My book club read books on ‘royals’ last month, and since this was on my review shelf, it was an easy choice. At the same time, I was watching TV series The Tudors, and the month before I’d finished Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I’m in Tudor overload!
Here’s the blurb:
Why would a woman marry a serial killer?
Because she cannot refuse…
Kateryn Parr, a thirty-year-old widow in a secret affair with a new lover, has no choice when a man old enough to be her father who has buried four wives – King Henry VIII – commands her to marry him. Kateryn has no doubt about the danger she faces: the previous queen lasted sixteen months, the one before barely half a year. But Henry adores his new bride and Kateryn’s trust in him grows as she unites the royal family, creates a radical study circle at the heart of the court, and rules the kingdom as Regent. But is this enough to keep her safe? A leader of religious reform and the first woman to publish in English, Kateryn stands out as an independent woman with a mind of her own. But she cannot save the Protestants, under threat for their faith, and Henry’s dangerous gaze turns on her. The traditional churchmen and rivals for power accuse her of heresy – the punishment is death by fire and the king’s name is on the warrant…
I’ll say this first – comparing Gregory and Mantel is like apples and oranges. Gregory’s novels suit a more mainstream audience, while Mantel’s are definitely for those who like more literary reads. Wolf Hall is brilliant but not an easy book to read It frustrates me when people put the two writers in the same box, because their writing suits very different audiences.
The Taming of the Queen explores the life of Kateryn (Katherine) Parr from the time of Henry VIII’s proposal to his death. Readers are privy to Kateryn’s thoughts about him as a man, a lover, a king and eventually, as someone to be wary and fearful of. Gregory depicts a woman who is passionately in love with another man (Thomas Seymour) who can she barely acknowledge after her marriage to the king, is charmed by the king’s promises of love, but eventually realises that his love is as fickle as a dandelion seed on the wind. Gregory draws out the difficulties of being a woman at the time, when even education did not amount to the right to own an opinion; women were the property of their husband, no matter how educated they were.
Kateryn, as a character, grew on me. I wanted to tell her, ‘Don’t trust that man’ several times. Gregory developed her well, showing her journey from wariness to trust and back to wariness as Kateryn loses any illusion about her husband. Ultimately, the king leaves her broken (after an apparently made-up scene between them that readers will find disturbing). I felt Kateryn’s frustration and hurt as the king disappointed her with his sudden changes of heart and an insensitive and humiliating outcome of a royal portrait; I felt her unease and insecurity as rumours swirled that the king had a new wife in mind.
Overall, I found this a good, not fantastic, read (the focus on religious reform does bog the story down). As a historical story, I’m not in a position to argue its merits – what needs to be remembered is that this is fiction. So, some parts are going to be dramatised, in the same way they are for TV series and films. Writers have to fill in some blanks. What I like about this book is that it is the story of a woman of strength who survives a difficult situation – she has to figure out how to do it, and then she makes it happen.
Available from good bookstores (RRP $32.99AUD). My copy was courtesy of Simon & Schuster Australia.
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television