Finished reading Katherine Howard, a 1969 novel by Jessica Smith, yesterday. Like the other historical novels I’ve read about this foolish but intriguing young queen, it was somewhat disappointing, though I admittedly didn’t have huge hopes for it. Though the author often commented that Katherine was a featherhead, she didn’t come up with any motivation for what even a featherhead must have been able to realize was self-destructive behavior.
Toward the end of the novel, a minor, entirely fictional character, Clarissa, who is one of Katherine’s ladies-in-waiting, plays a prominent part in the novel. She’s allowed to see Culpepper and Derham in their cells (rather improbably, since both men have recently been tortured); she arranges for Katherine to talk with both her grandmother and Lady Rochford before she dies; and she tries to intercede with Henry VIII on Katherine’s behalf. For some reason, Henry VIII takes a shine to her (not that sort of shine, fortunately) and following Katherine’s execution, he awards a soldier who has been taking Clarissa on her rounds a pension, on the condition that he marry Clarissa. Thus, the novel ends on a comparatively happy note.
Which brings me to my point (about time, you might say). On Carla Nayland’s blog, Alianor and Carla each expressed doubts about purely fictional characters who play major roles in novels that also feature historical characters. I myself can tolerate someone like Clarissa, who interacts with historical characters but doesn’t have an effect on their actions (though I think the novel would have been stronger without her). As my fellow bloggers noted, they can be a useful plot device.
Some such characters, however, come close to crossing the line into actively influencing the historical ones. In Sharon Penman’s When Christ and His Saints Slept and Time and Chance, the Empress Maude has a fictional out-of-wedlock brother, Ranulf, who stays loyal to Maude throughout and who just about everyone holds in the highest esteem. Henry II, Ranulf’s nephew, also has a high opinion of Ranulf, and the two are close until Ranulf fails to talk Henry out of blinding a group of Welsh hostages. Ranulf, who has a wife in Wales who also happens to be blind, then angrily leaves England, but the two men are reconciled toward the end of the novel.
Penman always provides the reader with an author’s note, and in both books I’ve been discussing, she duly acknowledges Ranulf’s purely fictional nature and the fact that at one point she gives him credit for the military exploits of another man. So if the reader is left with the impression that Ranulf was a living, breathing historical figure, that’s the reader’s fault and not Penman’s. These two are books that I like a great deal, as a matter of fact. Still, I found the scene where Ranulf tries to persuade Henry not to blind the hostages, and the following scene where Henry broods over the conversation with Ranulf, a little off-putting. One could argue that Henry would have been brooding over his decision anyway, even without Ranulf’s pricking his conscience, and Penman carefully avoids suggesting that the only reason Henry is brooding is because of Ranulf’s objections. But the fact remains I would have preferred that one of the historical characters did the objecting or that Henry’s conscience got pricked without the assistance of Ranulf.
So, dear blog readers, what do you think?