Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Last Wife of Henry VIII by Carolly Erickson

"The Last Wife of Henry VIII" is a highly fanciful, fictionalized, recreation of the life of Catherine Parr (Katherine Parr), the sixth wife of Henry VIII. As usual with her novels, which she classifies as "historical entertainments," rather than historical reconstructions, Carolly Erickson lets the filly named "Fiction" beat "Fact" to the finish line and win the race.

This fast-paced and dramatic novel charts the stormy course of Catherine Parr's life from her earliest memory, attending the star-studded Tudor propaganda event known as The Field of Cloth-of-Gold, where the kings of England and France met for a splendid display of one-upmanship, and shrewd, practical Maud Parr sought to arrange a betrothal for her daughter that would keep the floundering family fortune afloat.
Catherine goes on to marry four times before her death at age thirty-six. First to join young Ned Burgh in a gloriously happy love match that ends tragically, then to kindly Lord Latimer who is old enough to be her grandfather.

And shining through it all there is the golden and pompous monarch, Henry VIII, who will make her his sixth wife and Queen of England. He is drawn to Catherine from the start because her honesty, compassion, intelligence, and loyalty make her a trustworthy friend in a court filled with ambitious and avaricious flatterers and place-seekers, and her beauty stirs the embers of his lust. Through his ill-treatment of Catherine of Aragon, his turbulent and tempestuous union with Anne Boleyn, the brief idyll of Jane Seymour, who bore the King's only legitimate son, the debacle of the unsightly pock-marked German spinster Anne of Cleves, and heedless hoyden Katherine Howard who cuckolds her royal husband all the way to the scaffold, Catherine Parr is always in the right place at the right time, to listen to the increasingly paranoid and cantankerous King bemoan his fate and blame others for his misdeeds, and to soothe his sore and putrid leg and supply him with licorice pastilles, olive oil suppositories, and Valerian tea, and also to give a dose of much needed compassion to his wives. And, beginning during her marriage to Lord Latimer, there is also a red-hot romance with Thomas Seymour, Catherine's future fourth husband. Like lovers in a Hollywood screenplay, they "meet cute" and blithely agree that there is no need for surnames, rank, or titles, they will just be "Tom" and "Cat" to each other, and so they are, until the day Tom just up and leaves without a word of warning or farewell. But when he writes her a letter, several months later--months Catherine has spent mourning his loss, enduring the miseries of insomnia and lost appetite, and nursing a broken heart--Catherine's heart soars like a hawk, she dances round the orchard and shouts out her joy, as she instantly forgives everything. She is deaf to the wise words of her shrewd and experienced sister-in-law: "He won your love under false pretenses. Nothing can excuse or explain that."

The book ends with a wildly fictitious and highly dramatic finale that exposes Tom Seymour for the rash, fickle fool he really is, and leaves Catherine, betrayed and abandoned to give birth amidst the boom of cannons, the smoke and stench of gunpowder, the clash of steel, and the screams of dying and wounded men, as her foolish husband wages war against his brother, Edward Seymour, Lord Protector of the Realm, out of jealousy over his preeminent position, then runs away when he realizes he can't win.

Despite the great liberties it takes with the life of Catherine Parr, those associated with her, and events from the vibrant, fascinating era that was Tudor England, "The Last Wife of Henry VIII" is a fun, fast read, though it will probably make historical fiction purists, who deplore an overabundance of fiction overwhelming and altering the known facts, want to echo Henry VIII and cry "Off with her head!" in response to Ms. Erickson's version of the sixth wife's tale.

No comments: