on 4 August 2010
I can sometimes be difficult to find a fresh writer to put on your 'favourite' list - but I have with Suzannah Dunn. I love this book so much I've now bought her earlier works: on Anne Boleyn (The Queen of Subtleties); Catherine Parr (The Sixth Wife); and Mary I (The Queen's Sorrow). For me, Suzannah is now right up there with Phillippa Gregory and Alison Weir. Although lots has been written about Katherine Howard, I can honestly couldn't put down 'The Confession'. The familiar story is told here with a renewed vigour, originality and suspense. A great book!
on 26 April 2010
The story of the teenage Katherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII, has been told numerous times in fact and in fiction but rarely so compellingly or with such style as in Susannah Dunn's new novel. The reader is plunged straight into the middle of the story, just days before Katherine Howard's fall from grace, and then taken back to Katherine's early years at the Duchess of Norfolk's house.
Told in the first person by Cat Tilney (a lady-in-waiting and childhood friend of Katherine's) we are told about their time together as teenagers where, with other girls, they were supposed to be learning to be ladies but were learning more about boys than anything else in the lax and slipshod Duchess' residence.
The story alternates between the claustrophobic Tudor court and the carefree life in the Duchess' house. This may sound confusing but the switch over between the past and present are always smooth and never jar on the reader.
Katherine Howard is portrayed as more knowing than I would have thought and she's a difficult character to warm to at times but the reader is always reminded of her youth, how little she really knew of the pitiless and vindictive Tudor court. Henry VIII is never really portrayed only glimpsed as a massive, monstrous and god-like figure who can destroy lives from a distance.
Susannah Dunn also tells a love story as the narrator falls in love with Francis Dereham only to have it all fall apart around her. It is a stunning story of betrayal, passion, innocence and fear packed with emotion and incident. Beautifully told, I was hooked until the last page.
on 6 July 2010
The Confession of Katherine Howard is set over a few days in November 1541 and also told in flashback. We hear the story from the perspective of her best friend and lady-in-waiting Cat(herine) Tilney. Katherine is Henry VIII's fifth wife, she is only 19 and is really just a young girl from the country who happened to be related to the influential Howard family (The Duke and Duchess of Norfolk's family name). However, something is amiss and the lover of Cat (who was previously Katherine's boyfriend), Francis Dereham, is being interrogated about his previous relationship with the new Queen. This leads Cat to look back at the journey she and Katherine have taken, that brought them to the Tudor Court.
Cat first met Katherine whilst being tutored at the home of the Duchess of Norfolk with a number of other girls. They were supposed to be learning about becoming ladies and how to run their own household, but these teenage girls had lots of romantic dreams. I got the impression that Cat was quite naïve, she was bright but had been sheltered and knew little about `ways of the heart' and wanted desperately to please her family and make them proud. Katherine meanwhile had no real family, and was much more confident than Cat, but quietly so. She comes across as very enigmatic, and we only learn what she is prepared to reveal to Cat. Katherine has more romances than Cat, and knew how to catch the attention of men, which Cat was clueless about. Whilst neither girl could be considered sophisticated, it is Katherine's influential family connections that get her a place at court, as a lady-in-waiting to Anne of Cleves, something none of the other girls had even dreamed of. Cat is not included and knows very little about this period in Katherine's life until Katherine weds the king and she is summoned to court.
Katherine Howard isn't as well documented as Anne Boleyn in historical fiction, and I like the fact that we only really learn about her through Cat (who was also a real person in history), however because of this we never really get to know Katherine that well, and I can only guess that is the intention. The problem with this is that (admittedly this may be influenced by the fact that the outcome of the events is well-documented) you don't care about Katherine that much, you don't root for her at the end. In an about turn it seems that Katherine was the naïve one, never expecting her actions to catch up with her, and to become accountable for her risks. In the end Cat seems to be the stronger figure, and you do hope that all will be well for her, but she does come over as a bit wishy-washy in places.
