The Secret Keeper: A Novel of Kateryn Parr is Sandra Byrd’s second contribution to the “Ladies in Waiting” series that began with last year’s To Die For: A Novel of Anne Boleyn.
The Secret Keeper is set in the late years of Henry VIII’s reign and revolves around his Queen, Kateryn Parr. The novel is told from the point of view of Juliana St. John, the novel’s fictional protagonist. Juliana is the daughter of a knight of the realm who comes to King Henry’s court as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Kateryn. Just prior to her arrival Juliana has a prophecy of peril brought upon a highborn woman. Juliana is determined not to see her prophetic vision come to fruition. Mistress St. John holds a secret herself and in time will be burdened with many others. Juliana sees her place at court to be of service to Queen Kateryn but also to ensure the safety of Lady Elizabeth.
Byrd gives us a portrait of Queen Kateryn that truly does her justice. She is not merely the surviving spouse and nurse to the ailing King, but a woman with intelligence and wit who is known for her integrity and generosity. Kateryn manages to reunite the King and his children and is dearly loved by each. Not that Byrd’s depiction of Queen Kateryn is without flaws; mainly in her blind devotion to Thomas Seymour often causes Kateryn to act impulsively, but truly Byrd provides us with a very human depiction of a remarkable Queen.
Kateryn tries to influence the King on religion but her devout reformist views nearly cost her life. She holds open discourses on religion within her chambers that thrust Juliana into a precarious situation. At the same time Juliana is dealing with personal challenges and even discovers secrets about her own family, but faces all of these trials with a calm strength rooted in her belief in God’s plan and purpose for her life.
I found myself swept up with the depiction of both Queen Kateryn and Juliana and especially in the interaction between the two women. Byrd’s novel is rich in detail and rooted in history but her true mastery is in her ability to weave very human character depictions into the larger story. The Secret Keeper is rich with intrigue and multi-layered plot-lines but also offers the reader a new perspective on a long debated historical question that has become itself a secret to time.
This reader found the novel to be a true page-turner that at times I could not be pulled away from. It is not only an engaging work of historical fiction, but Byrd’s exploration of role of women, including their individual beliefs and values, within the larger social context of Tudor society thought provoking and like all truly masterful historical fiction encouraged me to research further. I would highly recommend The Secret Keeper and is most certainly a must read for all fans of Tudor era historical fiction.