One of the questions faced by historians interested in marginalised people and groups is how to write history when there are comparatively few sources and little existing scholarship.
Some might conclude in cases where we have little evidence we should not attempt history at all. This is – of course – unsatisfactory as it condemns and even endorses the confinement of already underrepresented people to historical obscurity – victims of the same forces that made their voices quiet and hard to find in the first place.
Neither is it acceptable for history to overstate its claims when there is a paucity of evidence about its subject. In such cases – whether it is the Norman Conquest for which we have only a handful of sources – or whether it is people with learning disability for which we he have few across thousands of years– the form of history has to be different to that on subjects for which historians can draw upon a wealth of documents.
History here will be more tentative – more suggestive and more circumspect with hedged interpretations and conclusions. While historians must still pay careful attention to the evidence there is perhaps more scope for imagination to fill in the bigger gaps as long as the line between conclusion and speculation is made clear.
Novelists are not constrained by sources at all and are free to do what they want with the historical settings in which they create their worlds. They have total freedom and as such it can be dispiriting to see the same worn seams tunnelled time and time again especially when the stories of those too often ignored by history are ignored in fiction too.
We have truckloads of fiction set in Ancient Rome and more still in the Third Reich and Cold War.
When it comes to the Tudors we have mountains of it – some bad, some indifferent and some good but usually all about the same sorts of things; power struggles between noble families, queens, princesses, wives and axemen – The Fat Horrible King and his Wives.
How refreshing then to read a book that boldly and confidently steps away from the familiar path to tell the story of a character so fully realised she explodes from the pages like fireworks over the Field of the Golden Cloth, around which much of this marvellous book is set.
The main character in this book – main not amusing or pathetic sidekick – is Cat Sparrow.
While modern readers will know Cat has what we would call learning disabilities Sherrick respects her source material enough not to label her this way in a world in which the term had no meaning.
Instead Cat is what she is – different with an off-beat way of understanding the world around her. The writing never patronises or makes her the subject of maudlin sympathy.
Cat is what she is and does what she does.
Characters react to her in different ways and things do not always go her way but it is her decisions and actions which drive the book forward to its thrilling conclusion. She shapes her own story and those of her family, friends, allies and enemies. Cat is rescuer as much as rescued and sits right in the middle of all that happens – no mere plot device designed to say something about someone else.
Unaccustomed to seeing someone from what historian Simon Jarrett calls “the outgroup of all outgroups” so confidently and firmly realised I found myself almost breathless with pleasure and excitement at many points in the story.
The Queen’s Fool is a remarkable achievement.
As the father of a fully realised person with a learning disability it means a great deal to me there is now something I can read to my daughter when she’s old enough that shows someone like her adventuring, striving, succeeding – the master of her own life regardless of how different she may sometimes seem to others.