A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
When twelve-year-old Katherine Howard comes to live in the Duchess of Norfolk’s household, poor relation Cat Tilney is deeply suspicious of her. The two girls couldn’t be more different: Cat, watchful and ambitious; Katherine, interested only in clothes and boys. Their companions are in thrall to Katherine, but it’s Cat in whom Katherine confides and, despite herself, Cat is drawn to her. Summoned to court at seventeen, Katherine leaves Cat in the company of her ex-lover, Francis, and the two begin their own, much more serious, love affair. Within months, the king has set aside his Dutch wife Anne for Katherine. The future seems assured for the new queen and her maid-in-waiting, although Cat would feel more confident if Katherine hadn’t embarked on an affair with one of the king’s favoured attendants, Thomas Culpeper. However, for a blissful year and a half, it seems that Katherine can have everything she wants. But then allegations are made about her girlhood love affairs. Desperately frightened, Katherine recounts a version of events that implicates Francis but which Cat knows to be a lie. With Francis in the Tower, Cat alone knows the whole truth of Queen Katherine Howard – but if she tells, Katherine will die.
I know I’m not supposed to quote from my version of this book as it’s a uncorrected proof copy, and I’m not going to, but this on the inside cover irritated me beyond measure:
“The Confession of Katherine Howard” will go straight into the Sunday Times Top Ten Hardback Fiction chart on publication.
Oh really? How come? Is there a rota for this sort of thing? I had thought bestseller status was in some measure up to readers, myself. Or am I just too innocent for words? The plot thickens, I fear … And that’s even before I start the book itself.
Anyway, PR nonsense gripes aside, I’m something of a fan of Suzannah Dunn, having lapped up her “delightfully vulgar and utterly compelling” (as The Times so accurately put it) historical novel, The Sixth Wife. That was, in my opinion, a masterpiece.
This new offering is decent and well written enough, but I don’t think it’s a patch on the other, unfortunately. Cat Tilney simply isn’t a strong enough character to carry the load of the story, and what happens to her in the Court of Queen Katherine simply isn’t on the whole interesting enough. In fact, I wondered why the story wasn’t told from the point of view of Katherine herself – for me, she was where the real story actually lay, as the writing world puts it, and I would have loved to have her as the main protagonist here. She’s far bitchier than Cat, and Dunn is an expert on writing bitchy but fascinating women. I think she should therefore be allowed to do so more fully.
I was also annoyed that we’d just got ourselves nicely settled into the complex world of the court when we were catapulted back to Cat’s childhood and told in great detail about how she met Katherine, and what their life then was like. Really, I wasn’t much taken with the childhood world by that point, as I wanted to keep with the adult perspectives. Perhaps it would have been better to take the more linear approach suggested by the blurb and build up to the current action? Not that it’s badly written, because it most definitely isn’t. The setting is very well described, but the sudden jump between timescales is disconcerting.
So it was a great relief when we were finally returned to Katherine’s court again. Where I did think that the developing twists and turns in the relationship between Cat, her lover Francis, and Katherine were expertly portrayed. This is the highpoint of the novel, and one that Dunn milks to the full. The linking of the relationship between the three companions (I hesitate to say friends, as Katherine isn’t that kind of a woman) to the queen’s worsening marital status is superbly done, and oh so clever. Childhood loyalties are set against current love, and a shared history set against the present crisis. The final – or almost final – showdown is a devastating mix of understandable personal betrayal and spurious hope. Magnificent, I must say.
A quick point here also about the language. Yes, it is modern, but that’s a real strength, in my opinion. I don’t see what all the fuss is about. Dunn is telling a story to a modern reader, and the language she uses is refreshing and delightful, and she explains her reasons very well here. Like her, I do tire so of all the usual thees and thous and forsooths (yes, I’m being clichéd but you know what I mean) one is accustomed to endure in historical fiction. Thankfully, that’s not the case in this book.
In conclusion, I’d say Dunn is a fine writer, a very fine writer, but she needs bitchier characters and stronger storylines to get her teeth into. If you’ve not read Dunn before, I’d still recommend her but don’t start here, bestseller lists or no bestseller lists (says she with appropriate bitchiness …). Try The Sixth Wife instead.
The Confession of Katherine Howard by Suzannah Dunn (HarperCollins, 2010), ISBN: 978 0 00 730154 6)
[Anne is becoming rather bored with bland historical fiction that we’ve actually all read before. For more information on why bitchy books and protagonists are the new nice, please click here.]