[9 June 2011]
Admittedly, the search for a fresh angle on Queen Katherine Howard, fifth of Henry VIII’s iconic six wives, is problematic. On the one hand, her story is the most intimately accessible of the six to modern-day readers: a straightforward, if under the circs unusually pathetic, tale of an old man’s restless young wife turning to a younger man for fulfilment.
On the other… well, if the first thing that came to your mind on reading that is ‘Sounds like that one Eagles song?’ then you can see the inherent difficulty. Katherine Howard is ultimately remarkable simply because, out of six extraordinary women, she was the one who did nothing at all remarkable.
Which is not to say lack of originality ever hindered ‘historical’ romance paperback sales—especially when the Tudor name is attached. Phillippa Gregory got an international bestseller and star-studded hit movie out of the equally straightforward (and barely documented) rivalry between the Boleyn sisters for this same King Henry; from that angle, one can’t blame Suzannah Dunn for trying her hand at a Gossip Girls-style retelling of Katherine’s story, modernized dialogue and all.
The heart of Katherine’s story does, after all, lie in her teenage angst. Was she a wanton slut who—with the connivance of her family—cynically deceived King Henry into believing her a virginal innocent? Or, as seems much more probable, was she simply a silly little teenager, a grotesquely poignant combination of precocity and naivete? Her one surviving letter to her adulterous lover (one of the King’s Gentlemen of the Bedchamber) indicates she believed quite sincerely that her husband the King knew everything that went on in his kingdom, not excluding what was said in the confessional.
On the surface, it’s got all the ingredients necessary for bestsellerdom: sexually curious teens caught up in a very adult web of power, glamour, intrigue…
...none of which is used here to any particular effect whatsoever. Excepting the sexual curiosity, and even that’s on the very juvenile, hence—at least from a fictional standpoint—decidedly dull side, especially given the apparent intended audience will have probably already finished the Twilight saga.
It’s not very exciting in any other way, either. The story arc is simple in the extreme: as the present-day investigation into Her Majesty’s premarital hijinks ripples through her circle of intimates, coming closer and closer to the lady’s current nasty secrets, the tension is neatly intercut with flashbacks. Not Katherine’s, but those of Catherine Tylney, our narrator, based on one of the Queen’s real-life maids who testified against her and then disappeared into historical obscurity. In Dunn’s version, ‘Cat’ has much more at stake, not only because she’s sleeping with Katherine’s discarded fiance Francis Dereham, but because she was there when it all began.
This is where we hit the major snag, because despite her actual title, Dunn has inexplicably decided to write ‘The Justification of Catherine Tylney for Betraying Her Best Friend Katherine Howard’. Meaning that despite all the tried-and-true Tudor material available—never mind the dozens of other colourful characters that litter this historical period—our only POV is Cat’s: almost wholly fictional and entirely, deliberately mundane. When not playing stolid, wondering foil to Katherine’s ‘sophistication’ (the highlight of which is sneaking into the kitchen after half-lemon rinds to use as contraceptives), Cat is hearing all the important and/or exciting plot developments of the most notorious reign in Western history as, yes, second-hand gossip.
This boarding school-esque atmosphere, in all its glory of petty cattiness and heady excitement of boys in the dorm after hours, is not only where the action begins but where it resolutely stays. We are introduced to both girls as teenagers: Katherine an impecunious sprig of the powerful Howard clan and Cat an even more obscure cousin. Both are sent to live with their clan matriarch, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, in a kind of dormitory with several other highly-born young ladies.
Bored, naive and almost wholly devoid of any mental—let alone moral—stimulation to the contrary, they start daydreaming about the adult world of love and sex. Daydreams turn to experiments, experiment to excitement… and then it all turns into State business. Even as Katherine starts her heady, meteoric rise as first lady-in-waiting and then Queen, the setting only very rarely moves away from Cat and her immediate childhood circle—who by this time have become the Queen’s maids.
It feels a bit odd to be arguing for more soapy, sparkly flourishes—not usually my style at all, especially in re: historical fiction—but there it is: this book is forcing me to desperation. Only Cat’s concern for Dereham’s involvement in the present-day investigation develops into a viable reason why we’re not following Katherine to court instead, and while that might satisfy an undiscerning YA reader—to whom the niceties of Renaissance history might well be less exciting—it’s not nearly enough for anyone who actually knows or cares anything about the real-life story.
It doesn’t help Dunn’s cause in either case that although Cat and Francis’ relationship is wholly fictional, they are based on real people, and thus their predetermined arc—along with that of nearly every other major character—must make them unpleasantly passive almost by default. In order to be fascinated by poignantly naive young Katherine Howard, young Cat must necessarily be even more oblivious; in order to befriend her, she needs to lack self-determination to the point where it’s hard to tell exactly why adventurous Katherine bothers with her, except that the other girls are that much more dense again. Only when Cat’s man is threatened does she begin to seriously question what her loyalty to her friend and Queen has led her into.
It’s very hard to imagine glamourous starlets thinking of Cat and cohorts as Oscar bait. And Dunn either does not particularly care, or does not have enough skill, to hide it. I’m leaning toward the former; her characters are sketched in sensitively enough, and her research into the period background impressively displayed. But it’s all wholly predictable, and—thanks in no small part to the anachronistic language—the characters’ behaviour feels necessary to the plot, not natural to their setting. Let alone insightful within it.
Those last scenes do finally interweave reality cleverly with fiction, as Cat realises her unique knowledge of just how deeply involved Francis and the Queen were can either save Cat’s best friend or her lover… not both. ‘Sympathetic(ish) sidekick finally learns to rebel against her amoral hero(ine)’ is a reliable old bit of plot machinery, and it makes for a decent enough payoff here—except that, not to keep harping on it, but there’s a much larger payoff looming in the form of Katherine’s real-life downfall, and focussing the drama elsewhere requires the author to finally turn her back on the strengths of her material to the extent that it basically nullifies them.
In real life, neither Queen Katherine nor Francis Dereham were saved from the gallows. It’s a measure of how far Dunn has missed her mark that the final scenes between Katherine herself and Francis’ lover don’t address that reality; it says something very awkward about your investment in your characters when you can’t be bothered to finish their story beyond a tacked-on footnote.