Friday, February 25, 2011

Queen Catherine! (no, not that one)(no, not that one either)

Our two books today are historical novels dealing with the same figure: Catherine Parr, the staid, prudish hickory stick who was the last wife of Henry VIII. Readers who have a nodding familiarity with Tudor history will likely be more familiar with any of the five wives who preceded this one - there's the Rightful Queen, the Witch, the Mother of the Heir, the Dearest Sister, and the Slutty Girl - but by the time most people get to Catherine Parr, the whole point of keeping up with all the wives seems vitiated. What difference does it make what Catherine Parr was like, after all, if the whole gaudy show of it now moves to young Edward VI, and then on to Mary I, and then to Elizabeth I?

Blind spots like that are cat-nip to historical novelists. These writers correctly divine that often the most interesting things happen outside the bright spotlight of history - the key to effective historical fiction is to step just far enough outside that spotlight to let those interesting human details creep in but not so far outside that spotlight that you leave your readers groping around in the dark for something interesting. Set the entire story of Wolf Hall in the murky boyhood of Thomas Cromwell and you lose the background electricity of his interactions with the Tudor court. Set the climax to Gone with the Wind in the 1840s and you might have a pretty good book, but it wouldn't glow with the light of burning Southern plantations.

So writing about Catherine Parr can be tricky. Historian Carolly Erickson takes perhaps the safer route in her 2006 novel The Last Wife of Henry VIII by using as its setting the whole of that lady's life, the better to give us all the drama of that life's intersection with last dying embers of Henry VIII's insane personal life. Erickson's book is extremely good (a bit ironic that both she and fellow historian Alison Weir have done their best recent work in fiction), and the Catherine she gives us might be a bit stiff and a bit haughty, but she ends up being all the more real for it:
"Ah, so pale," said the sleek, moustachioed Duke of Najera as he took my hand to kiss. "I trust your majesty is not in poor health."

"I confess that I am in indifferent health, milord duke," was my response. ...

"May we hope that this indisposition betokens the arrival of an heir?" His tone was polite and his words formal, but the question was overly bold, even rude. He presumed too much. Just because he was the emissary of the Emperor Charles V, and charged with a very important mission to our court, he imagined that he could ask me bold questions and ignore the ordinary rules of courtesy.

"Milord, you forget yourself," said my friend and lady-in-waiting Kate Brandon, coming to my rescue. "The queen's health is a matter of state and cannot be talked of lightly."

A far riskier strategy is adopted by Susannah Dunn in her spectacularly good 2008 novel The Sixth Wife (not to be confused with the Jean Plaidy novel of the same title - and, um, about the same subject)(don't even get me started on the subject of incomprehensible choices in book-titles...): in that work, Katherine (so Dunn styles her) Parr is neither in power or the teller of her own story - the latter task falls to that same Kate Brandon, here given magnificent life and voice by Dunn as the novel's narrator. The book focuses on the stunning immediate aftermath of Henry VIII's death, when his still-young widow stunned the court and the whole country by quickly marrying Thomas Seymour, brother to the realm's new Lord Protector - and brother too to the mother of the realm's new king, young Edward. Thomas Seymour had a feckless, headlong quality about him that seemed drastically at odds with Parr's slightly beady-eyed calm; he seemed the very last person she might marry, let along marry impulsively. Again, catnip for historical novelists, most of whom (including Erickson) have assumed that the turn of events can only be explained if Seymour and Parr had been in love - and perhaps lovers - long before Henry took a liking to his prospective new queen.

Dunn (whose work I've praised before) skirts making such an easy, explicit explanation in favor of what is clearly one of her focal points as a novelist: the unpredictable, twisty ways of human emotions. Shortly after her Kate Parr reveals her marriage to Kate Brandon, the two of them go out riding, and when the former queen gallops away, Kate is left to wrestle with the whole mystery:
"He makes me laugh," Kate yelled of Thomas as she thundered away from me.

I didn't come back at her with, Yes, but my dog makes me laugh and I haven't married him, have I.

Nor, Yes, but I make you laugh.

People underestimated Kate in one respect: kind but serious, was a lot of people's opinion of her. Maybe it was as simple as that, it occurred to me as I trailed in her wake: maybe Thomas Seymour truly appreciates her.

Yes, but why marry him, and so soon?

Well, that was quite simple, too, in the end, it seemed. He'd asked her, she told me later. Marry me, he'd said: that's what she told me. Marry me, marry me, marry me: he'd said it a lot. So that it seemed less and less ridiculous, presumably. Why not? he said. I've been away for years and you've been - well, you haven't had an easy time of it for years, for your whole life, in fact, so ... and then that smile of his.

Dunn's book is the wiser book of the two emotionally, but it's a decidedly 20th century wisdom. Erickson's book is a more conventional historical novel (you'll find no 'milady's in Dunn's period fiction) but succumbs at times to the lure of the scenery. Many of the same characters come and go through these pages, and it's fun to see how differently the two authors portray them - including the young Princess Elizabeth, who's a monstrous enigma in Dunn and an enigmatic monster in Erickson. The exception seems to be Edward Seymour's wife Anne Stanhope, who's hated equally by both our authors - automatically making me wonder if somebody's out there right this moment penning a Tudor historical novel in which a thoroughly sympathetic Anne stars as the oft-misunderstood heroine. I'll keep an eye out at the Boston Public Library for The Lord Protector's Wife.


Carla said...

Dear Steve,
I found your site while searching for information regarding Vesuvius which led me to Pliny, and the rest is history. I have shared your posts with several friends, including a lovely poet who teaches literature in South Dakota and raises peacocks.
We all love you and hope you write your very own book some day.

Steve Donoghue said...

Many, many thanks for the kind words, Carla! But ... why on Earth would I write my own book some day, when I've got Stevereads? This suits me just fine - and unlike a book, it has no last page!

In the Post with the Penny Press! | stevereads said...

[...] This particular issue, dated June 3, has riches that seem geared exclusively for ME (an article on Katherine Parr that mentions Erasmus in its second sentence, a piece on Thomas Wyatt, another on Edmund Spenser, [...]