I received my review copy of Alison Weir’s latest historical novel and read it immediately because, from the first pages, I was hooked by this version of Katheryn that I felt I hadn’t met before.
Weir’s Katheryn is grounded in the loss of her mother and the subsequent move into a relative’s home, ‘She had not dreamed that losing Mother would mean losing Father as well.’ Adrift and disposable, the young girl is immediately powerless and has no say in how her life is decided. She is like a little doll moved this way and that by those more powerful than her. This helplessness and vulnerability is reflected throughout the story, and it is only in small ways that Katheryn can grasp at her own identity and independence.
Rather than stupid, careless or foolishly promiscuous, this Katheryn is naïve and longing for love. The relationship with her music teacher, Manox, is shown by Weir to be a battle between a lonely girl longing for caresses and the pleasure of intimacy, with the more rational and sensible girl who knew this could be devastating for her reputation. Weir writes, ‘She was in love, and the world looked rosier for it.’ Manox manipulates Katheryn’s longing for him by pressuring her to marry him. He withholds affection, nags and forces himself on her without her consent. Weir doesn’t hold back from describing the physical moments, in that scene Manox is whirling Katheyn around until she is breathless and giggling, and few moments later tries to enter her body, ‘stabbing at her, followed by unbearably sharp, hot pain.’ Her body as a possession belonging to her family, a virginity that must not be violated, is shown to be in danger from both her lack of sex education (she is not even sure what sex involves or if she is still a virgin) and the man’s manipulations of her.
However, Weir writes her character to show how Katheryn quickly grows up and begins to realise that Manox’s love is not the thing of stories, but sordid and unpleasant. Katheryn boldly finishes the affair, and tries to persuade herself and others it never happened. This aspect of her personality that Weir emphasises, that of a victim hiding from the unpleasant or frightening, is a subtle difference to the portrayal of her as careless, frivolous or daft that is so often seen in TV, film or other novels.
The novel is replete with Weir’s scholarly research, and these moments, perhaps shown by character’s talking about estates, family history or memories of their grandparents, give a depth to the narrative that aids the reader to see Katheryn as a real little girl, rather than a two-dimensional figure from history. Overhearing things being gossiped about by adults is a well-observed aspect of a young person’s life, the loss of innocence unravelling as heavier concerns are realised. It also allows the narrative to follow the structure of Katheryn’s point of view throughout, which adds a feeling of claustrophobia. Katheryn is a kind of prisoner, she cannot escape or reach people. She is reliant on messengers, trusting her women or waiting to find out things.
Two aspects of the novel that surprised me were Henry and Katheryn’s relationship having positive aspects and Culpeper not being portrayed as the purely romantic hero. This felt refreshing. Henry, despite his bulk and abscess, was a King with all the resplendent power that would give him to make the young woman look at him with adoration. It felt right, in Weir’s version of her character, that Katheryn would be quite delighted to be his wife and, after some initial difficult kisses, respond to him as a lover. Weir writes, ‘His aging body held no terrors for her, and he knew how to please a lady. If he had been twenty years younger, he would have been the perfect lover.’ I think this approach is interesting, and added a new perspective on the imagined relationship between the young woman and the much older King.
Culpeper tells her he is dying of love for her, he pressures her, he entreats her. Combined with the meddling of Jane Rochford, Katheryn is once more a vulnerable doll thrown this way and that. She attempts to resist by focusing on her duty to the King: ‘I love him Tom, he has been more than good to me.’ However, due to the abandonment in her childhood and her genuine attraction to Culpeper, Katheryn responds to him and falls in love. She is caught in the romance of it all, in thrall to someone wanting her so fiercely, especially when the King’s illness leaves her neglected and she has a great need within herself for attention and affection. Weir shows how Katheryn refuses to fully succumb to Culpeper, how she has an inner strength despite all insecurities and his manipulations and plans (to marry her once the King is dead). His love for her is ambitious love.
This novel is a well researched journey to another time period. It is a tragedy about a young girl who just wanted love and validation, which ends with her murder, aged only twenty-one year, due to political families using or disposing of her body for their own advantage. Weir’s research creates a narrative full of details that make a compelling story, whilst bringing new aspects to previously stereotyped characterisations of these famous people. Henry’s tenderness when Katheryn loses a baby, because he has experienced it many times before and knows how to comfort her, is a refreshing take on this man who is viewed as a monster known as Bluff King Hal.
A good read!