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Wife Number Five

By (April 1, 2011) No Comment

The Confession of Katherine Howard

By Suzannah Dunn
Harpercollins, 2011

On 28 July, 1540, King Henry VIII married his fifth wife only seven months after he’d married his fourth. Henry’s ruthless counselor Thomas Cromwell had agitated for months that an alliance with some reform-friendly Continental princess would strengthen Henry’s hand against the temporarily united might of France and the Holy Roman Empire; finally Cromwell had found such a princess: Anne of Cleves, whom court painter Hans Holbein portrayed as radiant in her modesty. Henry liked the painting but not the flesh-and-blood woman, and almost as soon as he could get their hasty marriage hastily annulled, two things happened – on the same day: he had Cromwell executed, and he married young Catherine Howard, a girl so seemingly pure and sweet he referred to her as his “rose without a thorn.”

To the extent that Henry is ever easy to understand, his motives for this particular match are clear. Catherine Howard was a younger daughter of a younger son of the powerful 2nd Duke of Norfolk, so she had a connection – appealingly tenuous – with one of the oldest and most conservative families in the realm. But she herself was hardly a power-player in the dynastic game, merely a fresh-faced teenage girl who must have seemed to Henry like a breath of pure English familiarity after his disastrous foreign folly. The King had a way of storing up trouble for himself, and this was due to his almost unerring ability to draw the wrong lessons from his own past. Yes, Catherine Howard was English nobility like his beloved Jane Seymour had been (and possibly just as fertile – the Howards were notoriously numerous), but she was also the first cousin of Anne Boleyn.

In Suzannah Dunn’s absorbing 2007 novel The Sixth Wife, Catherine (our author prefers the ‘K’) Howard gets a tart summing-up by the book’s narrator, the worldly-wise Duchess of Suffolk:

It was all too depressingly easy to see how it had happened. For almost twenty years she’d been just another of the Norfolk girls, one of the dispensable ones, a nonentity, so unimportant that no one had even bothered to make marriage plans for her. There’d been something to say for such a life, though: it had always been her own. Suddenly that was no longer the case and her tragedy was that she didn’t realise it.

In Dunn’s new novel, The Confession of Katherine Howard, a worried matron, having met Anne of Cleves for the first time, blurts out, “Look, this won’t do, we’re heading for a disaster, there’s been a mistake because this is just some girl” – and she might as well have been talking about the Howard girl, this second Queen Catherine who would so soon succeed the second Queen Anne. As young Katherine friend Cat Tilney realizes:

Kate? Seventeen-year-old Kate with nothing, really, to say for herself? Kate, with her sideways glances. Kate, who’d never really done anything or been anywhere. Anyway, the king had so very rarely had mistresses, people said, he’d had wives instead and look whom he’d gone for: soulful Catherine, witty Anne Boleyn, and then, when he was sick of clever women, Queen Jane with her lowered eyes and held tongue. Kate had nothing in common with any of the ladies who’d turned the king’s head.

The Confession of Katherine Howard is Cat’s narration of that girl’s story, starting when Catherine is sent to the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk’s country home in Horsham to receive an education befitting a nobleman’s daughter, even a “bottom of the pile” Howard. There she joins Cat and a handful of other girls in a relatively carefree rural life. Modern teens would find Cat and the other girls amusingly naïve (“We all knew what you had to do to have a baby, though, unless you were the Virgin Mary,” Cat asserts at one point, but there’s still a lot of funny guesswork, utterly unenlightened by the adults who flit in and out of the scene). But young Kate is knowing enough to walk from this novel into the latest Gossip Girl adventure, and from her first appearance she begins to darken the idyll with her wayward sophistication, although Dunn holds it at bay just a bit with gorgeous descriptions of Horsham itself:

That first autumn of mine at the duchess’s was wonderful, a St Luke’s Little Summer. Crusty sea-green lavender heads bobbed under burly bees, and everywhere was strung with barely visible spider webs of improbable spans, individual threads turned into tiny lightning bolts by the low sun. The air was somehow always cooler than I’d anticipated, like water, and moving through it gave me the pleasurable sensation of being dowsed. High above me and above the indignant rooks, birdsong tweaked at the sky as if pulling it flat in readiness for lowering it down, and dusk rose around me as rich as woodsmoke.

