Launch: Wendy J. Dunn’s Henry VIII’s True Daughter: Catherine Carey, A Tudor Life
INTERVIEW BY ELLEN IRWIN
Australian author Wendy J. Dunn has long had a passion for Tudor history—a passion that has inspired award-winning fiction giving a unique voice to Tudor-era figures. One such figure is the daughter of Mary Boleyn and favourite of Elizabeth I, Catherine Carey, who is the protagonist of Dunn’s 2014 novel, The Light in the Labyrinth. Applying meticulous research, Dunn takes a step outside her usual storytelling to present a nonfictional account of Catherine Carey, making a strong case for the possibility that Catherine was Henry VIII’s natural daughter, and placing her as an important figure in the success of Elizabeth I’s reign.
How would you describe this book and its themes in a couple of sentences?
In Henry VIII’s True Daughter, I wanted to prove Catherine Carey was Henry VIII’s daughter and Elizabeth I’s half-sister and to bring attention to her as an important Tudor figure, as there is little known about her.
Catherine Carey seems relegated to the shadows of Tudor history. How did you first discover her, and what attracted you to writing her account?
I discovered her years ago. I kept on coming across a legend that Catherine was with Anne Boleyn in the tower of London and witnessed her execution. I thought, oh, this is amazing. But when I investigated more, I learned she was another Tudor woman with an uncertain birth year. Most historians date her birth around 1524, which makes her only twelve around the time of Anne Boleyn’s execution. When I worked out that she was only twelve, I thought, she’s too young. She might have been in the tower, but she would not have been at the execution.
After writing this nonfiction about Catherine, I now believe she was twelve. Her mother, Mary, ended up marrying down for love. As a result, her family shut Mary out. Mary moved away with her husband William Stafford, and Catherine likely stayed behind with her grandmother. That would have been a huge thing for Catherine to deal with—her mother disappearing out of her life when she was ten. By twelve, she had already been through a lot! She had to behave like an adult from an early age. I suspect that made her more mature than most of her contemporaries, which strengthens the possibility that she did witness Anne Boleyn’s execution.
It sounds like Catherine was a complex figure with an interesting backstory. What is the most important thing you believe readers should know about her?
Catherine was amazingly strong and loyal in the context of her Tudor world. She was Elizabeth I’s mentor, and very much part of Elizabeth’s life. Elizabeth never worried about Catherine betraying her. There’s no gossip attached to Catherine that suggests she was ever playing court games or engaging in disloyalty or treachery. I would emphasize that she’s a woman whose story deserves to be told.
I believe that Catherine learned a lot from her mother, Mary, about how to counsel Elizabeth. My respect for Mary Boleyn exploded after my research for this book. I don’t believe that there are passive women. We hide a lot of things behind different masks. I think Mary was definitely a strong person, ultimately having the courage to go against her family, go with her heart, and marry beneath her. I suspect she taught Catherine a lot about heeding warnings and being careful at court.
I love your idea that there are no passive women. What impression did you get from research about how women were viewed during the Tudor era while writing this nonfiction?
One thing that became apparent to me was the impression that the women who served Elizabeth were not simply important, but they were vitally important. When Elizabeth became queen, there was a lot of betting going on that she would fail. So many things were against Elizabeth—she was unmarried, a woman, the country was bankrupt after being dragged into a war by Mary I’s husband. If Elizabeth didn’t have that strong group of women serving and supporting her, giving her the gossip about what was going on at court so she could control the men, she might not have been so successful as queen.
Would you share a bit about your research process for this book, as well as mention any professors’ or historians’ works which helped influence your own work?
I work as a lecturer and tutor at Swinburne University of Technology, so I have access to the university’s library. I found academic papers on really interesting subjects for this book. The internet allowed me to find primary materials, and I used a good balance of books with those academic papers.
In one book, I found the heartbreaking letters of Catherine’s husband, Francis Knollys. The poor man was stuck looking after Mary Queen of Scots while Catherine was ill and was desperate to be by his wife’s side. There are other letters written to Catherine—including a very famous letter by Elizabeth I—but nothing left of Catherine’s writing. I don’t doubt that she wrote many letters in her life, but they have been lost. That is so frustrating, though I was relieved to find some useful primary resources.
How has the process of writing and publishing historical nonfiction differed from writing and publishing historical fiction for you?
With fiction, since my first Tudor novel was published in 2002, I usually have a work that is ready to go, before thinking about a publisher. The big difference with this nonfiction is that Pen & Sword Books commissioned me to write it. They gave me three projects to choose from—I chose the Catherine Carey project, because that one called to me most. This provided a contract from the start and also a deadline. Along with that, I had an editor—a lovely editor I could go to for questions and encouragement. Now, that first editor has gone on to another publisher, but an equally wonderful editor replaced her. As soon as I sent Henry VIII’s True Daughter: Catherine Carey, A Tudor Life for its first major edit, she asked, “What do you want to write next?” The thing that convinced me to sign is, of course, I discovered more fascinating people during research who have not yet been explored in fiction or nonfiction.
Considering this book from conception to publication, what was your favourite part of the writing journey?
I enjoyed the research element the most. Like all writers of history, I have moments of, oh, this is interesting, let’s go down this rabbit hole and investigate more, and then I realize it has nothing to do with my book. But the research was enjoyable because of that—finding unexpected things. One of the books I remember well from my research was a Chronicle of Tudor England—the author made it clear that though the Tudors didn’t have TV or internet, they did have gossip. It made me laugh. Often the author’s focus was on who was doing what to whom. I think that was their main form of entertainment—talking about the doings of others. It makes for good stories.
It certainly does! Speaking of great stories, what was the last great book you read?
Without question, Elizabeth St. John’s The Godmother’s Secret.