The Sixth Wife

Suzannah Dunn

Edition reviewed: Harper Perennial 2007. ISBN: 978-0-00-722972-7. 298 pages.

Set in 1547-1548, The Sixth Wife is narrated by Catherine Duchess of Suffolk and covers the period after the death of Henry VIII, when his widow (the sixth and last wife) Katherine Parr married Thomas Seymour. All the main characters are historical figures, but the love triangle that forms the central premise of the novel is fictional.

Catherine, Duchess of Suffolk ("Cathy") is the closest friend of Katherine Parr ("Kate"), sixth and last wife of King Henry VIII. Within months of Henry's death, Kate marries the handsome and dashing Thomas Seymour, her old love. Outspoken and forthright, Cathy cannot understand what Kate sees in Thomas and is suspicious of his motives. But on a visit to help Kate with her first pregnancy, Cathy succumbs to Thomas Seymour's allure, and soon a net of lies and betrayals threatens them all.

In her afterword titled "Tudorspeak", Suzannah Dunn says "I don't do historical fiction". Having read The Sixth Wife, I would concur with that. This is not just because of the aggressively modern prose style, although I did find that somewhat distracting. It's because I felt the story could have taken place at any time. The names attached to the three people in the love triangle happen to be historical figures, but the novel is driven mainly by the emotional turmoil resulting from an extramarital affair, and the emotions involved (lust, guilt at betraying a friend, fear of discovery, etc) apply just as readily now as in the sixteenth century. Possibly more so now, since religious guilt and the fear of sin don't come into the novel much, and I would have expected them to play at least some significant role in any story from the sixteenth century, no matter how "modern" or "forward-thinking" the protagonist is supposed to be. Some of the narrative seemed overtly feminist in tone, such as the comment about women having made progress or suffered setbacks, and talk of women being "sold" as wards or wives. Furthermore, the author is candid in her epilogue (the equivalent of an Author's Note) that the central love triangle is entirely fictional, and the plot twist that accommodates the actual rumours circulating at the time struck me as contrived.

The title is something of a misnomer, as the novel is narrated by Cathy and so only her feelings and thoughts are shown. Cathy speculates on Kate's thoughts and feelings, and on Thomas's motivations, but the reader is never shown what anyone else was really thinking or feeling. It's far more about the Duchess of Suffolk than about Katherine Parr (but I suppose The Sixth Wife was the more obviously marketable title).

Cathy herself is a forthright no-nonsense woman who is not about to be pushed around by anybody, and her racy, gossipy narrative was quite attractive, once I got used to all the modern slang and convinced myself that it wasn't a Dynasty script. Some of Cathy's comments are sharply observed, such as the anger she feels when she realises that someone she loves is dying. The emotional toll of infidelity is also well drawn - the guilt of lying to a close friend, the self-delusion of pretending that the cheated wife won't mind or won't be hurt, the sense that the illicit affair is somehow not quite real. I found parts of the novel slightly reminiscent of some of Fay Weldon's short stories. However, Cathy has only limited interest in exploring her own feelings, let alone those of others, and after a while I wanted to hear everyone else's side of the story. The overall effect reminded me of being buttonholed in a bar by a glamorous but pushy acquaintance whose conversation isn't quite as sparkling as she thinks it is.

Fictional extramarital love affair with some historical names attached.