Saturday, June 1, 2013

Book Review: The Rose Without a Thorn by Jean Plaidy

Born into an impoverished branch of the noble Howard family, young Katherine is plucked from her home to live with her grandmother, the Duchess of Norfolk. The innocent girl quickly learns that her grandmother’s puritanism is not shared by Katherine’s free-spirited cousins, with whom she lives. Beautiful and impressionable, Katherine becomes involved in two ill-fated love affairs before her sixteenth birthday. Like her cousin Anne Boleyn, she leaves her grandmother’s home to become a lady-in-waiting at the court of Henry VIII. The royal palaces are exciting to a young girl from the country, and that her duties there allow her to be near her handsome cousin, Thomas Culpepper, whom she has loved since childhood. 

But when Katherine catches the eye of the aging and unhappily married king, she is forced to abandon her plans for a life with Thomas and marry King Henry. Overwhelmed by the change in her fortunes, bewildered and flattered by the adoration of her husband, Katherine is dazzled by the royal life. But her bliss is short-lived as rumors of her wayward past come back to haunt her, and Katherine’s destiny takes another, deadly, turn.

Of all of Henry VIII's six wives, Katherine Howard stood out -- and still does today -- because she was the least meant for the crown. Catherine of Aragon was essentially born into her betrothal with the English throne, Anne Boleyn had all the intelligence and charisma the position required and more, Jane Seymour knew how to stay in the good graces of a royal husband, Anne of Cleves was a German princess, and Katherine Parr was dutiful and smart. Yet Katherine Howard grew up in what is the female and Tudor-era equivalent of a frat house, impoverished, uneducated, naive, and pleasure-seeking. Once she caught Henry's eye, she was easily taken advantage of by her family and a lusty obsessive king, both parties eager to push her onto the throne. Helpless and naive, she was charmed by the jewels and wealth that royalty had to offer, as the king was by her youth, but just as all women do, Katherine learns that even the most decadent lifestyle has its thorns.

I'm still fairly new to Katherine Howard's story -- I think this is only the third fictional piece I've read about her, and one of them was by the same author. She is portrayed sympathetically for a (refreshing) change, instead of as the ditsy whore who brought her fate on herself; however, her character still commits adultery. To this day, historians still debate if she and Culpeper actually had sexual relations. It's likely that they did; we can tell she was in love with him just by reading her surviving letter to him, and sweet and innocent or not, she had extensive sexual knowledge. What's nice about this book is that at least her infidelity is justified and isn't used to malign her character; she is genuinely in love with Culpeper and her husband is a monster old enough to be her grandfather.

"The Rose Without a Thorn" is thoroughly recommended to anyone who loves the Tudors -- and has some background knowledge of them because of the Henry VII/Wars of the Rosess references -- and is particularly interested in his fifth wife. Just be mindful of the irksome repetitiveness of this book. It generally is Plaidy's style -- and I can say this because I've read around four books by her -- to describe characters in the same way, again and again and again, and reiterate character histories again and again, and use a phrase like 'the Howard look' 8387507 times. A little bit annoying, yes, but her work is still fascinating, and her sympathetic, poignant and romantic portrayal of Katherine Howard makes it worth enduring.

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