What with the torrent of movies, miniseries and novels set in the age of Henry VIII, the monarch's ill-fated queens have become a media industry in the last few years. There are high points, certainly. Hilary Mantel's prize-winning WOLF HALL is a masterly evocation of Henry's reign, as are the superb historical mysteries by C.J. Sansom. And Philippa Gregory's many novels of the period are colorful, absorbing reads with a satisfyingly authentic feel.
If Suzannah Dunn's latest historical novel, her fourth, isn't quite up to those lofty standards, it is an entertainingly frothy gloss on the story of Henry's unlucky fifth wife. THE CONFESSION OF KATHERINE HOWARD's particular distinction is its emphasis on the youthfulness of the queen and her friends (her precise birth date is disputed, but in Dunn's book she is 17 when she marries Henry). Katherine is that recognizable Popular Girl --- there's one in every high school class; I can remember mine with dead accuracy --- whose enigmatic cool and sexual sophistication other girls envy and admire, love and hate. Kat Tilney, the novel's narrator, positively radiates ambivalence. A girl from a solid but hardly aristocratic family, she meets Katherine when both have been farmed out to the Duchess of Norfolk's household to be educated and made marriageable.
Kat is a good foil for Katherine. She is much more naïve, her rather medieval notions of love ("A lady could only love one man --- romantically --- at a time") colliding with her friend's taste for sexual variety. Although she is able initially to resist the Howard girl's seductive powers, ultimately they become close friends (they even fall in love, consecutively, with the same man). When Katherine becomes queen, she appoints Kat as one of her ladies-in-waiting.
Dunn makes the dramatically effective decision to start the novel at the point of maximum danger, as Katherine's enemies are gathering. Her premarital sex life is the issue, so the queen's peril leads quite neatly to a series of flashbacks to her girlhood flirtations and bedroom romps. When Francis Dereham --- Katherine's secretary and former boyfriend, and Kat's current swain --- is pulled in for questioning by the king's secretary of state, the wheels of fate begin to turn.
We all know how Katherine ended up (hint: it rhymes with wedded); the suspense in THE CONFESSION OF KATHERINE HOWARD lies in which side Kat comes down on. Will she try to protect her boyfriend or remain loyal to her friend and queen? Adolescent girls being what they are, despite the vaunted sisterly values of feminism, there's no telling....
And make no mistake: Teenagers, with their inimitable mix of innocence and knowingness, vulnerability and opportunism, are what Dunn's book is all about. She has written an easy-to-read, diverting novel with some attractive prose, particularly when it comes to descriptions of clothes ("England: firelight and fireblush; wine-dark, winking gemstones and a frost of pearls. Wool as soft as silk, in leaf-green and moss; satins glossy like a midsummer midnight or opalescent like winter sunrise"). She is assuming, apparently, that girls then, as now, were fashion-mad, and frighteningly frank about sex. My main quibble is that Dunn also assumes that people spoke the same way in Henry VIII's time as they do today. Just a sampling of anachronisms: "Kidding"; "Nice one"; "Amazing." It's not that her characters have to be uttering doths and forsooths at every turn, but this is a bit much.
Historical fidelity isn't its strong point, yet THE CONFESSION OF KATHERINE HOWARD does bring the young queen's poignant story to life. Katherine may not have been a true innocent, but she hardly deserved so cruel a death. As for Kat, the good girl to the queen's wanton diva, I rooted for her and Francis to survive, marry, and have a family. You'll have to read the book yourself to find out if they got their happy ending.
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on April 25, 2011