Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Sixth Wife - Suzannah Dunn

This is a gripping novel of love, passion, betrayal and heartbreak. Katharine Parr survived Henry VIII to find true love with Thomas Seymour - only to realise that her love was based on a lie. Clever, sensible and well-liked, Katharine Parr trod a knife edge of diplomacy and risk during her marriage to an ageing, cantankerous King Henry. When he died, she was in her late thirties and love, it seemed, had passed her by. Until, that is, the popular Thomas Seymour - bold, handsome, witty and irresistible - began a relentless courtship that won her heart. Katharine fell passionately in love for the first time in her life and, also for the first time, threw caution to the wind with a marriage that shocked the worldly courtiers around her. But, all too soon it becomes obvious that Thomas has plans beyond his marriage for the young, capricious, quick-witted heir to the throne - Elizabeth - and that in his quest for power, he might even be prepared to betray his now pregnant wife! Katharine Parr's ecstasy and tragedy are witnessed and recounted by her closest friend, Catherine, Duchess of Suffolk, who lives through the tumultuous years after Henry's death at Katherine's side. A polished courtier in her own right, Catherine is sharply aware of the political realities of life at court and is, apparently, a loyal supporter of her friend. As her story weaves its way through that of Katherine and Thomas's heady passion and tragic denouement, however, it gradually becomes clear that Catherine has her own tale of betrayal and regret to tell!
I have recently been reading lots of Tudor history and this is another one this time focusing on Henry VIII’s last queen, Katherine Parr.

The book tells of Katherine story after the king dies and she is left free to marry Thomas Seymour. What I knew about her was that she had been, previous to her royal marriage, close to Seymour and that they had planned to marry. When they do marry it seems that Katherine may finally have her happy ending after having been married 3 times to older husbands. Unfortunately Thomas doesn’t prove to be a husband of substance and there are rumours of him being over familiar with Princess Elizabeth who was fourteen at the time and lived with them. Truth or not those rumours seem to have weighed Katherine down and made her last days unhappy ones.

Dunn provides us with a different story here using those same facts, or rumours that are known to have existed, and despite myself I found the story highly entertaining. I say despite myself because in the beginning I wasn’t too sure where she was leading me and whether I liked her narrator. The book is written in the first person by Catherine, the Duchess of Suffolk, Maria de Salinas’ daughter and Katherine Parr’s best friend.

I think the use of first person worked beautifully in the story so as to provide us with a view of the period. We are privy to Cathy’s (the Duchess of Suffolk) thoughts, we get to know her feelings and her views on marriage, politics and children and we see Kate (Katherine Parr) through her eyes. Kate is a woman who lived her motto – To Be Useful In All I Do – and Cathy does feel that Kate’s friendship was an invaluable treasure when she was growing up and in need of guidance. Not only for Cathy, but for everyone else in need of help that came to her ,Kate is the person who always knows what to do to make everything right again. There’s no better proof of that than when she takes Jane Grey and Elizabeth under her wing bringing some joy to their young lives. Cathy distrusts Seymour and is unsure whether his marriage to Kate was of interest or love but Kate seems very happy and wants her best friend around to share her happiness so Cathy stays in Suddeley for a time.

The problem I had was that in the end I felt the book was more about Cathy, albeit in an assumed fictional situation, then about Kate. I don’t feel I know Kate better than I did before but I feel I know Cathy and the political problems and machinations of the time. I did like that Cathy had a determination and sharp mind but in the end she stays a person of her own time, trying to save herself and her children of scandal and not hesitating in blaming others so as to disguise her faults. I’m also not too keen on sexual scandals being the center of the plot and it seems that most of Tudor stories revolve around sex as much as about politics. But in a way it seems fitting that authors keep coming up with such plots seeing how Henry VIII kept accusing some of his wives of crimes of that nature while he kept quite a few mistresses on the side…

Dunn does mention in the end that the relationship she created here is a fictional one but frankly I don’t know what would have been worse. To have Kate dying and raving at Seymour because of Elizabeth, or because of Cathy. Both perspectives are painful and I feel Katherine Parr deserved better in her last days.

Grade: 3.5/5


  1. I just won a copy of Jean Plaidy's Sixth Wife. It would be interesting to compare the two.

  2. Yes it will, I haven't read that one yet so I'll be looking forward to your opinion.


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