This reading group guide for The Tapestry includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Nancy Bilyeau. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book. Introduction
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Former Dominican novice Joanna Stafford occupies a precarious position—one that is all the more dangerous because, unbeknownst to Henry VIII, she has twice been implicated in plots to overthrow him. So when she is called to Whitehall Palace to oversee Henry’s valuable collection of tapestries, she is understandably wary. But even in her new position of favor, Joanna has much to worry about, and her worst suspicions are realized when an assassin makes an attempt on her life minutes after she sets foot in Whitehall. Meanwhile, her naive and beautiful friend Catherine Howard is being courted by the king, despite his still being married to Anne of Cleves.
When Joanna discovers that some of her closest allies have hatched a sinister plot with occult underpinnings, she is thrust into another high-stakes game of life and death that will take her from the highest offices in the Holy Roman Empire to the executioner’s scaffold on Tower Hill in an attempt to discover, once and for all, the life she is meant to lead. Questions and Topics For Discussion
1. Upon her arrival at Whitehall, Thomas Culpepper tells Joanna that Henry VIII “desired a court built on chivalry.” Would you describe Hans Holbein as chivalrous? What about Culpepper? Cromwell? The king himself?
2. Though she is certainly a “woman of surprises,” as King Henry calls her,
Joanna finds ways to use men’s assumptions about a woman’s role to her advantage. How does being a woman give Joanna advantages in court? Compare what Joanna does to the ways Catherine Howard uses her femininity as a tool for advancement.
3. Catherine Howard poses for a tapestry of The Sorrow of Niobe
. In Greek myth, Niobe claimed that, because she had fourteen children, rather than just two, she should be worshipped instead of Leto, the mother of Apollo and Artemis. Apollo and Artemis punished Niobe’s hubris by killing her children. Why do you think Henry chose this subject? Can you draw parallels to any themes in the novel?
4. Holbein says that Joanna is “someone who sees the world in black and white,” and she can be quite single-minded in her ideas about the court. How does Joanna’s view change over the course of the novel? Give examples of some issues that become more complex for her.
5. Holbein tells Joanna, “‘There is no one law in the German lands. Each kingdom, each dukedom, each principality has its own laws. It’s easy to make mistakes, but those mistakes can be hard to recover from.’” How is this similar to Joanna’s life at court? How does she have to juggle shifting sets of values and codes in order to survive in England?
6. What do you think of Joanna’s decision to involve herself in the dark magic necessary to undo the spell she believes has been cast on Culpepper? What does it tell you about her character? Were you surprised by her belief in Orobas’s power?
7. Joanna struggles with whether to tell Geoffrey about the prophecy that shapes her life. Do you think that she does this more for her own protection or for his? Why?
8. Transformation is a major theme of this novel, and Joanna is witness to many personalities who are changed by love (or lack thereof). Compare Catherine Howard, Thomas Culpepper, and Geoffrey’s transformations in the novel. How does love change these characters’ fates for better or for worse? Is love worth it for these characters?
9. Joanna is often torn between her duties as a subject of the king and her duties as a woman of God, one whose Catholic beliefs are directly opposed to the court’s mandates. At times, she must compromise in order to survive. Describe Joanna’s personal moral code. Do you respect her as an ethical character? Why or why not?
10. Joanna has a complicated relationship with Catherine Howard; and Joanna can’t quite bring herself to approve of Catherine’s choices. Yet at the end of the novel, Joanna is willing to lie in order to bring Catherine happiness. Did you expect this? Would you have done the same?
11. Near the end of The Tapestry
, Edmund says that Bishop Gardiner “‘would do anything if it meant bringing him—and this kingdom—closer to God.’” Contrast this with Joanna’s personality and goals. How are Joanna and Gardiner alike and different in in the ways they stick to their moral codes? Who do you most admire?
12. What do you think will come next for Geoffrey Scovill and Joanna Stafford? Enhance Your Book Club
1. Visit the British Museum’s website at http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pd/h/hans_holbein_the_younger,_the.aspx. to view one of Hans Holbein’s woodcuts from The Dance of Death
and go to http://www.hans-holbein.org/ to see his portraits of many of the people who appear in The Tapestry
2. Tapestry-making is a fascinating art. Have your book club’s members research some famous tapestries of the period, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Unicorn tapestries from the Netherlands (http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/467642?=&imgNo=0&tabName=gallery-label). As The Tapestry
highlights, these ornate hangings often depicted allegorical scenes. Discuss what scenes from folklore, myths, or fiction you might choose to illustrate if you were to commission a tapestry. Tell the other members of your book club what significance these scenes’ themes hold for you.
3. Many dishes of the British Middle Ages—such as English trifle, and mincemeat, and shepherd’s pies—have modern counterparts. If you’re up for a challenge, you could try this recipe for apple and orange tart, adapted directly from a housewife’s instruction manual dating from 1588 (http://www.cs.cmu.edu/afs/andrew.cmu.edu/org/Medieval/www/src/docs/apple-orange-tarte.html).
4. While Joanna Stafford is a fictional character, The Tapestry
is peopled with dozens of historical figures from Henry VIII’s court and abroad. Research the fates of people such as Bishop Gardiner, Thomas Cromwell, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, Thomas Culpepper, Mary of Hungary, and Emperor Charles V. Find portraits of them online and print some to display at your book club meeting. Are their real stories and images what you expected them to be, based on Bilyeau’s descriptions?
5. Connect with The Tapestry
’s author, Nancy Bilyeau, on Twitter @tudorscribe. A Conversation with Nancy Bilyeau You’ve written three novels featuring Joanna, and are an expert on the sixteenth century English court. Are you still surprised by what you are learning about this period and your characters?
