Thursday, 28 July 2011

The Confession of Katherine Howard by Suzannah Dunn

Normally I'm quite slow in getting round to reading books hot off the press so a paperback published this year is really fast work for me. This is one off the Richard and Judy Summer Book Club list and as an avid viewer of 'The Tudors' my appetite was immediately whetted to read a novel about Katherine Howard, Henry VIII's doomed fifth wife.

The novel doesn't set out to give a factual historical account; as Dunn herself says, we all know Katherine's fate- she gets beheaded. This is about her life beforehand, exploring how a young, undeducated girl, very low down on the nobility pecking order, ended up becoming- albeit briefly- the Queen of England.

Most of the factual action happens off-stage, as it were. Henry never appears as a character in his own right, nor does Katherine's lover Thomas Culpeper. The book focuses, mainly through flashbacks, on the significant events in Katherine's personal life as seen through the eyes of her friend and lady-in-waiting Cat Tilney. It's the relationship between the two women that's the true story of the book, I think. There's an underlying sense of resentment and almost a love-hate relationship certainly on Cat's part. Her lover Francis Dereham was formerly Katherine's and he's being held in the Tower on suspicion of being 'pre-contacted' or engaged to Katherine. This would make a fool of the ageing, marriage-bruised King, not a good situation to be in.

I was really intrigued by the dynamic Dunn created between the two women as their pasts and ultimately their fates are intertwined and there is also an interesting power shift as we wonder who's really in control.

Cat's relationship with Dereham is fictional and provides and explanation to the events whilst driving the plot. We're never quite sure of his motives, as Cat, the narrator chooses not to tell us.

The book avoids any typically Tudor grisly descriptions and in a way, is all the more chilling for it as Cat truly believes Dereham will be released when it's all cleared up. He was in fact hanged, drawn and quartered a month after the novel ends.

Read it if you enjoy historical fiction without being bombarded with fact and figures, and if you enjoy questioning the narrator's motives

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