The author, Susannah Dunn, is an established author who has written other Tudor based historical novels. I enjoyed her story-telling, and I liked how she brought little-known people to life, I would certainly consider reading other works of hers. The book is engaging and well-written although the language used by the characters is a little too contemporary for my liking. Ultra-modern phrases such as `she would be a laugh' and `we hung around together' just didn't sit right with me. I don't particularly want to read Tudor English either, but toning down of the modern phrases would have been preferred. It is not a big book - my (over-sized paperback) copy ran to 226 pages and I think it would be enjoyable to most readers, whether they were historical fiction fans or not.
This is a wonderfully-engaging re-telling of the story of Katherine Howard, Henry VIII's fifth wife, and manages to make a familiar tale genuinely fresh again. Set very much around a female court and household this is a story about female bodies, female duplicity and female sexuality.
Dunn, I think wisely, chooses not to have the narrative told by Katherine herself but, instead, by her girlhood friend and lady-in-waiting Cat Tilney. This allows her to maintain Katherine's own air of slightly enigmatic charisma and keeps us close to her without allowing us into Katherine's own head.
I particularly liked the way this doesn't portray Tudor women as closet modern-day women, as so many historical books do, always complaining about their lack of education and inability to choose their own husbands - something which no genuine C16th women do from the historical sources. Instead we see girls excited by the idea of arranged marriage because it gives them their own place at the head of the household. At the same time, women's ability to manage 'romance' as something outside of marriage, always problematic, is explored.
This Katherine is not particularly intelligent (but definitely not stupid either), not particularly pretty but still a powerful character in her self-belief and self-sufficiency, and pure inability to understand that anything can destroy her.
The narrative is split between long sections set in the present of the investigation against Katherine, and the past of her girlhood. But because the sections are long, the narrative avoids the choppy feel of similar structures and gives us time to settle into the story.
There are no 'good' and 'bad' characters in this book, it's far more nuanced than that. And the big events of the period tend to happen off-stage so that we're not distracted by them.
I'm usually very wary of fiction set in the Tudor period as it's a field that I work in but this is one of the best novels about it that I've read, that genuinely stands up as a novel in its own right, not just a series of familiar historical set-pieces strung together. Excellent.
Having studied the Tudor period for my a-levels and having an interest in it, I looked forward to this. I had heard Suzannah Dunn speaking about it and she seemed to have done her research well.
The book didn't disappoint. It is told from the story of Cat Tilney, a close friend of Katherine and part of the queen's household. It was a refreshing change to see what unfolds from her perspective. I also thought Dunn had done an exceptional job of explaining what happened without making it boring or too complicated.
It shocked me how naive Katherine was. At times I was shouting 'what are you doing?!'. She truly believed that Thomas Culpepper was what she deserved, for having to put up with the king. Historians have labelled her as a silly little girl. I think she was quite the opposite. She knew exactly what she was doing. As it says in the book, 'she was a girl who couldn't help herself.'
It lost a star because there were some grammatical errors that really irritated me and I did find myself unsure of who was who at times (perhaps this says more about how much I concentrated in history!).
The ending has been criticized by some but I found it perfect. After all, we are all aware of what happens. For me, it's the build up that is the most interesting.
This was a book that I really enjoyed. It's not a history textbook and if that's what you are expecting, you'll be sadly disappointed. If you want a good novel, based on history, you could do a lot worse than this!
The only previous book I have read by Susannah Dunn was The Queen of Subtleties which I wasn't much taken with, so I was pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying this latest offering much more.
The story is told in the first person by Catherine Tiley, a lady of Katherine Howard's household when Queen and one of those who grew up with her, ostensibly under the eye of the dowager Duchess of Norfolk. The action starts when Katherine is queen and just before the scandal of her past life errupts, but there are long sections of 'flashback' into the earlier lives of 'Kate' and 'Cat'.
Cathien Tilney (or Tylney - no standardised spelling!) was a really historical figure, but not one about whom much is known; I think that probably makes it easier for an author if they are going to write in the first person.
