Pros: Some fascinating glimpses into court life and how people could react to each other.
Cons: The main character can be aggravatingly self-centered sometimes.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Review book courtesy of Penguin Group
Kathryn Howard spends her childhood as one daughter in a family of children. When her grandmother comes to take one of the children to raise to serve in the royal Court, however, Kathryn’s circumstances undergo a great change. She grows from a naive country girl into a young lady capable of holding her own. And yet all is not what it seems, for her grandmother and other relatives seem to have other plans for her, plans that involve a match with someone very highly placed at Court. She is going to have to find her way through the labyrinth of people’s intentions, but her past mistakes could undo everything she has managed to accomplish…
I’ve always enjoyed reading historical books that touch on court life, because it gives me better insight into the labyrinthine intrigues that go on behind the scenes. When I realized that this book was about Kathryn Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII, I was looking forward to a glimpse into the dynamics of a court with constant openings for a new queen. Unfortunately, I was disappointed, both in not finding what I was hoping for and in the character of Kathryn herself.
No Will But His: A Novel of Kathryn Howard opens during Kathryn’s childhood, when she is taken by her grandmother to learn what she needs to know to enter the royal court. Being young, she is fairly self-centered and unaware of many of the undercurrents that are swirling around her. As she grows up, her continued naivete began to grate on me. The length of time that she remains unaware of the nature of sexual relations when surrounded by girls more adventuresome than herself stretched my credulity. Her nearly complete obliviousness to her relations’ plotting, even when she’s in the room, also bothered me. It was as if she had no interest in what was going on around her. I suspect that part of my frustration with her stemmed from the breaks in the story, during which she is supposed to grow and mature. I never felt as if I had a good grasp of how much time had passed, and so I thought of her as older than she probably was. (It doesn’t help that she isn’t sure of her age either.)
There is also a fairly heavy amount of foreshadowing in the beginning of the book regarding whom Kathryn will marry. And yet, when it serves its purpose early on, all of these hints and suggestions not only completely disappear from the narrative, but are forgotten by Kathryn as well. Because of that, those hints felt more like a convenient means of moving the plot forward.
I did enjoy seeing some of the preparations and grooming that went into preparing noble children to attend royalty. I can’t help but wonder, however, what that kind of training would have helped someone with a little bit more drive to accomplish. Because Kathryn is at times determined to not make too many ripples (or oblivious), I felt like I was missing a lot of interactions that would affect her and her life. Readers who enjoy following a heroine through a textured world may be disappointed in the somewhat narrow focus of the book, but for those who enjoy following a character without needing too much information about the world that the character inhabits will probably enjoy it.
It was also fascinating to see the intersection between Christian morality and human sensuality. The contrast shapes so much of Kathryn’s character and the events of her life that I was left wondering how others of the time handled the dichotomy. While parts of the book felt like stories out of “The Canterbury Tales” or Boccaccio’s “The Decameron”, others didn’t feel all that different from some of the strictures of Victorian times. It’s interesting to see that while some things have changed throughout time, others have remained the same.
While it was difficult at times to connect with Kathryn and her world felt slightly shallow, the reader is still left with a portrait of a woman whose life is at least partially shaped by circumstances beyond her control. And while she does have moments of quiet strength, they were too few and far between for me to really care whether or not she succeeded. With that being said, Ms. Hoyt does have a feel for some of the undercurrents and ideas of the times. While readers looking for the story of a woman’s life will probably find something to enjoy here, those readers who want more than a few words about the events, undercurrents, and intrigues of the setting will likely be disappointed. And as much as I enjoy glimpses into lives of the past, whether the characters are strong or not, I as a reader need more of a sense of places, people, and events to fit all of the nuances of the story together. For those who have a better sense of the history of the time, however, I’d be willing to bet that they would appreciate the finer details of the story better than I.