Not Up to Parr

This just isn’t Katherine Parr’s month, at least for me. After reading (or skimming) Her Royal Destiny, which did have the courtesy to advertise itself unashamedly as a bodice-ripper, I bought Carolly Erickson’s second historical novel, The Last Wife of Henry VIII, this weekend.

The verdict? It’s great historical fiction–if you don’t know much about Katherine Parr.

Actually, this novel starts out very promisingly by getting the age of Katherine Parr’s first husband right. (Erickson correctly depcits him as a young man, not as an old one.) From there, though, it’s downhill. First there’s the episode where Katherine Parr almost single-handedly quells the revolt in the North. (“‘Here is the lady who saved the North for the crown,'” a pleased Henry VIII announces.) Then there’s Katherine’s sister-in-law, Anne Bourchier, who’s tortured for heresy in front of Katherine and who dies of her injuries. I can’t tell whether Erickson is confusing her with Anne Askew or is just taking wild poetic license; in any case, Anne Bourchier lived into Elizabeth I’s reign and apparently died of old age. Finally, there’s the dramatic ending, where poor Katherine gives birth during a siege, complete with cannon fire, while Thomas Seymour runs off.

Nary an author’s note in sight.

Oh, and there’s even shades of Braveheart: Henry VIII scares young Katherine by threatening to revive the droit de seigneur with her.

The sad thing is, Erickson writes quite well. Her characterizations are strong–I especially liked those of Katherine’s wise-cracking brother and of her sweet-natured, bumbling second husband–and the novel’s a page-turner. I would have enjoyed it thoroughly if I could have forgotten all I knew about Katherine Parr or if I didn’t give a flip about historical accuracy.

Next on the reading list? I dunno, but I do have a copy of Prophecy for the Queen by Dilys Gater, which whatever its merits or demerits at least is in great big type.

6 thoughts on “Not Up to Parr”

  1. That is very strange.
    I haven’t read her Marie Antoinette novel, but I always thought her nonfiction stuck close to history…

  2. Susan Higginbotham

    I’ve read her bio of Marie Antoinette and didn’t see anything odd, but I’m no expert. Her Marie Antoinette novel, however, is quite peculiar. She has Marie’s jailers allowing her after her attempted escape to go off on a little holiday with Axel Fersen, and as I recall there’s no mention at all in the novel about the Affair of the Necklace.

  3. I tend to treat novels that play fast and loose with history as if they were fantasy novels set on an alternate world, like one of Guy Gavriel Kay’s, except that they share some names with our world. I find that stops me fuming about the historical accuracy or lack thereof, and if the story is any good I can sit back and enjoy it. It had better be a good story, though, because it now has to stand ONLY on the author’s storytelling skills, without the added attraction of a real setting or real events. I can read soggy prose and baggy plots a lot more forgivingly if I’m also looking out for the author’s theory on an intriguing historical puzzle or their take on a historical character.

    Does anyone else do this, by the way?

  4. elena maria vidal

    Thanks for the review, Susan. Please do not get me started on Carrolly Erickson. It sounds like she has done to Katherine Parr exactly what she did to Marie-Antoinette. I keep having to tell people that Marie-Antoinette never went to Sweden with Count Fersen. The problem is just what you said, Erickson writes in an enjoyable manner, and she has just enough interesting and accurate details to make it all seem real. Yes, she is a respected biographer (although her biography of Marie-Antoinette is not one of the better ones of that queen.) Therefore some people take her fiction seriously. And there are those who think fiction means license to do whatever you want, without regard to the integrity of the original historical characters.

  5. Susan Higginbotham

    Thanks for visiting, Elena! It’d be interesting to know why Erickson departed so much from history–did her editor tell her she had to spice things up, or did she decide to do so on her own? Trouble is, with both Marie Antoinette and Katherine Parr, the real details of their lives are so interesting one hardly needs to invent things. And as you say, since Erickson is known as a nonfiction writer, readers of her novels are likely to assume that she was faithful to history.

  6. elena maria vidal

    I don’t know, Susan, it is incomprehensible to me. The reality of both Katherine and Antoinette are fascinating enough without the extra spice. I thought maybe it was to make it more marketable, but then “Abundance” seems to be doing VERY well, and it is a pretty accurate novel about the queen. It shows that people prefer reading the truth about a historical figure to reading sensationalism.

    Erickson was able to get away with making up stuff about Marie-Antoinette, because there is the rumor about her and Fersen, but I don’t think it is going to work as well with Katherine Parr. There are already so many Tudor novels and bios and most readers have a firm impression in their mind of Katherine as a scholarly, honorable gentlewoman, very passionate but strong-willed and restrained. Well, we will see….

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