22 January, 2009

The Sixth Wife, by Suzannah Dunn. Book review

Edition reviewed: Harper Perennial 2007. ISBN: 978-0-00-722972-7. 298 pages.

Set in 1547–1548, The Sixth Wife is narrated by Catherine Duchess of Suffolk and covers the period after the death of Henry VIII, when his widow (the sixth and last wife) Katherine Parr married Thomas Seymour. All the main characters are historical figures, but the love triangle that forms the central premise of the novel is fictional.

Catherine, Duchess of Suffolk (“Cathy”) is the closest friend of Katherine Parr (“Kate”), sixth and last wife of King Henry VIII. Within months of Henry’s death, Kate marries the handsome and dashing Thomas Seymour, her old love. Outspoken and forthright, Cathy cannot understand what Kate sees in Thomas and is suspicious of his motives. But on a visit to help Kate with her first pregnancy, Cathy succumbs to Thomas Seymour’s allure, and soon a net of lies and betrayals threatens them all.

In her afterword titled Tudorspeak, Suzannah Dunn says “I don’t do historical fiction”. Having read The Sixth Wife, I would concur with that. This is not just because of the aggressively modern prose style, although I did find that somewhat distracting. It’s because I felt the story could have taken place at any time. The names attached to the three people in the love triangle happen to be historical figures, but the novel is driven mainly by the emotional turmoil resulting from an extramarital affair, and the emotions involved (lust, guilt at betraying a friend, fear of discovery, etc) apply just as readily now as in the sixteenth century. Possibly more so now, since religious guilt and the fear of sin don’t come into the novel much, and I would have expected them to play at least some significant role in any story from the sixteenth century, no matter how “modern” or “forward-thinking” the protagonist is supposed to be. Some of the narrative seemed overtly feminist in tone, such as the comment about women having made progress or suffered setbacks, and talk of women being “sold” as wards or wives. Furthermore, the author is candid in her epilogue (the equivalent of an Author’s Note) that the central love triangle is entirely fictional, and the plot twist that accommodates the actual rumours circulating at the time struck me as contrived.

The title is something of a misnomer, as the novel is narrated by Cathy and so only her feelings and thoughts are shown. Cathy speculates on Kate’s thoughts and feelings, and on Thomas’s motivations, but the reader is never shown what anyone else was really thinking or feeling. It’s far more about the Duchess of Suffolk than about Katherine Parr (but I suppose The Sixth Wife was the more obviously marketable title).

Cathy herself is a forthright no-nonsense woman who is not about to be pushed around by anybody, and her racy, gossipy narrative was quite attractive, once I got used to all the modern slang and convinced myself that it wasn’t a Dynasty script. Some of Cathy’s comments are sharply observed, such as the anger she feels when she realises that someone she loves is dying. The emotional toll of infidelity is also well drawn – the guilt of lying to a close friend, the self-delusion of pretending that the cheated wife won’t mind or won’t be hurt, the sense that the illicit affair is somehow not quite real. I found parts of the novel slightly reminiscent of some of Fay Weldon’s short stories. However, Cathy has only limited interest in exploring her own feelings, let alone those of others, and after a while I wanted to hear everyone else’s side of the story. The overall effect reminded me of being buttonholed in a bar by a glamorous but pushy acquaintance whose conversation isn’t quite as sparkling as she thinks it is.

Fictional extramarital love affair with some historical names attached.

Has anyone else read it?


Susan Higginbotham said...

Thanks for the review! Think I'll pass on this one.

Gabriele Campbell said...

I don't mind modern language (David Wishart's first person narrator uses it, and to some extent you also find it in McCullough's Rome books) or a fictive love story, but I do have problems with lack of grounding historical characters in their time and using them as feminist spokeswomen instead.

So that'll be a pass for me as well.

Passages to the Past said...

Really great review! This one has never really piqued my interest, but I always thought I would give it a try. I'm maybe rethinking that. Maybe if it was more authentic.

Sarah Cuthbertson said...

Thanks for this, Carla. I've seen 2 of her novels bundled as a BOGOF in Waterstones and was mildly tempted. Suzannah Dunn spoke at the 2008 HNS Conference, billed as "not a historical novelist". I took notes for a report on the conference in the Historical Novels Review. She said, rather defensively, that what she meant was that she didn't do the stilted dialogue and heaving bosoms style of HF and made her characters speak in modern language to show how modern people like Anne Boleyn were. Erk. She wrote Joanna Trollope-syle contemporary novels before these. But wait a minute - JT did it the other way round. She wrote HF first (as Caroline Harvey) then switched to contemporary fiction. I love the latter but am now curious to read some of her HF to see if she grounds her characters in their time (Victorian, I think).

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Thanks for the review Carla and I love your closing summary sentence. Definitely not one for me!

Carla said...

Susan - glad you found the review useful.

Gabriele - It's hard to define what "grounds" a story in its time, but whatever it is, I didn't think this novel had it. The nearest I could get is my comment that I felt it could have been happening to any three people at any time. On the other hand, though, someone else might describe it as "timeless" for exactly the same reason!

