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The Legends of Catherine Howard

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It’s almost impossible to find fiction (or even non-fiction) about Catherine Howard that doesn’t paint her in an extremely negative light.

The historical facts, in brief, are like this: the teenage Catherine came to Henry VIII’s court as a maid in waiting to the new queen, Henry’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. Henry married Catherine very soon after annulling his marriage to Anne, who he considered dull and ugly, and was apparently besotted with Catherine. However, Catherine had an affair with a courtier called Thomas Culpepper, as well as an apparent prior engagement from before she came to court with a man called Francis Dereham. When Henry found out, she was locked up, stripped of her title of queen, and ultimately beheaded. And, for flavor, one of the most famous stories about Catherine tells us that she asked for the execution block the night before her beheading, so that she could practice how she would lay her head on the block.

I’ve read multiple novels set during her rise and fall now, including The Boleyn Inheritance by Philippa Gregory, Gilt by Katherine Longshore, and the newly released Maid at the King’s Court by Lucy Worsley, which inspired this post. These books frequently tell the story from another character’s perspective — Gilt is about Catherine’s best friend, Kitty Tilney, while Maid at the King’s Court is about Catherine’s invented cousin, Elizabeth — and, inevitably, they all portray Catherine as incredibly vain and overambitious. She’s an idiot, overconfident, cruel to other characters, and full of her own self-importance. Manipulative, simpering, positively evil. Most importantly, she is completely responsible for her own rise and for her own ensuing downfall.

It’s a compelling narrative for both fiction and history to fall into. Catherine was a teenage girl who stepped above her station, acted recklessly and foolishly, and was punished for it. It’s easy to portray this as a cautionary tale, a story of a girl getting her just desserts, or, at its most sympathetic, a tale of Icarus, flying too close to the sun.

But this is also a narrative provided by people’s biases, not necessarily by history. It’s people looking at the facts in the most unsympathetic light, expecting Catherine, as the beheaded teen wife, to be somehow responsible for what happened. Catherine may have been charismatic and somewhat vain, but she was also only either 15 or 16 when she married the old and incredibly dangerous Henry. In the couple of years before this marriage, he had killed Anne Boleyn and many of his close courtiers, including his closest advisor, Thomas Cromwell. His fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, narrowly escaped a similar fate. The message in court was more than clear — don’t disagree with the king, don’t fail to give him what he wants, and don’t make any mistakes.

Meanwhile, Catherine Howard was the niece of Thomas Howard, Anne Boleyn’s uncle, the man who pursued Anne’s rise to facilitate his own rise to power, and then threw her to the wolves when she was no longer useful. He was partly responsible for bringing down Cromwell after Henry’s failed married to Anne of Cleves, with Catherine marrying Henry on the same day as Cromwell’s execution. And although many of Catherine’s relatives were locked up in the Tower during her downfall, Thomas Howard somehow managed to escape punishment. He used young female relatives for his own ambitions, and both of them ended up dead as a result, while he continued on.

So Catherine is about 15, in a family fighting for the power that they lost after Anne’s downfall. The king no one should ever disagree with likes her, she’s catapulted to a position of great influence, but one with certain caveats — keep the king happy at all costs and make sure you have a son. Is her rise and fall any surprise, in that context?

By all accounts, Catherine Howard was not a particularly nice person, but then, neither was Anne Boleyn. She was clearly charismatic, and perhaps vain and frivolous, but that doesn’t mean she deserved her own execution at 17. Yet people always suggest she married Henry because she was conniving and manipulative, and she fell because she was an idiot who got too confident in herself. Add in some historical slut-shaming, and you’ve got yourself a legend.

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The Forbidden Orchid by Sharon Biggs Waller

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Sharon Biggs Waller writes highly original, highly feminist historical fiction. Her debut, A Mad Wicked Folly, is one of my favorite novels, so I was incredibly excited to read her second book, The Forbidden Orchid, which came out at the start of this month.

In The Forbidden Orchid, Elodie, the eldest of ten daughters, must take care of her family when her flower-hunting father fails to return home from his latest adventure. When her father’s employer shows up at their house, demanding a huge amount of money in recompense for her father’s failed last adventure, Elodies decides she will do anything to save her family — including heading off to China to help find those promised orchids herself.

The novel is in three distinct sections: Elodie at home in Kent, on the ship sailing to China, and the adventure in China itself. The section on the boat was my favorite — it was probably the shippiest part of the book (no pun intended), and I’m a sucker for every plot twist that emerged. But every section pulls you in, presenting a richly painted, compelling world with great sensitivity and depth. Biggs Waller clearly did a lot of research for this novel: research on flowers and flower hunting, on clipper ships and tea races, on the second Opium War and on China in its immediate aftermath. The novel has a sense of danger and adventure, but it never romanticizes any of its darker subject matter. Because yes, at times, this book gets seriously dark.