There are always
surprises. Most people who read about the Tudors have a certain assumption of who the major players were, but when I burrowed deep into the letters and documents of the reign of Henry VIII, I realized other people played important parts in what happened during this period. For instance, how many people know that Cromwell was executed alongside a man named Sir Walter Hungerford, and why? His existence has not been included in historical novels, films, and TV series. His life is shrouded in mystery. Also, after studying the historical records, I drew some of my own conclusions about the motives of people who are more well known, such as the king himself, his wives, and chief courtiers. In addition to your work as a novelist, you’ve also written screenplays and articles for publications as diverse as Rolling Stone and Good Housekeeping. How have these different styles of writing affected your approach to your fiction?
Screenplays are built on visual descriptions and reveal character through actions and dialogue, rather than overtly stating things, and people see those influences in my fiction. As for my magazine work, it taught me to be diligent and creative in my research. I interview experts to find out things I want to know, rather than obtaining information solely from books. The shifting role of women is a major theme in all of your novels. Do you draw parallels between women in this time period and women in the present day?
I am very interested in the lives of strong women, now and in the past. Although their roles were constrained, the women of Joanna’s time were less passive than I think some people assume they were. Within Dartford Priory, a substantial number of the nuns and novices wanted to be there—they were filled with religious commitment and chose to live in groups together after the priory was closed. I believe that every one of the women who married Henry VIII wanted to be his queen, even Anne of Cleves. The sisters of Henry VIII went after the men they wanted to marry. Look how much his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, accomplished after his death. One character in The Tapestry
, Mary of Hungary, was an effective and intelligent regent of the Netherlands. Do you have a favorite character in The Tapestry?
It’s so hard to choose one! Joanna always reigns supreme. But I do have a special fondness for Hans Holbein the Younger. He was not in my original outline; I was well into writing the Whitehall chapters, and he still had not made an appearance. He more or less jumped on to the page, and then he would not leave. Holbein appeared in more chapters and more—he even followed Joanna and Geoffrey out of England. The artist just captured my imagination. Art plays a central role in this novel, whether it is in your scenes of Hans Holbein’s studio or Joanna’s own role as a tapestry weaver. Are you an art buff? Did you expect art to play such a large part in Joanna’s story?
My father was a watercolor landscape artist, so I grew up among paintings and art shows. I’ve always loved art, yes. I did not anticipate while writing The Crown
that the tapestry weaving would grow in importance in Joanna’s story and become an integral part of the third book. It just seemed a natural evolution, especially when I discovered through my research that Henry VIII was the most obsessed collector of tapestries of his European contemporaries. Readers of your previous novels really fell for Edmund Sommerville as a match for Joanna, yet she ends The Tapestry planning a life with Geoffrey Scovill. Were you surprised at this romantic turn? How do you think readers will react to this choice?
Both Geoffrey and Edmund have their fans, and I actually received a great deal of mail after The Chalice
regarding Geoffrey. The theme was: “Why were you so cruel to him? He loves Joanna.” I am very fond of both male characters, and it wasn’t easy to decide, though I felt the time had come for Joanna to choose a way forward either alone or with one of them. Edmund is a kindred spirit, perhaps even a soul mate for Joanna, but does that mean he would make a good husband, that their marriage would be a happy one? I felt that Edmund’s commitment to a religious life was profound and that it would, in the end, be very hard for him to find happiness outside the calling that he’d willingly followed for most of his life. Also I believe that Joanna and Geoffrey are well matched. He stands up to her at the same time that he is incredibly devoted to her. And they are very
attracted to each other. After a lot of thought I concluded he is the right husband for her. I would be interested in hearing what readers think of my choice. Were you always an Anglophile? How did your obsession with the Tudors begin?
I’ve been a hopeless Anglophile since I was eleven years old. I became interested after seeing Elizabeth R
on television. I started reading historical novels and nonfiction about the sixteenth century—and I have never stopped. What is your writing routine?
With this book, I didn’t have one. I wrote it whenever I could grab some time—weekends, vacations, and early morning before I had to wake the children up for school. I worked as a fulltime staff editor at DuJour
magazine the entire time that I wrote this book. I don’t have a home office or even my own desk. I wrote on my laptop at the kitchen table, sitting up in bed, on the apartment balcony, the couch. And I wrote parts of it at the New York Public Library, in the Wertheim Study, when I was doing research there. Also I find it conducive to write in coffee shops—I have no idea why. I plugged in my computer at Starbuckses all over New York City for all three books. But for The Tapestry
, my word count ranged from a few sentences a day to, at the most, two thousand words a day. Has feedback from your readers affected the direction of the Joanna Stafford series?
As much as I love my readers, no. I haven’t made changes in Joanna’s personality or choices because of anything a reader has said. She comes from my mind and my heart. I will say that the support of the readers has encouraged me to be true to my vision. I hoped that the character of a Catholic novice in sixteenth-century England would be of interest, and she was! If you were a member of Henry VIII’s court, what do you think your role or position would be? Who would you ally yourself with, and who would your confidants be?
That’s a hard question, because what I am today—a college-educated and independent female editor and novelist, married with two children—could not exist in a sixteenth-century court. My present skill set would mean I’d be best suited to be a tutor to a royal or high-born child. Perhaps I could be a tutor to Lady Mary! If so, I would be allied with her friends and supporters among the aristocracy. Unfortunately, that would mean I probably would not survive the reign of Henry VIII. The king imprisoned or executed many of the people who supported his older daughter. But if you take my present skills and background out of the equation and ask me what position I’d like to fill, it would be fool. I’d love to live by my wits, like Will Somers, Henry VIII’s famous fool. He did a splendid job of it, too. Despite teasing and needling the king, Will Somers survived his reign—and even showed up in a few paintings of the royal family.