Frances Quinn, £14.99, 381 pages, Simon & Schuster, 2021
One of the most affecting scenes in The Smallest Man dramatises the creation of a portrait by Van Dyck. In reality, Queen Henrietta Maria, the French princess who married Charles I in 1625, posed along with her pet monkey and a courtier, Sir Jeffrey Hudson, a dwarf in her household who received the nickname “Lord Minimus”, as twin commentary on his height and ascent in the Royal Family’s favour. The novel uses the hours it took Van Dyck to complete his sketches as an opportunity for a touching conversation between the young Queen and the dwarf – here re-imagined as Nathaniel Davy, a young lad from the East Midlands who is rejected by his father when he proves too short to help with labour on the family farm.
With its espionage, sieges, beleaguered queens, duels and plume-toting warriors, Frances Quinn’s debut novel has the air of a modern Three Musketeers.
After this betrayal by his father, who is pickled first by his greed and then by his ale, Nathaniel is brought to the Stuart court by the Duke of Buckingham, whose strident confidence is unfortunately no more matched by his ability than his good looks are by his morality. Over the next two decades in the palace, Nathaniel witnesses first the dramatic end to Buckingham’s career and then the dawn of the civil war. Or, if the Hibernian pedant within may be permitted, the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. While King Charles I does not quite emerge from The Smallest Man with Anglican halo intact, the novel is refreshingly frank about the brutality prevalent on the parliamentarian side. With its espionage, sieges, beleaguered queens, duels and plume-toting warriors, Frances Quinn’s debut novel has the air of a modern Three Musketeers. Like Dumas, Quinn populates her story with a mixture of historical figures alongside the fictional, chief among the latter being Nathaniel Davy as the transmogrified Jeffrey Hudson. The latter is a decision which pays dividends by allowing Quinn to take her eponymous character to moments in history from which the real Hudson was absent and also, one suspects, to spare him some of the more soul-crushing horrors endured by Hudson, who claimed he was repeatedly sexually assaulted by slave traders from north Africa when they captured his ship in 1644.
Quinn is particularly good at evoking the superstition and corresponding sorrow around dwarfism in the 17th century. By juxtaposing Nathaniel’s personal struggles with the troubles landing at the foot of the Stuarts’ throne, Quinn offers a novel with the right balance of heart and history. Reading it, it is easy to see The Smallest Man’s potential for an enjoyable television series, if it is adapted with an eye to maintaining Quinn’s depiction of prejudice, piety, politics and personalities.
It deserves particular praise for its characterisation of Henrietta Maria, who has too often been presented as a bigoted shrew. Even the more charitable interpretations of her tend to portray her as gullibly stupid and rendered even more so by the indulgence of her husband. Here, she is equally passionate in her rages and her kindness, loyal, intelligent if occasionally blinkered, extravagant, generous and devoted. The marriage contract between Charles I and Henrietta Maria, Louis XIII’s youngest sister, had promised greater toleration for British Catholics. In the novel, as in reality, the Queen struggles with this in the face of mounting hostility towards her and her co-religionists. The novel dramatises historical incidents like the Queen’s controversial decision to publicly process and pray at Tyburn, the site of so many Catholics’ executions under Charles’s two immediate predecessors. Through the actions of a Puritan mob, Nathaniel experiences first-hand the extent of urban sectarianism, prompting him to think of the attacks on the queen and later the monarchy, “You’ll wonder how we didn’t see it coming. Looking back, I wonder myself. But even when the trouble started, no one could have predicted where it was going. That the king and queen could end up at war with their own people? It was impossible and, if anyone had said it, I’d have thought they were soft in the head.”
Quinn has delivered the best kind of historical adventure.
There is a time-jump after the novel’s first section, leaping from the year of Nathaniel’s courtly debut to the eve of the royal family’s flight from London, and that is the one moment where the novel does not feel like it flows easily. Otherwise, Quinn has delivered the best kind of historical adventure with well plotted, and appreciated, escapism for the dolorousness of lockdown.