Monday, April 04, 2011

Book review: The Confession of Katherine Howard, by Suzannah Dunn

Suzannah Dunn’s The Confession of Katherine Howard, a swift-moving story of friends-turned-frenemies in Tudor England, looks at Henry VIII’s fifth wife from the viewpoint of her companion and lady-in-waiting, Cat Tilney.

The story of Katherine’s downfall is widely known. There are a few reasons to consider reading a novel with a familiar plotline: if it offers intriguing characterizations, presents a fresh perspective, or is written in a way that strikes an authentic note. Dunn accomplishes two out of the three, resulting in a lively and rich tale that still ends up feeling hollow.

Framed by Cat’s account of how Katherine’s indiscretions are discovered, in November 1541, the bulk of the novel looks back on their shared adolescence. Fittingly for Katherine’s personality, it’s divided into three sections – each corresponding to one of her sexual conquests. These are Henry Madox, her music teacher; Francis Dereham, a family friend who becomes her first real lover; and Thomas Culpeper, a handsome, snobbish nobleman.

With her breezy style, Dunn captures the lax atmosphere of their years spent in the household of Agnes Howard, Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, a rich distant relative of Cat’s, and the step-grandmother of Katherine (or Kate, as she’s called). Kate is a mature girl of twelve whose worldly attitude is assumed, but it makes her the unofficial leader of their little group. At Horsham in Sussex, they live in giddy isolation and ignorance, spending their days gossiping rather than in book learning, and forming liaisons with attractive men.

Eventually they’re relocated to Lambeth Palace, across the river from the king’s residence at Whitehall – the perfect launch point for the ambitious Howards, who are eager to return to power following the disgrace of their late niece, Anne Boleyn. Kate is quick to dump Francis after her family secures a place for her as one of Anne of Cleves’s ladies, whereupon Cat takes up with him herself. (Their relationship is fictional.)

Cat’s narration is casual and modern, full of would’ve and should’ve and d’you think?, much as you'd find in a contemporary YA novel. It suits these characters well. Gorgeous as they are, the lush descriptions in the first few pages – “England: firelight and fireblush; wine-dark, winking gemstones and a frost of pearls… satins glossy like a midsummer midnight or opalescent like winter sunrise” – feel out of place in contrast.

Kate, for all her claims to wisdom, is rather dim, convinced that the king’s infatuation with her will continue – even going so far as to sleep with Culpeper (with bed-thumping intensity) in her rooms at the palace. Cat, for her part, keeps insisting that “Little Kate Howard” was “just a girl” and “nobody much”… a typical nineteen-year-old who was doing a “perfect job” as queen until she was unlucky enough to get caught. The reader knows better. Kate, after all, is someone who describes the king as “good fun” after their first meeting, even knowing he had her cousin executed. And when tensions run high, Cat and Kate look to save themselves and their lovers rather than each other… such is what passes for friendship in the ruthless Tudor era, it seems.

Nobody comes out a winner here, except perhaps master manipulator Archbishop Cranmer – something everyone knows from the beginning. The problem is that the girls’ naiveté makes them more pitiable than sympathetic, and Kate’s bitchiness – which could have livened up the action – is seen only from the sidelines. It's plenty entertaining, and as a portrait of the times, it feels depressingly realistic, but don’t look for characters to admire or care about. As a result, rather than a heartrending tragedy about a wronged woman, the novel reads like a sad account of the inevitable.

The Confession of Katherine Howard is published April 5th by Harper Paperbacks at $14.99 (307pp).  It was previously published by HarperCollins UK.


  1. Hmm - sounds interesting. I haven't read much about Kathryn Howard. Thanks for the heads up on this one.

  2. I've been going back and forth about this one. I'll probably give into my usual Tudormania, but probably wait until I can find it cheap.

  3. Great review, Sarah. The book sounds quite good.

  4. It was good, although Katherine Howard's a hard character to work with. There's no getting around the fact that she was writing love notes to another man while married to the king, so no matter how she's portrayed (naive or sex-crazed), she must not've been the brightest bulb...

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