Into that autumn comes the handsome new music teacher Henry Manox, who brings with him memories of a London – a kind of London – the girls have never dreamed possible, a place that he suddenly makes alluring:

Henry Manox, though, spoke of buying a cheese roll from a strolling vendor, and sitting to eat it on some steps in a garden square in the sun. Of skating on the Thames, the fog like snow in the air. Walking in drizzle along the bank at Southwark on Sundays with a friend and his dog. Visiting the tailor and teasing his apprentice, indulging his cat. Haggling over gut at the market and heading home to re-string but being waylaid by friends and spending the afternoon instead at a tavern, swapping scrawled sheets of music.

In short order, as much out of boredom as lust, young Kate begins an affair with Manox that eventually becomes so semi-public that he can refer to her as his wife – until the Duchess moves the girls to the family’s London seat at Lambeth, on the outside hope that a Howard relation might catch the eye of a king rumored to be dissatisfied with his new Dutch wife. Among Dunn’s many strengths as a writer is her acute sensitivity to the ways places shape the people who use them – her novels are full of living spaces, rather than the wall-sconce cardboard-scenery on display in far too many historical novels. In her description of the Norfolk palace at Lambeth, we can already sense the heady temptations its life will place before these transplanted girls:

The Hall opened on a garden of yew-bordered rose beds, and the gallery running from Hall to Oratory was no bare-boarded thoroughfare like Horsham’s but a long, furnished room displaying Howard treasures: vivid portraits and gleaming tapestries, Venetian glasses, intricate clocks and compasses. The Oratory was as grand, I imagined, as a cathedral. And the stables were packed with the duke’s horses. Being a town house, so close to London, there was space only for a garden and orchard: no outhouses or farm. So, laundry was collected, and most of our food delivered. Meat and fish came fresh from the London markets, whereas at Horsham we’d lived half the year out of briny barrels. The river delivered visitors, too, not the farmhands and wheelwrights of Horsham but noblemen and ambassadors, their oarsmen liveried and their vessels fluttering canopies and banners. They disembarked on to a sweep of stone steps guarded by mythical creatures flourishing gilded teeth and claws.

The Howard plan works. The King becomes fascinated with Kate, and in the blink of an eye she’s his new queen. She adds Cat and some of her Horsham compatriots to her household, which already sports such old-hand satellites as the Parr sisters (one of whom, another Catherine, will go on to become Henry’s last wife), pretty young Norfolk-page Francis Dereham, dashing royal courtier Thomas Culpeper, and Jane Rochford, whose testimony, a few years before, had sent both Anne Boleyn and her own husband to their deaths. Dunn does a superb job of making Jane Rochford a weird and brittle outcast even in that tight-knit group:

With no group, that morning, as on any other, was Jane Rochford: not a family member nor girlhood friend, but not quite accepted either by her fellow old hands. While we waited for Kate, she reclined on cushions, absently stroking Lizzie Seymour’s little dog. I recalled the rumour that her well-placed and fictitious hint of her husband’s intimate relationship with his sister, Queen Anne Boleyn, had secured his execution. In the four years since, no man had come along to relieve her of her widowhood and she remained, unique among us, neither maid nor married lady.

