The Sixth Wife

Written by Suzannah Dunn

This is the author’s second foray into historical fiction. The Queen of Subtleties told the story of Anne Boleyn. Here she turns to Henry VIII’s sixth and last wife, Katherine Parr.

The novel’s narrator is Catherine, Duchess of Suffolk, Katherine’s friend and confidante and is set after Henry’s death when Katherine is newly married to Thomas Seymour. Theirs is a crowded household. Both Elizabeth Tudor and Jane Grey are in their care, and the Duchess visits often and is witness to Thomas’s dangerous power-play. During Kate’s pregnancy, Catherine begins a secret affair with Thomas (neither historically verifiable nor likely), and the wheels of treachery both personal and political are set in motion.

Dunn writes very well indeed. The more descriptive passages are beautiful, but they’re too modern in tone. But what puzzles me most is why she chooses to write historical fiction in a very modern vernacular. It’s not that I demand cod-Shakespearian prose, and I do agree that history should be accessible. However, ultra-modern slang such as ‘done him proud’, ‘sidekick’ and even worse, ‘cheat on’ into a story about Tudor aristocrats grated horribly on me.

It’s not only the language. History tells us that the duchess was a highly educated woman and yet Dunn’s Catherine thinks and speaks like a schoolgirl. Anachronisms also abound. There’s no point dressing one’s characters in farthingales and ruffs but have them performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and ‘switching off’ fountains.

Finally, another quibble: This is not a novel about Katherine Parr. We never get to hear what she thinks or feels. It’s not even about Thomas Seymour. This is the Duchess of Suffolk’s tale, and she deserves better than this shallow, unsympathetic portrayal.