Published: 7th Jan 2021
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Maybe it’s because I have a disability or because I worked on a PhD in Disability Theory, but I love books like this that cover a familiar part of history but from a disability perspective. The author has given herself freedom to create by using an interesting and unusual character, through which she can tell the story of a very tumultuous period of history. The book is set in the 17th Century, prior to the Civil War, in the royal court of King Charles I. Nat Davy is based on Sir Jeffrey Hudson, immortalised with the Queen in a painting by Van Dyck. Nat wants to be ‘normal’, but even when he reached adulthood he was only eighteen inches tall. He was born in Oakham and when the circus visited the town he was almost sold to them by his own father. However, his eventual fate is even more bizarre! He is sold by his father to the Duke of Buckingham and taken to the court of King Charles 1st. The Duke had him put into a pie to surprise Queen Henrietta Maria, who is only 15 and desperately unhappy and homesick. Nat becomes her ‘pet’ and he joins an existing menagerie of dogs and monkeys. However, the Queen and Nat are are both outsiders and they are both lonely, so the two form a bond, becoming close friends. I loved that he is seen as a harmless pet in the court, when actually he’s in a very powerful position; he has the ear of the woman who could trigger a Civil War. He will never be accepted by other boys his age at court, he can’t participate in masculine pursuits like hunting, but he is about embark on an epic adventure – much greater than his size might suggest.
Nat becomes the Queen’s closest protector and I found it fascinating that she trusts him in this role. They go on the run and he is looking after her all the way, determined to keep the Queen safe. There is something very satisfying in the fact he is underestimated at every turn, but always manages to surprise people. He has two friends, Henry and a girl named Arabella who is the most beautiful young woman at court. Nat loves her, but would she see past his disability and return his love? Nat wonders if the best plan would be to see her marry Henry, then he could still keep her close. Even now, the subject ołth disabilities as sexual beings, capable of being desired. The fact that this is the 17th Century shows us these types of relationships did possibly happened, just quietly and in the background. However, this wasn’t the most successful part of the novel. The success is in the way Nat copes in this world, considering how hard it can still be to be different in the 21st Century. Even though he is physically small, he stands head and shoulders above anyone else in the book.
The first part had the most pace and set the scene beautifully. The rest of the novel is slower and didn’t fully hold my attention in the same way. The depth of research is undeniable here and I learned a lot about this period of history, beyond the basic Royalist/Roundhead split. I loved that the author drew a parallel between Nat’s servitude and the situation the Queen is in. Even though she has riches and might seem lucky to some, she too is living in a form of slavery and this is why they connect. She was sent away from her home and loved ones, to marry a man she’d never met and didn’t love. I have seen reviews criticising the latter half for focussing too much on Nat’s love story, whilst glossing over huge historical events like the beheading of Charles 1st, but I think that misses the point. This isn’t the history of the royal court or the Civil War, that history has been written by the victors, who are primarily male, able-bodied and Parliamentarian. This novel is Nat’s story, not theirs and the biggest thing in his life is that he’s in love. That’s the whole point of ‘writing back’ – it takes a minority narrative and makes it centre of attention. It gives us a different window to view events through and imagines someone who would normally be without agency, having power over their own story.
Meet The Author
Frances Quinn read English at King’s College, Cambridge and is a journalist and copywriter. She has written for magazines like Prima and Good Housekeeping. She lives in Brighton with her husband and Tonkinese cats. The Smallest Man is her first novel.