When selecting this book please beware… Both the title and the cover illustration are deceiving as both clearly suggest that the focus is Henry VIII’s sixth wife and Queen, Katherine Parr. However, this novel’s central character and narrator is Catherine Willoughby Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk, one of Queen Katherine’s ladies in waiting as well as her close friend. Here Dunn presents the perspective of Catherine Brandon on the tumultuous conclusion to the reign of Henry VIII and Queen Katherine’s subsequent hasty marriage to Thomas Seymour following the death of King Henry. Dunn dubs Lady Catherine “Cathy” who is suspicious of the motives behind the marriage to Seymour and suspects that Seymour desires the marriage as it puts him close to the young Princess Elizabeth with whom Queen Katherine lives. Cathy tries to protect both Queen Katherine and Princess Elizabeth by living with them at Sudeley Castle, but in the end finds herself entangled in a physical relationship with Seymour that forever severs her friendship with Queen Katherine who is devastated at the betrayal of her husband with one of her closest friends.
I was disappointed in The Sixth Wife for several reasons but primarily because Dunn opted to pit these two influential women against one another. I have always found Queen Katherine to be the ultimate survivor, a true reformer while remaining nurturing and warm. The suggestion that an improper relationship existed with Princess Elizabeth is one thing, given her age mixed with Seymour’s lethal charm, but to think that Catherine Brandon would betray her in such a way was very difficult to swallow. The young bride of the aging Duke of Suffolk has always fascinated me and from what I have encountered she too was an intelligent woman and a devout reformer. I would rather read more about these women claiming their power and influence rather than succumbing to the charms of a soulless climber. And while I commend Dunn’s use of Catherine Willoughby as her narrator, I can’t help but think that Dunn wasted an opportunity to give her reader more than a historical love triangle; something just one step above a romance novel.
Again I was disappointed with Dunn’s use of modern nicknames, though not as distracting as they were in the Queen of Subtleties, they are nevertheless so unnecessary and really seem to dumb the whole thing down. I was surprised to read that Dunn herself has said “I don’t write historical fiction,” and so perhaps I should strike her works from my reading list. However, I must say that to me Dunn’s statement seems more like an excuse for writing bad historical fiction because clearly she frames her novel within a historical context and choses her narrator to be an actual figure at the Tudor court. What Dunn does not give her reader is a novel that provokes further research or opens the reader’s eyes to a fresh perspective.
Unfortunately, I cannot recommend The Sixth Wife without these reservations and while I enjoyed Dunn’s use of Catherine Brandon as narrator the story that she creates is empty.