Book Review: The Last Wife of Henry VIII
The Last Wife of Henry VIII by Carolly Erickson ***
Carolly Erickson has been writing biographies since I was pretty young, and I’ve always had a lot of respect for her, although I have to admit that the last couple I’ve read have seemed pretty insubstantial compared to her earlier work, whether due to carelessness or an attempt to appeal to a broader readership by “dumbing down” her writing. I haven’t read her previous novel, but this one was a terrible disappointment.
Some reviewers on Amazon have countered those of us who object to historical inaccuracies with, “Well, it’s supposed to be fiction.” I would like to explain my feelings about the subject. Obviously, since there is a lot we don’t know about people’s lives and, after all, it is fiction, I personally will give the novelist a lot of leeway. We don’t know that Catherine Parr didn’t have an ongoing friendship with Henry, and it’s certainly possible. We don’t know when she met Thomas Seymour or exactly what her and her second husband’s roles in the Pilgrimage of Grace were, so my attitude on those things is, “Go for it! Imagine to your heart’s content.” However, unless there is good reason for it, a historical novelist shouldn’t contradict history or the known character of a real person. It may be fiction, but it’s also historical.
One example: I can’t believe that the devoutly religious woman that Catherine Parr is known to have been would have conducted an affair with Seymour while she was still married, and certainly not while she was married to Henry, especially with the example of Catherine Howard so recently before her. Also, especially after that experience, Henry would never have married her if there had been even a whisper of scandal attached to her, and I can’t believe that she would have falsely sworn that she had never slept with any man but her two previous husbands.
Catherine is also known to have loved children and to have brought Henry’s family together in a way that they had never experienced, yet the portrayal of her relationship with them is superficial and, except with her second husband's daughter, I never get any sense that she cares for any of her stepchildren. Her relationship with Elizabeth, such as it is, is positively antagonistic, yet we know that in real life there was an abiding love and respect between them, despite their estrangement at the end of Catherine’s life.
As for inaccuracies of fact, the whole scene where the house is under siege and Seymour flees before Catherine gives birth is total nonsense. I also don’t understand why Erickson felt that she had to merge the very real and dramatic story of Catherine’s friend Anne Askew into that of her one-time sister-in-law. As for things that everyone “knows” happened that probably didn’t, Erickson, like every other author who has written about her, had no problem using the whole idea of Catherine acting as a nurse to Henry, which has pretty much been debunked as a nineteenth century invention to fulfill Victorian ideals of the “angel of the house.” Henry had plenty of doctors, and no gently born lady would have been expected to tend to suppurating wounds.
The book was well written, but as I got further into it I was more and more distracted and annoyed by the author’s flights of fancy, and I agree with other reviewers that at times it read more like a tacky romance than an accurate portrayal of one of England's most truly pious, well-educated and level-headed queens.