Amy - Hello and welcome! I'm glad you liked the review. It may be worth giving it a try if you can borrow a copy easily. I wasn't that impressed, but you may not agree. The style is certainly distinctive, so if you feel like something a bit different....

Sarah - Not all that many HF authors do heaving bosoms, and there are plenty of styles of dialogue that are neither stilted nor overtly modern, so that sounds like a bit of a straw man to me. I've no objection to the modern language as such - I use modern language myself, after all. I'm not sure I buy the idea that Anne Boleyn was 'modern', though. There's an arguable case that she was unusual for her own times, and an arguable case that she paid a heavy price for it. But being unusual in her own times is not the same thing as belonging to our times.
If the author writes mostly contemporary fiction, that could explain why I felt this was essentially contemporary women's fiction attached to some historical names.

Elizabeth - thanks!

Meghan said...

I have to agree with Gabriele, though I DO have a problem with modern speech in a historical setting.

"I don't do historical fiction." Then why not do a modern story with a similar theme?

Rick said...

Okay, I'm puzzled. Why would an author invent a love triangle involving Catherine Parr, Tom Seymour, and the Duchess of Suffolk - something I've never seen whispered - when there was a notorious historical scandal involving Parr, Seymour, and hot to trot teen Lizzie Tudor?

From your review - I gather there's really not much here about these two historical women, who were both very interesting figures at the time, any more than there is much period mood. Which makes me another one who wonders why it was published as hist-fic? To cash in on a vogue for things Tudor?

Carla said...

Meghan - Good question. Rick may have answered it for you :-)
I suspect the idea behind the "I don't do historical fiction" statement was, as Sarah C mentioned, to argue that she didn't do historical fiction of the heaving-bosoms Barbara Cartland stereotype but did an altogether different (and presumably superior?) kind. If that was the idea, it didn't work for me; I thought it effectively was a modern story, with long frocks.

Rick - "To cash in on a vogue for things Tudor?" Perish the thought :-)

I have no idea why the novel didn't use the genuine historical scandal surrounding Thomas Seymour and Elizabeth, which is cram full of juicy potential, and as no-one really knows the details of what happened and what didn't, let alone the perennial unknowns of character and motivation, offers a novelist lots of scope. It was sort of accommodated with a (to my mind) decidedly lame plot twist. Maybe the search for "something new" - heaven knows the Tudors have been done to death of late - maybe someone thought an affaire between a man of 40 and a girl of 14 would be too icky to be easily marketable, maybe the love triangle involving two best-friend adult women already existed and was tacked on to a handful of historical names? Who knows? I'm as baffled as you are.

Jen Black said...

I read this some time ago, and memory tells me that once I got beyond the modern language, I found it interesting. I blogged on it (6th Nov), and from this distance I recall that I pitied Catherine Parr, disliked her husband and enjoyed the setting. The Duchess, I thought, was much like Bess of Hardwick, who crops up as the the third leg of the love trio in Gregory's The Other Queen. Bess and the Duchess were both modern women ahead of their time, and I'm sure every age had them. It wasn't my best historical read of the year, but I'd say give it a try for its originality.

Kathryn Warner said...

I think I'll give this one a miss. I tried Dunn's Queen of Subtleties a while ago, and put it down - I don't object to modern language in histfict per se, but I found Dunn's use of slang like 'cute', 'oh yeah, since when?' and the like very jarring.

Constance Brewer said...

Interesting review. It would be a pass from me, because I don't read the 'Dynasty' type novels. Makes me want to reach through the pages and slap the women. *g*

Carla said...

Jen - Does Bess of Hardwick get a walk-on part in this one as well? There was a Bess Cavendish mentioned breifly who seemed to have the right sort of attitude to be Bess of Hardwick, but I never got around to looking up if it was her.

Alianore - I haven't read Queen of Subtleties, but from some of the quotes I've seen it seems to be even more aggressively modern and slangy than this one. When I saw "Hank" Norris in a quote I decided I wasn't the target audience :-)

Constance - it's sadly lacking in siege machinery :-)

Sarah Johnson said...

Thanks for the excellent review, Carla. Safe to say I'll be passing on it too. These invented love affairs between historical characters in modern HF are really beginning to bug me. The Duchess of Suffolk had a fascinating enough life without the need for the creation of a fictional romance. Robin Maxwell's Virgin focused on Princess Elizabeth's scandalous relationship with Thomas Seymour, so I suppose that topic had already been done (and done fairly well, from what I recall).

The author's comments about wanting to avoid the stilted dialogue/heaving bosoms style makes me wonder how much HF she has read! Fortunately, such content is rare, as I have little patience for that style myself.

I've enjoyed the few Caroline Harvey historicals that I've read, especially Parson Harding's Daughter.

Carla said...

Sarah - I agree, I don't much care for invented love affairs attached to real people. It seems disrespectful to the people concerned, and frequently rather dull to read into the bargain. To her credit, the author said in her author's note that the affair was entirely fictional.
I wondered the same thing when I saw the author comment, as it seemed to be such a stereotype.