Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The Heretic's Wife.
On a gray and overcast day in March 1528, Kate Gough watches her brother stride across the room of their bookshop and feed Lutheran pamphlets into the fire. A short while later, two soldiers arrive to take John to the Lollard prison for smuggling illegal documents and books. While the clergy of St. Paulís walk down Paternoster Row, author Brenda Vantrease explores the theme of religious intolerance in a time when selling English translations of the Bible was considered an act of heresy.
The Heretic's Wife is the third novel of historical fiction author Brenda Vantrease, a Nashville native and former school librarian. Her debut novel, The Illuminator, was translated into fourteen languages and became a national bestseller. This novel begins with an offer from the members of the Fellowship of Christian Brethren to William Tyndale to help support their plan to paper England with cheap copies of English Bibles. Nothing is dearer to Tyndale than the chance to translate the New Testament into English, an opportunity the Bishop of London had refused him. Interestingly, this novel is not so much about this man with extraordinary courage and skills. Instead, it is about ordinary bookseller Kate Gough, who is left to carry on her brotherís work.
Kate is desperate for money and new inventory when she decides to meet a shipment of smuggled books. On her journey, she falls in love with young Oxford scholar John Frith, who has escaped from prison and that relentless hunter of heretics, Sir Thomas More. Kate and her husband settle in a merchant boardinghouse in Antwerp where John reads copy for Tyndale and writes polemics arguing against the doctrine of Purgatory.
Meanwhile, the womanizing Henry VIII is eager to divorce Katherine of Aragon. His father had forced him to marry his brotherís widow, a marriage he now considers unlawful. The pope refuses to grant the necessary dispensation, forcing Henry to defy the church he has always defended. When Parliament has stripped the clergy of its connection to Rome, John Frith decides to risk the wrath of his enemies to return to England to try to convince the king to let the Bible be licensed in England.
Kate, pregnant with their first child, fears Johnís decision is a great mistake. When no letter from him arrives, Captain Tom Lasser brings her news of his imprisonment. Although the king is moving the country toward reform, Bishop Stokesley and Thomas More have their spies everywhere.
Vantreaseís characterization of Thomas More departs from the popular view that he was a lowly and honest statesman. Instead, we see a man driven by his hatred of Martin Luther who is determined to carry out his duty to defend the kingís law and punish by means of torture those who would break it:
The heretics do not sleep; neither shall I. That devil Tyndale skips about the Continent, wreaking havoc as he goes. In the meantime I must provide an antidote for the poison flowing from his pen.
While Vantrease presents these characters and their stories as separate threads in different chapters, she eventually weaves them together, tying up all the loose ends to make a compelling human drama. It is a story with political and religious issues that are still relevant today: who defines heresy, and what is the difference between being a martyr and being a victim? The answers to these questions lead each character in The Heretic's Wife into a perilous labyrinth of conspiracy.
Vantreaseís storytelling is visceral, many scenes made believable by the realistic dialogue one would expect in the lavish courts of Henry VIII. The book offers an experience quite like reading the script of a playóonly with its literary form, it is immensely more gratifying. The author takes considerable risk by including actual historical personages and even more risk by ascribing villainous character flaws to beloved figures like Sir Thomas More. Although the romance between Kate and John Frith anchors the story, the setting and inclusion of historical characters raises this book to the level of a well-crafted piece of historical fiction.