SPECIAL NEWS FLASH!! Third Goddess Added to Pantheon!Yes, it’s true. The time has finally come. After withholding judgement for a few years, I have decided to elevate Philippa Gregory to the vacant third position in my pantheon of Historical Fiction Goddesses, alongside long-time Goddesses Margaret George and Sharon Kay Penman.
I’m sure Philippa has been waiting with bated breath for this announcement and can hardly contain her glee.
While I haven’t read her earliest work (most people say she’s gotten better with time), I have read all of her recent series on the Tudors, and generally enjoyed them, though none as much as the first in this series, The Other Boleyn Girl. The latest, The Boleyn Inheritance, is the only one to surpass that, and I enjoyed it so much it earned the author a place in my elite pantheon of very favourite historical fiction authors. The Boleyn Inheritance is told from the points of view of three women — Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII’s fourth wife (divorced), Katherine Howard, his fifth (beheaded), and Jane Boleyn, sister-in-law of the earlier and also-beheaded second wife, Anne Boleyn. Jane survived the death of her husband and sister-in-law to serve as lady-in-waiting to the next three queens, but finally lost her head over the disgraceful Katherine Howard affair.
Katherine was a very young but not (in the sexual sense) innocent girl who was blatantly put forward by her ambitious family as a potential wife for the aging and hard-to-please King Henry, who was less than impressed with Anne of Cleves. Philippa Gregory makes all three of her main characters believable and sympathetic (though there’s a limit to how much sympathy you can have for Jane Boleyn), but her greatest achievement is making Katherine Howard absolutely real and making the reader care about her. Sure, she’s shallow, self-centred and completely materialistic. But she’s also fourteen, when she first comes to court and catches Henry’s eye — sixteen when she’s beheaded for adultery and treason. In this novel she is such a believable teenager we can almost imagine her writing “Kitty Howard luvs Tom Culpepper” in the margin of her schoolbooks — and despite her silliness, I felt real sadness when she was led to the executioner’s block, believing till the last minute that a reprieve would come.
A writer who retells well-known history has a challenge: to make the reader care about an outcome we already know in advance. Any story about the wives of Henry VIII has the inevitability of Greek tragedy: we know this can’t end well. Philippa Gregory’s accomplishment, in this novel, is to draw the reader so completely into the novel that you almost believe, along with poor doomed Kitty Howard, that a message will come from the King to spare her from her fate.