But it’s also exciting and refreshing. I’ve never seen a book about a passionate botanist before, let alone one who is also a Victorian adventurer, and I loved Elodie as our stubborn and determined protagonist. The book also has loads of other great characters, especially Ching Lan, the blunt and fearless herbalist, and the ex-missionary doctor, Prunella Winslow.

The novel isn’t particularly fast-paced, but I found it completely addictive. It was one of those rare books that kept me reading past 3am because I just needed to read one more chapter, again and again. It has some romance, but mostly, it’s a book about family and flowers and feminism in Victorian England and 1860s China. If you want to read a historical novel or an adventure story that’s a little bit different, you should definitely give it a try.

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The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

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The Miniaturist is a beautiful book. Painful, yes. Brutal at times. But a completely absorbing tale, enchantingly told.

I must admit, I bought The Miniaturist without really knowing what it was about. It seduced me through a combination of a gorgeous cover and an inescapable presence in UK bookstores. I imagined it would be something quite gothic and unsettling, dark in magical way. Most likely about a miniaturist who controls another’s life through a doll house. Or something like that.

I was almost completely wrong. The Miniaturist is a story of real-life Gothic, of the darkness and danger of being an outsider in society. It focusses on Petronella, a young bride from the countryside who moves to Amsterdam to join the household of the near-stranger she has just married. Nella has dreams of happiness and romance, but her husband is distant, his sister imperious and cold, and her new life makes her feel powerless and ridiculous. In order to entertain herself, she orders some miniatures to go in the dollhouse her husband got her as a wedding gift — and is both excited and terrified when she receives un-asked for creations that echo her life in ways that no stranger could possibly know.

But the miniatures are not really the focus of the story. It’s impossible to talk about the many wonders of this book without potentially spoiling the experience — it’s a tapestry of secrets and mysteries, and I don’t want to pull on even the smallest thread here. But at its heart, The Miniaturist is about how the disenfranchised struggle to define themselves in a society that gives them little power. It’s a novel about different kinds of bravery, about loneliness and family and love. Far from possessing the gothic ethereality I expected, The Miniaturist is a highly political book with social commentary that cuts like a knife.

Add in the novel’s intricate character development and its gorgeously readable prose, and you have a must-read on your heads. Pick up a copy if you can. It’s a truly wonderful book.

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Under A Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

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Stacey Lee’s debut novel Under A Painted Sky came out yesterday, and everyone needs to go and read it. Right now.

I promise, you’ve never read a book like this before. It’s a diverse, feminist western Young Adult novel, about a Chinese-American violinist called Samantha and a runaway slave called Annamae, disguised as boys and on the run on the Oregon Trail.

Going into this, I knew pretty much nothing about the Oregon Trail. I’d never read or watched a western in my life (Firefly excluded). So when I started the book, I was both really excited by the unique concept, and not entirely sure if it was for me. But honestly, this book is amazing. The prose is lyrical yet readable, the historical details are vivid and absorbing, and the characters all feel incredibly real.

At its heart, Under a Painted Sky is a story of female friendship, of two girls protecting one another and fighting against the odds for survival. It’s also a massive challenge to the idea that historical fiction is allowed to be an all-white genre, that the 19th century doesn’t have space for interesting stories about female characters or minorities, let alone about female minorities.

And it’s also simply a gripping story, beautifully told. Go pick up a copy. You won’t regret it.

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BBC’s Wolf Hall

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Wolf Hall is the BBC’s new adaptation of Hillary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, chronicling the rise and fall of Henry VIII’s merchant-born advisor, Thomas Cromwell.

I’ll admit, at first, I didn’t want to watch this show. I am not a fan of Cromwell (to the extent that you can be “not a fan” of a real historical figure) and I was incredibly reluctant to watch something that seemed likely to paint him as a wonderful, sympathetic hero while villainising those he destroyed, like Anne Boleyn. And the show does make him into a compelling and sympathetic character, as it must to be even vaguely successful. But that doesn’t mean moral complexity is overlooked, and, after an initial adjustment period, I discovered that the show is actually incredibly fulfilling to watch.

Wolf Hall is a very male-centered show, especially in its first episode. In part, of course, this is because the story is focussed on Thomas Cromwell, and his political dealings are mostly with other men. But the show does also miss opportunities to explore its female characters and their motivations more deeply. Every one of them (minus a brief appearance from Catherine of Aragon and Mary Tudor) is considered in a somewhat sexual manner, even if they’re not sexualized as they are in shows like The Tudors, and clashes between Cromwell and Anne take a backseat compared to other tumultuous relationship, like the one between Cromwell and Thomas More.

