by Judith Arnopp
This fictional account of life during the latter years of Henry VIII, and the reign of his son Edward VI, is well researched, focusing on the personal and emotional lives of some of history’s great characters: Katheryn Parr, Thomas Seymour, Elizabeth I – and a little-known figure, Margaret Neville. They come alive, we feel their shocks, anxieties and pain – under Judith Arnopp’s hand they are indeed human beings.
What threw me, however, was the beginning of this book. Expecting Katheryn Parr – it is her story, after all – I was confused to realize that this first person, present-tense account, was in fact Margaret Neville’s view of events – and of her stepmother, Katheryn. I wondered why the author had chosen to begin with such an obscure figure, and was disappointed to discover that Margaret died young, and had no real effect on events as a whole. Reaching the end, with Princess Elizabeth’s view, I can see the shape of the story, beginning and ending with Katheryn Parr as ‘stepmother’: a role that seems to define her.
The device of presenting Henry’s last Queen through other people’s eyes – with only one section told by Katheryn herself – is a bold one, but for me it was strangely unsatisfactory. I kept reading, because the story is well-told and the characters come alive. But each time the viewpoint changed, I felt disappointed. I wanted to know more – in fact I liked Katheryn so much, I would rather have had her view of these other people throughout. But first-person accounts are limiting. So I wish the author had chosen to tell the story differently – in a third-person account with Katheryn as the focus.