I finished Royal Scandal today, the priceless cover of which I posted on my previous blog (“The most reckless love in the wickedest court in history!” we are promised). Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending upon your perspective), the novel doesn’t live up to its sensational cover.
Originally published in 1933 with the clunky title of Here Comes the King, this historical novel by Philip Lindsay covers the familiar story of Katherine Howard’s disastrous marriage to Henry VIII. Unlike most novels dealing with Katherine Howard, this doesn’t begin with Katherine’s childhood and her youthful romantic escapades, but starts with her marriage to Henry VIII. The central character is Thomas Culpeper, here a Sydney Carton–like figure who’s shattered when Katherine marries the king. Culpeper is much better drawn here than in other novels in which he appears. His rape of a young woman, which is usually ignored or glossed over by other novelists, plays an important role here, though Culpeper is redeemed in the reader’s eyes by the guilt he feels over the episode.
The other male characters here are well drawn as well. Francis Dereham, who turns up about halfway through the novel and aids the young lovers despite his realization that doing so will doom all three, is vividly rendered, along with his sidekick Damport. Will Sommers, the jester who gloomily watches the trio destroy themselves, has an almost Shakespearean quality, and his jests are actually funny. His interplay with Henry VIII is often quite moving. Henry VIII himself is not the terrifying monster he is in many novels, but a sad, lonely man.
The women aren’t quite as convincing. Katherine’s abrupt change from indifference toward Culpeper to heedless infatuation isn’t sufficiently explained. Though her sultry, come-hither pose graces the cover, all in all, she’s a wan character whose main attraction, physical beauty, doesn’t seem enough to justify the risks Culpeper and Dereham take for her. Her confidant Jane Rochford is also disappointingly rendered. She of all the people in the novel should know the risks she takes in aiding and abetting the lovers, but she’s never given a clear motive—revenge, living vicariously, general mischief-making, or what have you—for getting so fatally involved in their affair.
This novel is not for someone who expects things to move quickly. Most of the action takes place over a short period, the king’s northward progress, and at times the slow pace, as the author describes the scenery and unpacks the king’s luggage, can be maddening. Will Sommers’ Greek-chorus-like appearances may also be annoying to some readers. All in all, though, this is a well-structured, character-driven novel that surpasses most others I’ve read about Katherine Howard.