But the show is incredibly historically accurate. The actors look remarkably like the historical figures’ portraits, and I noticed at least two instances where the show used real speeches, slightly updated for modern ears. Even common small inaccuracies, like Catherine of Aragon and Mary having dark hair instead of their actual red hair, are corrected. The show seems determined to be as faithful to known historical events as physically possible, and that’s admirable, and incredibly enjoyable to watch, at least from this Tudor history nerd’s perspective.

And although important female characters often take a back seat, their political influence isn’t downplayed. We see Catherine give a stirring speech in her own defence, and are told that she fought Scotland, giving an impression of a fierce, strong, capable queen that is often overlooked in retellings of “Catherine vs Anne Boleyn.” Similarly, Anne is incredibly ambitious here, but it is not just personal ambition to marry Henry. We learn that Anne has read heretical Protestant literature and has many of her own opinions about it, and although she and Cromwell are constantly at odds, we also see how their similar political leanings unite them and their goals. We even see a lot of Elizabeth Barton and her visions, and the huge influence she has, and this often overlooked but important figure is characterized with great strength of character and intelligence.

Unfortunately, these female characters are rarer in the show than they should be. Catherine and Mary barely appear, and Catherine and Anne do not, as far as I can recall, ever speak to one another, or even appear in a scene together. Anne is certainly ambitious and political, but her portrayal as the show goes on makes her start to seem irrational, without much exploration of how desperate her situation becomes and how that affects her. Perhaps most disappointingly, the show marks Anne’s sister-in-law, Jane Boleyn, as a vindictive traitor — a common narrative about these events, but one that isn’t really supported by evidence and would be so easy to subvert. If the show can bring a lot of depth and sympathy to a man like Thomas Cromwell, it can spare a few moments to explore what might compel Jane Boleyn to give evidence against her husband and his sister, beyond “well she was just a horrible person.” But the show takes the easy way out, which is disappointing considering the depth it brings to other difficult historical figures.

In another strike against it, the show is not always easy to follow. I’m pretty obsessed with this time period, but sometimes I found myself wondering who that person was supposed to be again, or confused about where the narrative had jumped to. I imagine it’s not the friendliest exploration of this time period to anyone who hasn’t seen it all before. But it is sumptuous to watch.

Wolf Hall is gorgeously shot, with some brilliant acting and great lines, and it is the first show I’ve seen that manages to bring history to life, in the sense that it’s both incredibly accurate (at least, as accurate as anything can come based on a few documents 600 years later) and yet still compelling. It doesn’t reinterpret a few threads of history in order to make a dramatic TV show. It uses the medium of television give one possible version of that history.

And that, I think, is really worth watching. Just be warned that the female characters don’t always get the screen time and focus they might deserve.

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Outlander: Would You Like Some Rape With That Rape?

Ugh.

That’s really the only word to describe my feelings a few hours after finishing reading Outlander. I picked up the novel 100% because I was enjoying the TV show, and after I turned the final page, I found myself eager to start Book 2 straight away. I was addicted to these characters and this world. I had to find out what would happen next.

And then the minutes passed, and the bitter aftertaste set in. All the things that I’d cringed from, or skimmed over, or wanted to kill with fire while reading came back, and the more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t believe that this was actually something I had read.

Outlander uses rape like it is literally the only plot device in the world. Need to create some tension? Add a rape threat! Want to show someone is villainous? Make them a rapist! Have to show that 18th century Scotland is dangerous? Rape! Want an amusing anecdote about a character? Rape! Need some romantic scenes between your two protagonists? Rape, dammit!!

I wrote last week about the show’s seeming addiction to rape to create tension, but compared to the book, it suddenly seems mild. Positively restrained. I lost count of how many times the protagonist finds herself either threatened with rape, or very nearly raped, before the male hero swoops in to save the day. If I added in the number of times our romantic hero “wouldn’t be denied” or won’t take no for an answer, there’d be more scenes or rape or near-rape in the book than consensual sex scenes — and believe me, there are a lot of those as well.

And it boggles my mind, because there’s so much that is good about this book. The historical setting is richly described. The characters are great. It’s a fantasy/historical/adventure novel with a female protagonist whose struggles and decisions are front and center in the story, and that’s great. But any attempt to enjoy the story is ruined by the casual appearance of rape, again and again and again.

(more…)

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The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo

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The Creation of Anne Boleyn isn’t the usual sort of book I recommend, as it’s historical non-fiction. But if you’re interested in history, in pop culture/pop “knowledge,” and in the way that the representation of women reflects society and not their reality, The Creation of Anne Boleyn is a great book to check out.

