Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Sixth Wife by Suzannah Dunn

Katherine Parr is a woman renowned for making everything all right. She is prudent, practical, dependable, and wise; everyone knows they can always count on Kate. So why after surviving four cantankerous and nerve-rattling years as the sixth and final wife of Henry VIII does she marry dashing, reckless, impetuous, ambitious charmer Thomas Seymour, a man the future Queen Elizabeth I would later eulogize as "a man of much wit but very little judgement"? That is the question the narrator of this novel, Katherine Parr's best friend Catherine, called Cathy, Duchess of Suffolk,(the widow of Charles Brandon, brother-in-law of the late king) often has cause to ponder. Perhaps it is simply because, as Kate says, "he makes me laugh."

At the time of their marriage Kate is the Dowager Queen, a wealthy widow in her mid-thirties, childless, and apparently barren after three fruitless marriages to men who had all previously fathered children. Thomas Seymour is a fine figure of a man at forty who has never married, the romantics might say he was simply waiting for Katherine, whilst others suspect he was waiting for Princess Elizabeth to reach marriageable age. But either way you look at it, whether a man marries a Dowager Queen or a princess the bride is both a trophy and a lucrative prize.

When Kate becomes ill, nothing can keep her best friend from rushing to her side. She is startled and amazed, and a little alarmed due to her age, to discover that she is pregnant. Cathy visits Kate whenever she can, and during these visits is disturbed by the familiarity Thomas displays towards Elizabeth now that the clever flame-haired princess has joined their household. Both the girl's governess, Mrs. Ashley, and Kate are inclined to laugh it off as innocent, harmless, and just good fun, but Cathy knows that when one is charged with the care and upbringing of a royal princess one can never be too cautious. Cathy also knows what Kate apparently does not, that before he married her Thomas had actively sought the Princess Elizabeth's hand; a fact that makes his attentions to her even more suspect and disturbing.

On the night of January 1, 1548, when they are celebrating the New Year at Sudeley Castle, Thomas makes advances to Cathy literally right behind his pregnant wife's back. As they are going through a door, Kate first, followed by Cathy, with Thomas last, he lifts Cathy's veil and presses a kiss onto the back of her neck, then he is gone before the shock and surprise even has time to fully penetrate Cathy's brain. As rage and disbelief bubble and boil within her, Cathy follows him into the darkened garden to confront him and instead finds herself, against her better judgement, succumbing to his charms.

Cathy finds it surprisingly easy to betray her best friend. She makes excuses and tries to justify her behavior as she lets herself fall under Thomas Seymour's spell. Both Thomas and Cathy take a "what she doesn't know won't hurt her" attitude about their affair and how it might affect Kate. Both declare their love for her and vow "over my dead body" will she ever find out about their dalliance. "This isn't about Kate," they rationalize, "this has nothing to do with Kate," then abandon themselves to a series of secret trysts.

As Kate's pregnancy progresses Thomas cannot resist the pull of his royal ambitions. He plots to buy the wardship of little Lady Jane Grey and marry her to the boy-king Edward VI, to place not only a home-grown Protestant queen on the throne of England but one who is also in his debt and power. And his attentions to Princess Elizabeth escalate until their early morning tickling games in her bedchamber become the subject of scandalized gossip. Suspicion at last takes tenacious root in Kate's mind until she can no longer laugh it off, but it also blinds her to the other betrayal--her husband and her best friend--going on behind her back and under her own roof.

While admittedly the distinctly modern dialogue is jarring in a novel set in Tudor England, given the personality of the narrator I think it works, and it may also attract readers who are sometimes put off reading historical fiction because of antiquated language. Catherine/Cathy, Duchess of Suffolk is a brash, blunt, outspoken, "modern" woman ahead of her time, so her speaking in the English of today doesn't necessarily strike a sour note. Ultimately, the individual reader must decide whether they like or loathe the style, but I think it is fair to say it was certainly a bold move on Suzannah Dunn's part. And, despite the controversy over this issue, the story of the queen who survived Henry VIII only to be betrayed by love is as fascinating as it is tragic. It is a cautionary tale that illustrates the sad truth that for as long as the world has been populated women have been falling in love with men they shouldn't; in matters of the heart not even royalty are exempt.

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