, authors, publishers and book industry. Top Reviewer on Amazon, Goodreads, and NetGalley peter@thereadingdesk.com

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