In this very readable and enjoyable book, Susan Bordo looks at the different ways that Anne Boleyn was been created and recreated since her death, always a different person depending on the political, religious and social needs of the time. She’s been a blonde damsel and a dark-haired seductress, a spirited feminist and the vile other woman. She’s had six fingers and disfigurations, been “the most beautiful woman at court,” an ambitious schemer, a victim of her family’s manipulations, a harpy who brow-beat Henry VIII, an innocent girl in love. And throughout it all, her intellectual interests and her major role in the Reformation and the religious changes for centuries afterwards have been erased in favor of more acceptable female roles — usually either the victim or the whore.

The book starts with a recap of Anne’s life and death — good if you’re not already a Tudor fan, but also fascinating if you have read lots of “non-fiction” biographies on her before. She discusses the biases and leaps that historians such as Alison Weir and the vehemently anti-feminist David Starkey have made in their own biographies, and explores how little we actually know about Anne (most of the things we do “know” come from the letters of one of Anne’s most melodramatic and biased haters, Katherine of Aragon fan and foreign ambassador Chapuys). Then the book looks at the different ways Anne has been characterized throughout the centuries. As a history nerd, I wish this part had been given more weight and exploration, but it’s fairly interesting.

But the most compelling part comes at the end, when the book looks in depth at portrayals of Anne over the last fifty years, with particular focus on the movie Anne of the Thousand Days, the Showtime show The Tudors, and Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl. Susan Bordo interviews many of the people involved in these productions, including a wonderful interview with Natalie Dormer, who fought to improve Anne’s characterization in the show and desperately wanted the audience to be on her side by her execution. The book is worth a read for this interview alone. Meanwhile, Susan Bordo’s take-down of Philippa Gregory, and the role she played in returning popular views of Anne Boleyn to post-execution levels of pantomime-ish villainy, is incredibly compelling, if also quite depressing.

If you’re interested in seeing how our warped media and cultural expectations have shaped and reshaped (and reshaped and reshaped) a woman who actually existed, interested in Tudor history, or just a fan of period dramas like The Tudors, this is definitely a book to pick up.

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The Boleyn Inheritance by Philippa Gregory

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The Boleyn Inheritance was my third Philippa Gregory book, and so far, I think it’s the best. The novel is split across three points of view — Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard and Jane Boleyn — and covers the period when an increasingly tyrannical Henry VIII married Anne on the basis of a portrait, and then decided that he’d prefer her teenage maid in waiting Katherine instead.

Both Anne and Jane are wonderfully written, compelling characters. Anne of Cleves tells the story of a quietly dignified outsider, struggling to survive in a deadly foreign court and, in the process, discovering precisely who she wants to be. Jane Boleyn, meanwhile, is a fantastic unreliable narrator, as she refuses to admit, even to herself, precisely what happened three years ago at Anne Boleyn’s trial. I’ve gathered, from other reviews of the book, that we’re supposed to despise Jane as the villain — she did, after all, testify against Anne Boleyn and her husband George, and she certainly hasn’t abandoned her scheming ways here. Yet I think Gregory establishes her in a world where it is almost impossible for a woman to be a major player and survive, and although Jane makes very questionable decisions (to say the least), we get the sense that she’s also being manipulated and used and doing her best to stay ahead. She’s not a likeable character, perhaps, but Gregory managed to make her a somewhat sympathetic one. Or perhaps Game of Thrones has just made me more accepting of ruthless, self-serving characters.

The only perspective that didn’t work for me was Katherine Howard. She’s presented her as a completely naive, completely superficial character who cares for absolutely nothing except attention and pretty possessions, and who couldn’t identify danger until it came to cut off her head. As there’s little historical evidence about Katherine Howard, I found it hard to understand why Gregory chose to make her so useless and empty-headed. She’s very young here — fourteen when the story starts — but that doesn’t mean that she can’t be a compelling character in her own right. After a couple of hundred pages with Katherine, I did develop some affection for her, but her characterization was poor compared to the other two narrators.

I know that The Other Boleyn Girl is the famous one in this series, but I found The Boleyn Inheritance to be far superior. As it covered the story of three different women who were embroiled in the same events, it had the opportunity to present the same things from several different points of view, from the court survivor to the awkward outsider to the naive new girl,  and the world seemed to gain depth as a result. As it only covers a two or three year period, the plot also felt tighter than the decades-spanning The Other Boleyn Girl. 

If you’re interested in Tudor England and want a book that’s low on the romance, but high on varied and compelling female characters, give this one a try.

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