27 June 2011

Review 32: The Confession of Katherine Howard by Suzannah Dunn

I have a love/hate relationship with historical fiction, particularly that which is set in the Tudor period. I studied Tudor history at university, focusing on the reign of Henry VIII and so am fairly familiar with the accepted historical fact of this era and I'm particularly interested in the lives of his wives and their relationship to him. I find myself reading quite a lot of these novels as I just find these women so fascinating, however more often than not I am frustrated by the novels as being inaccurate or just plain awful. I particularly struggle with Philippa Gregory as she presents herself as a serious historian writing fiction whereas in fact she is not a historian and bases her books on secondary sources, not the primary sources. She completely lost me after I read The Other Boleyn Girl as I have a bit of a thing for Anne Boleyn who I think was a remarkable women and she was presented as a scheming, obnoxious trollop in that book! Anyway, onto the actual book in hand!

I was interested to read The Confession of Katherine Howard as she is the wife that we know the least about historically, there is little evidence relating to her childhood and she was queen for only just over a year before she was executed. She was never actually crowned and had little to do with politics or religion whilst she was married to Henry. It is therefore interesting to see how authors characterise her and as we know very little, I thought there might be less opportunity for me to be frustrated by inaccuracies.

Whilst Dunn plays around a little with history, this involves the secondary characters more than Katherine herself so it didn't rile too much. The novel is narrated by Cat Tilney, a childhood friend of Katherine who grew up with her at the Dowager Duchess of Norfolks home. Dunn does invent a romance between Cat and Francis Dereham, who was eventually executed for his romance with Katherine which is necessary to give Cat some justification as an interesting character but is entirely imagine by Dunn and is also necessary to make Dereham a more sympathetic character. The issue I had with the novel was less to do with specific historical inaccuracies and more to do with the general tone which felt very modern and therefore rather unrealistic. The characters speak in a very modern way and whilst I appreciate that Dunn is trying to create real people who are sympathetic, it just comes off as rather false as it frequently sounds like two modern teenagers speaking about boys. Whilst I am sure there are many similarities between Tudor teenagers and modern teenagers, I'm not sure Dunn has succesfully managed to capture the similarites whilst retaining the historical accuracy.

The actual story is well known, Katherine Howard grew up at the Duchess of Norfolks home with little structure or discipline. She went to court to be a maid in waiting to Anne of Cleves and caught Henry's eye during his fourth disastrous marriage to Anne. The novel switches between the last days of Katherine's freedom when the allegations about her sex life before and during her marriage were made and the days of her childhood with Cat Tilney at the Duchess'. I enjoyed the former more as I felt the sense of panic and lack of understanding over what was happened was well captured. I liked the consideration of how frightening it would have been for Katherine to have her friends, and then herself, questioned in the Tudor court when men and women were raised up and brought down at the whims of whoever had Henry's ear at the time. Ultimately Cat is a rather boring narrator and her romance with Dereham is somewhat uninspiring; Katherine is a much more interesting character.

Katherine is portrayed in a slightly confusing way. We are supposed to be sympathetic towards her but she demonstrates little to make us warm towards her. She is aloof and promiscuous, astute yet uneducated, at the age of 15 at the Duchess' and is flighty and irresponsible whilst Queen, none of which are characteristic that endear. As we know so little of Katherine it is difficult to say how accurate this portrayal is, but the fact of the matter was that she did have a romantic affair with Francis Dereham before she was married and did sleep with Thonas Culpepper whilst married to the King, which considering the Kings attitude to his previous wives, which can't really be seen as anything but stupid and dangerous.

The novel is readable for the most part and readers who enjoy Tudor fiction will find this a light and quick read about one of Henrys wive who is not written about as much as some of the others. It is let down by a bizarrely modern style of dialogue amongst the characters and the narrator being rather dull. A novel more focused on Katherine's point of view would have been more interesting. Nonetheless, I always find it interesting to read how authors see the wives of Henry VIII and this novel was an inoffensive look at Katherine Howard.

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