As I said, I did enjoy this book and found it well written and engaging. Also, as far as possible we do stick with historical fact and don't introduce anything ridiculous as I have encountered in other supposedly historical novels. The internal logic of the book works, although I can't reconcile the Katherine Howard of this novel quite with what is known of the real historical character; the Katherine in the book seems so much more poised and in control of everything than the slightly naive teenager she usually comes across as. It almost felt out of character for her to break down near the end of the novel.
on 22 September 2010
I bought this with some dread in preparation for a long trip, as my relationship with Dunn's writing has been up and down to say the least, I couldn't finish either the Queen of Subtleties or Queen of Sorrows, but didn't dislike The Sixth Wife so ordered this as fascinated with Katherine Howard and I must say, I liked this the most without a doubt. An interesting and tragic story, well told and quite haunting. Some of the language is contemporary but I don't think it detracted from the characters or the story. It really brought home the tragedy of Henry's fifth wife. Even if you're jaded with Tudor fiction give this a go.
on 28 June 2011
For some reason, there is something that I don't like about Susanna Dunn's writing, which I just can't put my finger on. I think it's that she writes about these inspiring women, but not from their viewpoints and I spend most of the novel desperate to get inside their heads and out of these fictional characters. But, I'll give her that, it's a good spin and a twist on most fictional novels about the Tudor period which have sadly been done to death, almost.
However, I LOVED her presentation of Katherine Howard. Completely different from Phillipa Gregory's charming and silly sweet Katherine Howard, but no less of a character. She wrote her as a mature young woman, still too young to be queen, but far from the annoying Katherine Howard that haunts Emily Purdy's: - 'The Tudor Wife.'
So guys, it's well worth a read. If you've read what I've just written and what I've told you, you won't be disappointed. I promise.
on 22 July 2011
This book was a total surprise and I really enjoyed it from start to finish. The reader is catapulted straight into the middle of the story and the action doesn't stop until the last page. Not sure if it's because the chapters are very long, or because its so engrossing, but I completed the whole book in two days, and was sad that I'd finished it!
Life in the palace of Henry V111 and the view of royals in this time was portrayed with such beauty and simplicity, and the characters had real depth. Despite it being set hundreds of years ago, the characters were still easy to relate to, and were shown to be not so different from modern day women, underneath it all!!
I loved the sense of dramatic irony that I, as the reader, held over the characters. Knowing that, whatever happened their fates were sealed, built the suspense and drama and I read the book hungrily to find out what chain of events caused the eventual, tragic outcome!
The only criticism that I have, and it is a very small one, is that I would have liked a bit more detail at the end. With no real knowledge of what happened to the characters in real life, (apart from Katherine, Francis and Thomas, who I was previously aware of), I wanted to know what happened through the eyes of the narrator, to give some resolution to the story.
I will look for other books by Suzannah Dunn, and will definitely read more...
An excellent read - highly recommended!!
I love historical fiction, especially from the Tudor times so I knew this book would be a winner to me.
From what I have read of Katherine Howard, I have pictured her to be a silly young giggly girl, obsessed with her clothes and boys. This book was a different take on the character of Katherine Howard, however it is told through the eyes of Catherine Tylney, a childhood friend and maid-in-waiting to Katherine Howard. The book opens right in the thick of it all, in the those moments before Katherine Howards downfall, before it suddenly skips off to the very start, when Catherine first goes to the Duchess' house, before Katherine Howard arrives.
From then on comes the story of Henry Manox and Francis Dereham, however the character of Katherine this time is different. She's a quiet girl, however not shy and certainly not around boys. She knows full well what she is doing, and she is quite a hard character to like in this book. The character of Catherine is very loveable and innocent, and I often wonder why she even bothers with Katherine Howard who doesn't seem all to friendly towards her.
The book at times dips back into current events as Archbishop Cranmer begins his investigation in Katherine Howard's adultery, and then it goes back in time again, and I liked how the book did this, it fitted very well.
It's not a long book, however I could not put it down and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it all, and I became rather engrossed in it. I only wished there was more time spent on Katherine's time as Queen, as most of the book is of her childhood at the Duchess' house and the time of her downfall, and not enough of the stuff inbetween. Highly recommended read for fans of everything Tudor related.