Catherine Howard

This is who we are: the perfect queen and her faithful retinue,” Cat reflects. “Now, I wish I could go back, patter over the lavish carpets to tap us on the shoulders, whisper in our ears and get us out of there alive. Little did we know it, but, that night, we were already ghosts in our own lives.” For even though she now lives in a palace and wears a queen’s gowns, young Kate views herself as a victim, forced to marry a grotesque and impotent old king and therefore entitled to take the same kind of pleasures that enlivened her days at Horsham. One of these pleasures is Francis Dereham, but when she drops him in favor of Culpeper, Francis and Cat strike up a friendship that naturally develops into passion. Cat is enraptured by her “lovely” Francis with his “fluffy, boy-blond hair,” and Dunn manages their erotic awakening with a deft minimalism:


I reeled and had to right myself but then still felt precarious, startled by new aspects of him: the hollow made by his extended, raised arm; his ribs, their tangible resilience; the nudging of his chin against my temple.

Subtle vortices strengthen throughout Dunn’s beguiling book (this is her best novel yet, and the previous ones were no flimsy competition), and for a brief, unbearably tense interlude, they run precisely parallel: Cat and Francis pursue their upbeat, future-opening relationship right alongside the doom Kate and Culpeper’s relationship is bringing upon themselves. Sometimes the two overlap, including one bizarre scene where they do so literally, in one big bed, and always gathering in the background are whispers in corridors, official murmurs, the growing but quiet threat of an investigation. Readers familiar with Tudor history know what’s coming, but even those with no forewarning will want to pull all these self-indulgent characters apart and urge them, like the older Cat does, to save themselves before it’s too late.

It’s too late almost immediately. The Howards have powerful enemies at Henry’s court, and when they sniff out a potential weakness in this new queen, they waste no time in acting. Francis is brought in for questioning and ultimately disappears into the Tower (in Dunn’s novel, Cat mercifully doesn’t know that he’ll stay there until his horrific execution – she ends the book still dreaming they’ll marry and have children), and Kate is interrogated by Archbishop Cranmer and confined to her rooms while she’s under investigation. Cat also has a talk with Cranmer (in Dunn’s superb portrait of the man, he’s the quintessence of soft, oily, passive aggression, a kind of anti-Cromwell), who tells her “we have a very, very hurt and angry king” and wheedles out of her everything she knows about the queen’s infidelities. In a lover’s impulse that overrides everything else, Cat is believably anxious about her lover’s safety in that horrible place:

I was thinking of Francis, of how unassuming was his beauty, of how he made nothing of it, wearing it slung over his bones as if he might mislay it somewhere if that were possible, or shrug it off should it prove any kind of hindrance, and then scamper away unburdened and ordinary. Now that he was in the Tower, that perfection of his might be suffering a different kind of disregard from his captors in their search for places to bruise or stretch, tear or burn.

Her worry – and her bleak realization that Kate doesn’t share it – prompts an eleventh-hour reconsideration of her old friend the queen:

How, though, really, it struck me, had she ever been a proper queen? A little over a year running around in some lovely dresses: that’s all it had been, her queenship. A private wedding in a tiny chapel. No coronation. She was a nineteen-year-old girl who’d produced no heirs, promoted no one, inspired no reforms or counter-reforms, and made no alliances.

Dunn’s greatest achievement in The Confession of Katherine Howard is to render that nineteen-year-old girl as selfish and heedless – and yet move us to a kind of sympathy, if not directly with her than with all those whose lives come to ruin because of her. “No one could know more about queens than a king,” Cat at one point innocently thinks, but Henry himself is virtually absent from this book. The emphasis is on the the women of the Tudor world, and the irony is that the novel’s biggest weak spot is one of those women: Jane Rochford. As noted, Dunn does a good job of portraying her as the scorned and baffling outsider she was – too good a job, in fact: there’s simply no way the Katherine depicted in this novel would ever, even for a moment, trust the Jane Rochford she describes – the key betrayal at the book’s climax could never happen, because Dunn’s Kate could never rely on Dunn’s Jane enough to make it necessary.

Considering the strength of the forces gathering against the new young queen, the book’s climax was inevitable – so those misaligned characters perhaps don’t qualify as a major flaw. Dunn could certainly make amends by writing one of her crackling-good novels specifically about Jane Rochford. In this isolated instance, I wouldn’t object at all.

Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, The Washington Post, The National and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.