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The Queen’s Lender by Jean Findlay

January 17th, 2022

The Queen’s Lender by Jean Findlay

Historical fiction set in the time of James VI and I

Reviewed by David Garyan

The Review

Jean Findlay’s The Queen’s Lender is a novel set in history, but fortunately for the lover of fiction, the book doesn’t read like a historical text. In fact, events unfold themselves in the most effortless way—as if the reader is witnessing a play instead of reading silent words. Findlay’s characters are serious, like King James; extravagant, like Queen Anne; loyal and generous, like the protagonist George Heriot; cunning and calculating, like Lady Marjorie; and quite often also funny, like The Fool. In other words, these characters are the real deal, and Lady Marjorie seems so authentic that readers will be surprised to find out she’s, in fact, Findlay’s invention, but only in the sense that it’s more probable for individuals with Marjorie’s temperament to have existed at court, rather than not; in this way, she is real, meaning the novel reads like good fiction should—it’s measured yet assertive, intellectually stimulating yet entertaining, and best of all funny without being grotesquely comical.

From the very beginning, readers find themselves engrossed in the world of George Heriot: He’s Queen Anna’s favorite jewel maker, and in time becomes not only her confidante, but also the royal family’s money lender—hence the title of the book. Although readers will benefit from acquainting themselves beforehand with Elizabethan and Jacobean England, the novel can certainly be read without a minor historical background. Through her use of plot, dialogue, setting, and description, Findlay is able to situate the reader—and this very comfortably—right into the main action.

The most wonderful thing about this book is that readers may not have intended to think historically, but they will invariably make discoveries, simply through the pleasure of reading the book alone. At the same time, those already quite familiar with the history of James VI of Scotland and I of England, will see things in a new light, precisely because of Findlay’s good sense to tell this story from the perspective of George Heriot—an asymmetrical but aesthetically appealing choice; and so, the best praise one can bestow on Findlay’s novel is that it’s like discovering the story of Beowulf through the eyes of Grendel, in the sense that while figures like James, Anna, Shakespeare, and Ben Johnson might already be very familiar to most, their story, like Beowulf’s, is rarely, if at all, told from a perspective other than their own. By using George Heriot as the eyes and ears of the court, Findlay uses her skills as a novelist to offer precisely this “new” perspective on a set of “familiar” historical events. In other words, what John Gardner did for Beowulf, Findlay has done for one of the most fascinating historical periods of the UK.

The novel begins so in Edinburgh, 1593: “A pregnant woman is a fragile being, and George has two on his hands. His wife who keeps reminding him she is his queen and his Queen who is in fact his queen.” From this sentence alone, readers can already get a small glimpse of Findlay’s witty, yet straightforward prose style. As the plot progresses, we find ourselves in a domain of shifting alliances, the birth and death of children, along with elation and grief; in this respect it’s also important to mention that while Findlay is leading us through a world inhabited mostly by the aristocracy and gentry, the jubilations and troubles we encounter in this milieu very much resemble our own. The concern, for instance, many of us have faced—to remain safely at home or leave our places of comfort in search of greater opportunity—isn’t an existential burden restricted to the realm of the upper-class. It’s a question many of us will face at some point in our own lives. George Heriot now has to decide whether he will follow his king to London, and thereby become the official jeweler of the court, or remain in Edinburgh, the city he loves and cherishes.

As we read on, a world much like our own reveals itself, full of divisions, rivalries, loyalty, and betrayal. In empires divided by religious affiliation, what will King James do? He can give in to the charms of his Bohemian ambassador and support a Protestant faction in a land ruled by the Hapsburgs, who are, in fact, supported by Spain—not only a Catholic country but also an ally to James. He can also remain loyal to Spain, but with this loyalty he will lose the support of not only the admired Bohemian ambassador, but also the entire Protest faction in that land, which he represents. While many of us will never have to undertake decisions that could influence the fate of entire nations, the existential burden of having to make difficult choices, where competing interests make it impossible not to offend those loyal to us, is something utterly and totally a part of our lives.

Findlay, as a historically aware novelist, has managed to capture the essence of a fascinating moment in time, but she has also done more than that: She has taken this history and presented it in such a way that the people within it could be individuals of our own time—characters we’ve met ourselves. Take, for example, Lady Marjorie’s son. He’s an aristocrat, but one whose supposedly excellent breeding won’t allow for the politeness to take “no” for an answer. He attempts to sell George Heriot a horse the way a used car dealer won’t stop haggling a “customer” who has accidentally wandered onto the lot. Though Heriot says he does not want “nor need a horse,” the good aristocrat won’t quit until he receives a little compensation for the animal which that good jeweler once hired from the nobleman’s father. While we, ourselves, may not have been sold horses, and surely not that way, readers will nevertheless recognize the very same traits which cause our own contemporaries to sell us something with the same haughtiness—most likely a different, more efficient mode of transportation, such as the aforementioned car.

And then there are characters like Lord Lennox and Lord Douglas—trendsetters, but not their own; they follow the trends of the most important people. When the former hears about “the buttons recently designed for the King’s jacket,” he naturally “wants some for himself,” naturally to wear them “only the day after the King wears them in public,” out of courtesy, of course; the latter meanwhile, also “wants buttons like the King’s,” but this time the trend has changed, and it has become “amethyst and gold.” Heriot, of course, like a good businessman, charges everyone upfront, except the royal family. It’s, hence, the seemingly “minor” situations in the novel which show us a world much like our own—a world full of greed, conformism, nepotism, but also of joy, family, and loyalty.

Findlay’s attention to detail is what really allows the story to come alive within the grand scheme of the history she situates her work in. Everything in this novel, as the late Harold Pinter used to say about good drama, has been “cut to the bone.” There’s no superfluous description or tedious dialogue that would make the reader stop and ask: Why? What purpose does this serve in helping me understand the larger aspects of the work? Her previous experience of working in theater is most likely what allowed Findlay to approach her fiction audience with a theater mentality. Just like one cannot expect someone to endure a tedious performance lasting one or two hours, it’s even more unreasonable to expect such patience when the effort is more solitary and lasts some days. Suffice it to say, with this novel Findlay has certainly earned the reader’s days.


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