This one is the story of Kateryn* Parr, the last wife of the infamous Henry VIII. As the book starts out, she’s just been widowed for a second time and has finally found true love with Thomas Seymour-but she’s the prettiest at court right now and when the king proposes, YOU CANNOT SAY NO UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES OR YOU WILL DIE. Of course, everyone knows by now that if you marry him, you die too….just a few years later. Kateryn has to suck it up and give up her love, knowing darned well that the last queen died for cheating. She also has to give up being honest, and take on well….sex with a guy who’s nearly immobile and smells whoppingly bad due to his various illnesses and oozing permanent unhealing leg wound. FUN. Not to mention being draped in various things belonging to dead queens and being up all night listening to Henry snore.
* That’s apparently how she spelled her own name.
There’s a honeymoon period. Henry is surprisingly sweet and loving to her from the getgo, and at one point Kateryn even finds herself saying she loves him. She’s never felt loved by a husband before and really enjoys it. She feels for the dude’s pain. Sure, he’s gross and smells really bad, but he is suffering and he seems to have good intentions at least some of the time. She also really hits it off with all of her stepchildren and manages to reunite all of them with Henry and even get his daughters back their royal titles. Henry also lets her be regent while he’s off at war. Pretty cool, eh? She’s a darned good queen. Though Henry does have a tendency to revere the lone wife he didn’t kill or divorce-there’s one particularly painful moment when Kateryn realizes that the family portrait she sat for isn’t what she thought-that’s her body, but Jane Seymour’s face on it. Ugh, dude.
Unfortunately, Henry is of a mercurial temperament and holy damn, do I think the author nailed what he’s like. Even though I already knew how the story ends--this is the one wife who outlives Henry, after all--I of course had to go raid the Internet in the middle of the night at some point JUST TO MAKE SURE, because the author is great at creating the utter creeping fear and doom at court. Henry likes to set people against each other and change his mind about people and beliefs at the drop of a hat for his own amusement, and he loves having people killed. Kateryn’s a natural religious scholar and Henry encouraged this, but then the winds and tides and Henry’s mood change and suddenly he’s got a witch hunt out for her and her friends and allies. Will she survive? Again, I already knew the ending to that, but how she survives….Well, the author takes a bit of liberty imagining the private moments between the two, but let’s just say this goes a bit worse than it did for Katerina and Petruchio when it comes to taming a lady who used to inspire her stepdaughters to have their own thoughts.
But in the end, she lived long enough to marry again (even if the author cuts out before the ending of her life, which was pretty short and not that happy), so you gotta give her credit for being the only one who could turn Henry back from hatred and wishing death upon her. And I have to give the author credit for doing really well at dealing with the psychology of Kateryn and Henry, especially why Henry is the ever-changing monster that he is. You feel sorry for him in his pain, but you really feel sorry and scared for everyone around him. In the end, clearly his professional fool is the wisest man at court for surviving so damn long.
Anyway, this was a very powerful book to read. Four stars.
- Kateryn and her sister Nan, discussing the queen’s new motto:
“To Be Useful in All That I Do,” I repeat without much enthusiasm. “It’s not very inspiring.”
“The Most Happy” (Boleyn) “was dead in three and a half years,” Nan says harshly. “No Other Will But His” (Howard) “had her lover in the jakes. These are mottoes: they aren’t predictions.”
- “He would rather believe that he was cuckolded ten times over than admit there is anything wrong with him.” -Nan
- “He has to be perfect, in every way. He cannot bear that anyone should think, even for a moment, that he is in the wrong. He cannot be seen as less than perfect. His wife has to be perfect too.” -Nan
- “Sometimes, at court, a woman has to do anything to survive.” -Nan
- “You will be my last and dearest wife.” -Henry VIII
- “What people will tell you about my marriages is completely wrong. I’ll tell you the truth. Only I know the truth, and I never speak of it.”-Henry
- “I am a fool for love.” -Henry
- “You will learn what every clever woman has to learn: how to adopt the power and courage of a man and yet to know that you are a woman.” -Kateryn to Elizabeth
- Kateryn spots Will Somers, the Fool, lying on the floor like a dog.
“You’re lying very low, Will,” I remark. “I am,” he says, “I think it best.”
- “I am at play. And I alone understand the game.” -Henry
- “You displeased the king and then you won his forgiveness. You are a clever woman, Your Majesty. Your experience is unique.” -Edward Seymour to Kateryn.
- “He failed to observe that the only person ever to recover from the king’s hatred is me. He does not know what I had to do. He does not know the price I paid. Nobody will ever know. I don’t acknowledge it to myself.” -Kateryn
- “Women’s lives do not matter to anyone at this court. Before every queen stands her pretty successor, behind her a ghost.” -Kateryn
- “No one is ever faithful until death. If anyone tells you anything different, they are playing you for a fool. I will never be a fool again.” -Henry
- “Who loved me as a child? No one.” -Henry
- “If you are a wife, can you not think for yourself?”
“You can think for yourself,” I say carefully. “But you need not speak. If you are wise, you will agree with your husband. Your husband has power over you. YOu have to find ways to think your own thoughts and live your own life without always telling of it.”
“Then I had better not marry,” she says without a glimmer of a smile. “If to be a wife is to give up your own opinion, I had better never marry.” --Elizabeth and Kateryn.
- “I have lost my husband and I have survived my jailer. I will mourn a man who loved me, in his way, and celebrate my escape from a man who would have killed me. When I undertook this marriage, against my will, I knew that it would only end in death: his or mine. There were times when I thought that he would have me killed, that I would never be able to survive him. There were times when I thought that his passion to be the one to say the last word would persuade him to silence me forever. But I have survived his abuse, and I have survived his threats. This marriage cost me my happiness, my love, and my pride. The worst price was betraying Anne and letting her go to her death. But this, too, I shall endure; this, too, I shall forgive.” -Kateryn