Whitehall Palace, England, 1539: When Catherine Howard arrives at the court of King Henry VIII to be a maid of honour in the household of the new queen, Anne of Cleves, she has no idea of the fate that awaits her.
Catching the king’s fancy, she finds herself caught up in her uncle’s ambition to get a Howard heir to the throne.
Terrified by the ageing king after the fate that befell her cousin, Anne Boleyn, Catherine begins to fear for her life…
Pembrokeshire, Wales, 2018: Dr Perdita Rivers receives news of the death of her estranged grandmother, renowned Tudor historian Mary Fitzroy.
Mary inexplicably cut all contact with Perdita and her twin sister, Piper, but she has left them Marquess House, her vast estate in Pembrokeshire.
Perdita sets out to unravel their grandmother’s motives for abandoning them, and is drawn into the mystery of an ancient document in the archives of Marquess House, a collection of letters and diaries claiming the records of Catherine Howard’s execution were falsified…
Author’s Note: “This is a work of fiction. The conspiracy theory I have built around Catherine Howard is entirely my own creation. However, as far as it has been possible, I have tried to use verifiable fact for the rest of the story.”
I always find the author’s notes in historical fiction reads to be most illuminating and highly recommend reading them, so you go into the book with an understanding of the author’s intentions. In so many ways, understanding the author’s intentions will determine how much you like or dislike the book. For myself, I very much wish I had read the author’s notes before I began this book.
To be sure, history does not give us a happy picture of the life of Catherine Howard. At just 16 or 17 years old when the hapless teenager caught the eye of Henry VIII, Catherine made her way to the throne of England and shortly thereafter lost her head for her efforts. In nearly every book, tv show, documentary, etc. I have seen and/or read about Henry VIII’s wives, Catherine Howard has always been portrayed as a sort of witless wonder, a young girl – too young – caught up in a life she never could have imagined and certainly was not at all prepared to be a part of. As history clearly reveals, Catherine Howard’s youth, inexperience, and considerable back luck cost her life. In Alexandra Walsh’s version of history – revisionist history to be sure – Catherine Howard is a very different young woman whose life, thanks to her own efforts and those of her loved ones turns out quite differently.
Catherine’s reimagined story begins in much the same way as her actual history. As a young woman from a powerful and power-hungry family, placing Catherine at court was a given. As a lady-in-waiting to Anne of Cleves (Henry’s set aside fourth wife) Catherine was easily visible to the king and thanks to her youth, beauty, and the machinations of her family, she quickly caught the king’s attention. What transpires next and throughout the rest of the read is where things become reimagined: Over the course of short marriage to King Henry, Catherine suffers beatings, at least one miscarriage, and grand levels of psychological torture. Throughout her tenure as Henry’s wife and queen, Catherine learns she will never be safe and will likely die if she doesn’t find a way out of her life with Henry. After one particularly nasty beating, Catherine’s trusted family (certainly not the men who put her in Henry’s way!) and friends hatch a plan that will see Catherine safe, alive, and far, far away from her wretchedly awful life at court. If the plan is successful, it will not only be Catherine’s life that is saved, but also that of her unborn child.
Of course, as this reimagined history needs of a way of coming to light, Walsh creates a contemporary family, the Rivers sisters, who inherit a wonderfully large manor house/estate tied to Catherine Howard and her fear-induced escape from court. Perdita Rivers is relentless in her pursuit to understand not only the unexpected inheritance, but the woman who left she and her twin sister everything. As Perdita digs in her own grandmother’s past and research, Perdita begins to unlock the dark secrets of not only her own family, but that of the ill-fated Catherine Howard. What Perdita uncovers will not just change her own understanding of history, but the very fabric of British history. Of course, not everyone is as excited by Perdita’s discoveries and if she isn’t careful, her work is going to cost her life.
The Bottom Line: As I mentioned previously, I truly wish I had read the author’s note regarding this reimagined life for Catherine Howard before diving into the book! I spent a great deal of time being angry at the totally reinvented history found within the covers of Walsh’s book. With that being said, once I read the author’s note I rethought my feelings and discovered I quite liked this version of history. Walsh has given a young woman – someone history largely regards as ignorant and somewhat pathetic – a strong character, an indomitable spirit, and force of will unrivaled. Walsh has given Catherine Howard a sense of strength, dignity, self-preservation, and self-respect that were likely not part of the historical figure. In fact, as Catherine’s reimagined story unfolds I found myself wondering at her audacity and bravery; to escape the court of Henry VIII and live out the rest of her life in safety would have been a truly tremendous feat and one I can well and truly wish had been reality and not fiction. In all, I found the chapters devoted to Catherine Howard to be far more interesting than those related to Perdita; Catherine’s reimagined life can easily stand alone and really doesn’t need the past meets present bit to make her story stronger. Since this is only meant to be a trilogy I’ll stick it out and hope the next book is even a bit better than this one.