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Neither one thing or another
on 29 May 2010
I am familiar with Suzannah Dunn's previous Tudor novels and have enjoyed them--with certain reservations. Whilst I have no problem with her avowed intent to 'modernise' the tone and language of her novels (especially in dialogue) in order to bring historical characters closer to us, it brings with it other problems for me. It's true that people's essential behaviour doesn't change over the centuries. Basic emotions such as lust, love, hatred and fear etc work in exactly the same way. However, what people believe in and how they conduct themselves do change--because of morals and beliefs--so, as I was reading this novel, I never felt for one minute that these people were living in their historical times.
I understand Dunn is at pains to point out that both Katherine Howard and her friend Catherine received a poor education and were 'victims of the system.' However, I am sure they would be far more steeped in religion and a sixteenth century 'world view' than this novel shows. At this time in history, religion was a hugely contentious topic among the elite and yet these girls seem totally dim and unconnected. This may of course be Dunn's intention. However, it makes for very dull reading. Katherine Howard was probably the least interesting of all Henry VIII's wives (although Philippa Gregory makes a far better fist of it by telling her story along with that of Anne of Cleves.)
As other reviewers here have commented, Catherine Tylney, the narrator, is as dull as ditch water. Authors often use a bland narrator to off-set a passionate story (Nelly Dean in Wuthering Heights, for example) but unfortunately here, Dunn also fails to create a compelling portrait of Katherine Howard. Maybe, in reality she was a dim-wit with no talent but sexual allure (heaven knows, there are plenty of young women like that today) but it is an author's job to bring a character to life so the readers care about their fate. Did I care when she was brought down and then executed? No. Should I have? Yes.