Secrets of the Tudor Court is told from the perspective of Mary Howard, a marginal but well-connected woman in Tudor England. Mary was not only the daughter of Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, married to Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, was in service as a lady in waiting to five of Henry VIII’s queens (Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, Catherine Parr), but was cousin to Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard and daughter-in-law to none other than the King himself. It is her father, Thomas Howard, cunning and cruel, who has the greatest impact on her life. Indeed much of the story involves the relationship of father and daughter and the impact this relationship has on Mary’s sense of self.
Overall, I found Bogdan’s account engaging, but I did find it a tedious read until the mid point of the story. Perhaps this was because I didn’t really warm to Bogdan’s Mary initially. I found her lacking in so many qualities and so desperate to please everyone, but especially her father, who is depicted as nothing short of a tyrant. I did find the relationship that Mary developed with Anne as well as the esteem in which she held her cousin endearing, but it wasn’t until the midpoint of the novel that Mary, as well as her father Norfolk, were developed fully and the reader able to get some insight into the motivations for their actions. This is my main criticism.
Mary herself is a treasure. She is a poet and musician and a supporter of the New Faith. She is intelligent and a seeker of knowledge. Despite this the overriding theme for Mary in Secrets of the Tudor Court is the desperate yearning for the love of her father. Even after she witnesses her father’s duplicity in the rise and fall of two cousins she never wavers in her quest for his love. Despite the example of her cousin, Anne Boleyn, Mary seems resigned to be a pawn for the use of men. Truly, she is an empty sad woman for most of the first half of the novel.
It isn’t until the imprisonment of her father and the imprisonment and execution of her brother, Henry Howard, Earl of Suffolk, that Mary begins to be able to fully mature. After receiving her brother’s children as wards Mary sees a purpose for her life beyond her father’s wishes. She begins to realize that she has some control over her own destiny, but also wishes to nurture, support and love the children in her care. Only at this point, for this reader, does Mary become engaging and dynamic as a character and the novel becomes a page-turner from this point until the last
However, I must applaud D.L. Bogdan, as Secrets of the Tudor Court is her debut novel and the small criticism I’ve made is certainly a honed skill. I certainly was glad I read the account and must admit I read the last 200 pages in one sitting. Bogdan also, through the use of Mary Howard as protagonist, gives the reader some insight into the plausible motivations and mindset of the influential but elusive Duke of Norfolk.