‘I want you to remember something, Nat. You’re small on the outside. But inside you’re as big as everyone else. You show people that and you won’t go far wrong in life.’
My name is Nat Davy. Perhaps you’ve heard of me? There was a time when people up and down the land knew my name, though they only ever knew half the story.
The year of 1625, it was, when a single shilling changed my life. That shilling got me taken off to London, where they hid me in a pie, of all things, so I could be given as a gift to the new queen of England.
They called me the queen’s dwarf, but I was more than that. I was her friend, when she had no one else, and later on, when the people of England turned against their king, it was me who saved her life. When they turned the world upside down, I was there, right at the heart of it, and this is my story.
If you’ve been following The Shelf for a while, you’ll know that I do love a good slice of historical fiction. Some of my favourite reads of recent years have been historical novels and, as my PhD concentrates on the period, I’m particularly fond of novels set during the political turbulence and social upheaval of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The Smallest Man, the debut novel from journalist and copywriter Frances Quinn, hits the spot perfectly as it follows the story of Nat Davy, court dwarf to Queen Henrietta Maria. Nat’s ‘job’ places him at the centre of court life during the onset and aftermath of the English Civil War and, as events progress, he finds himself having to overcome more than prejudice at his diminutive stature in order to protect his friends, reunite with his family, and find his way back to the woman he loves.
Frances Quinn does a fantastic job of immediately drawing you into Nat’s world. My heart ached for the 10-year-old Nat, beloved by his mother and siblings but cast out from the family home and sold as an eccentricity by his drunkard father. Initially treated as a curiosity at court, Nat soon wins friends – and makes enemies – thanks to both his good natured disposition and his determination to overcome the challenges and expectations created by his small stature. His unlikely friendship with the lonely Queen Henrietta Maria – a woman both rejected by her husband and lost amidst the political intrigues of the English court – is particularly poignant and bought real character to a woman who is so often forgotten by history in comparison with her more famous (or, depending on how you look at it, infamous) husband.
I was fascinated to learn that, although Nat is a fictional character, his tale is inspired the life of Queen Henrietta Maria’s actual court dwarf – a man called Jeffrey Hudson. Whilst Frances Quinn advises that Nat’s life is fiction, you can tell that her account rests on lightly worn but comprehensive research into the period. Nat’s world is brilliantly realised, from the bustle of the country fair in the opening pages to the gilded world of the Stuart court. The prejudices and politics of the era are conveyed in a prose style that, whilst capturing the cadences of the period, never feels twee or contrived. The structures of society are also examined in intricate detail as Nat, with his humble origins, is forced to rapidly learn to negotiate a court that is being torn apart by the political machinations of the King’s most trusted advisor.
Nat’s ability to straddle the two worlds of the court nobility and their servants gives the novel a real flavour of the period and allows you to see the precarity that lay behind the fortunes and situations of so many people. His unique perspective extends to life itself, with Nat having to rely on his irrepressible energy and determination to overcome various challenges during the course of the novel.
For such a richly realised novel, The Smallest Man speeds along at quite the pace – although the first two sections, with their focus upon the historical events, held my attention a little more than the conclusion, probably due to the increasing focus upon the romance subplot in the final section of the book. Whilst this is well-realised – and makes for a charming conclusion to Nat’s swashbuckling tale – I wasn’t quite as drawn in as I had been during earlier sections, although that is largely due to personal preferences rather than anything in the book itself.
The Smallest Man is an enjoyable and accomplished debut that is sure to appeal to fans of historical novels such as The Doll Factory or The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. With its unlikely hero, it has a wit and a charm that stands in sharp contrast to the political and religious turbulence of the period – and it carries a message about perception, judgement and tolerance that still resonates today.
The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn is published by Simon & Schuster on 07 January 2021 and is available from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Bookshop.org, and Wordery.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour.
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