Book Review: The Unfaithful Queen
St. Martin’s Press, 2012
Vacuously pretty, empty-headed young Catherine Howard, the girl who was maneuvered by family politics into becoming the fifth wife of Henry VIII, would seem to be poor material indeed for the heroine treatment. She combined an extreme moral suggestibility with an even more extreme stupidity (is there any other word that can apply to a young woman who would risk multiple adulteries with this king, of all kings?), and after less than a year on the throne, she got her head lopped off for her troubles.
Rough, unyielding material, and yet novelists old and new have been drawn to this brief, hysterical interlude in the hopes of finding something in its base metal that can be transmuted into gold. The latest attempt is by seasoned historian and sometime novelist Carolly Erickson (whose last foray into Tudor fiction centered on the previous odd-numbered queen, Jane Seymour), whose novel The Unfaithful Queen, alas, never quite moves beyond the Sunday school simplifications evident even in its title. The book is narrated by Catherine – which is dramatic obstacle #1, since the historical Catherine had the intellectual capacity (and, come to think of it, amorous rapacity) of an aphid.
In taking her readers through all the various preliminary items in Catherine’s sorry story – her manipulations at the hands of her scheming, power-hungry uncle, Thomas Howard, the Earl of Norfolk (and her run-ins with Norfolk’s horrifying mother), her … well, let’s use the word “dalliances” with lovers like Francis Dereham or Thomas Manox or Thomas Culpeper, whom Erickson is certainly not the first to characterize as the great love of her life – our author presents a thoughtful, aware young woman who might remember the motto “Do what you can, take what you need, act as you must,” but who’s first and foremost a victim, both of Henry’s unpredictable blood-lust:
Listening to him, and watching the gems on his remarkable coat clash with fire whenever he moved, it was difficult for me to remember that it was King Henry who had ordered cousin Anne Boleyn to her death – that gruesome, ghastly death I had been forced to watch – and in recent months had ordered more than a dozen of his other relations to die as well, assuming my father’s count was correct. How could one man be so amicable and pleasing and at the same time so dangerous and cruel?
And, later, of his just-plain lust:
Our physical lovemaking was awkward. His enormous weight and bulk crushed me and when he was on top of me, grunting and straining, it was all I could do to breathe, he was so heavy. I am a very small woman. I could not help dreading his onslaughts. I prayed to be able to endure him.
Early in the book, Catherine befriends a little marmoset (sole survivor of a group shipped in from Brazil) who acts as her familiar all through the book – a chattering, hyperactive, pitiless and therefore perhaps more accurate familiar than Erickson sees. It’s a heavy-handed bit of business, and it’s mirrored by Erickson’s prose, which very often smacks of historical fiction from one or even two generations ago. Our author refers to this book as an “entertainment,” perhaps intentionally echoing the signal Graham Greene used to alert readers (and more importantly, critics) to which books they shouldn’t take quite seriously. When Catherine is sad, she reels off lines like, “I sank down onto my bed, my face pressed into the soft pillows, and gave way to despair.” When Henry is happy, he slips right into Bulwer-Lytton territory: “What ho!”
These pages are filled with familiar faces from the Tudor fiction scene, characters such as the vile Lady Rochford, who’s lately been portrayed in both fiction and history – and liked no more here than anywhere else:
She sidled. She wheedled. She insinuated. There was nothing straightforward about Jane Rochford, and besides, she was unattractive and old. Nearer forty than thirty years old. She was tall and bony and wore her hair in three unbecoming curly clumps, poorly covered by her headdress.
And Erickson can work herself up to a fine dramatic pitch when she’s got her material firmly in hand, as when even late in the book’s action, Catherine still clings to her self-serving naivete about a king who, as one courtier observes, “changes wives as often as other men change their hose and doublet”:
“My husband would never allow me to be hurt,” I managed to say [to Norfolk]
“You think not! You cannot imagine his rage when he learned that you had betrayed him, lied to him, dishonored him again and again! He cursed you at the top of his lungs! He called for his sword. He wanted to kill you himself!”
But in the end, not all the spirit in the world can save a narrative with such a sucking vacuum at its center. A novel genuinely representing the first-person reality of Catherine Howard would be full of blank pages, hastily-jotted lists of coveted jewelry pieces, and ineptly-disguised gushings about the prettiest boys at court. That’s the essential dramatic road-block of Wife #5: it’s a story in which nobody learns anything, in which there’s not even a moment of transcendence, in which the alarm-clock predictability of events robs them of any chance at being cathartic. If Catherine had been innocent – or if Henry had been as completely duped as he protested himself – things would be different. As it is, not even as dutiful a Tudor fan as Erickson can salvage things.