The Crown, set in 16th century England, follows a young nun as she tries to save her family, her priory and her faith, armed primarily with a stubborn streak and a good mind. There are a number of pleasures to reading this book.
One is watching the development of Joanna. When we meet her, we are struck by her naïveté and unpreparedness for the world that she has thrust herself into, but also by her determination and intelligence. She’s one of those rare people who gain a clearer, more cynical understanding of the world without loosing her principles and religious devotion (but allowing them to grow more complex). Her choices don’t follow a predictable pattern. She’s more subtly portrayed than I would have guessed at the outset. Towards the end, characters sometimes heap more praise on Joanna than feels believable—she becomes almost a 16th century superwoman—but for the most part she’s persuasively done. Her limitations and strengths fit within the scope of a well-educated noblewoman who has taken religious vows.
Another delight of reading The Crown lies in its web of intrigue, politics and mysticism. Bilyeau has built a nonstop plot that keeps bringing you to new settings, new crises, and new sides of characters you thought you understood. The Crown reads as a thriller set within the 16th century—hard to put down, full of action. Generally you wouldn’t guess that a Dominican Priory would be so intense, but even the extended portion of the book set there twists with ever rising suspense. Much of the plot arises out of the politics of Henry the Eighth’s court and the upheavals following his split with the Catholic Church. Katherine’s divorce, the Boleyns, Cromwell, the Bishop of Winchester—familiar characters from history take part but not in their stereotypical ways. Added to these pages from history, Bilyeau interweaves a more mystical thread involving the crown of the title—King Athelstan’s crown, the first king of England. Powers beyond human understanding may or may not lie in this crown, but the actual crown is counterpointed against the mystical power of individuals’ beliefs. What sort of miracles are possible and why? Mixed into this theme are characters such as Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, who proclaim deeply held beliefs but who may have participated in pragmatic power plays to such an extent that their doctrines are only a screen behind which they have lost themselves. Deciphering who is trustworthy is a constant challenge in this book both for Joanna and for the reader.
I also enjoyed the 16th century life Bilyeau paints. Through Joanna we understand the quiet value of the life these cloistered women chose and the small graces of community she feels. We also see, smell, and hear castles and manor houses, lowly inns, hovels, and the Tower of London.
The book portrays great cruelty and viciousness, but the overarching sensibility is one of hope and a clear-eyed optimism even in the face of all that tries to crush the human soul. It’s both a fun, fast read you can’t put down and an insightful read about spirituality and endurance.