The Sixth Wife by Suzannah Dunn

In my last Sunday Salon post I wrote that I was glad I’d got round to reading The Sixth Wife by Suzannah Dunn and was having difficulty  putting it down.  However, on reading further on my enthusiasm for this book waned and then crashed down almost to zero.  I should know better than to write about a book before I’ve finished reading it. But people often say you can tell if you’re going to like a book after about 50 pages and the first part of this book did grab my attention, so it was all very promising.

My problem with it is that the dialogue is too modern, too colloquial. It’s not that I want ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ and ‘prithree’ this and that, but the conversations in this book come from the 21st century, not the 16th. And although I was fore warned from the description on the back cover that Catherine, the Duchess of Suffolk, Katherine Parr’s “best friend” has her own tale to tell I didn’t expect it to be the main part of the book. The Sixth Wife is not really about Katherine Parr, but about Catherine’s relationship with Thomas Seymour – which Dunn explains in the epilogue is from her own imagination.  I don’t expect historical fiction to be a mere recounting of facts,  but I do expect it to have some basis in fact, and not be mainly a story of a woman sleeping with her best friend’s husband. This book is more fiction than history and for me it doesn’t compare with, say Phillippa Gregory’s historical fiction for example.

The plus side, however is that reading this book has spurred me on to read more in the period. This list is taken from Wikipedia:

  • My Lady Suffolk: A Portrait of Catherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk by Evelyn Read (1963) ASIN B000JE85OK
  • Queen Katherine Parr by Anthony Martienssen, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York 1973
  • Women, Reform and Community in Early Modern England: Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk, and Lincolnshire’s Godly Aristocracy, 1519-1580: 19 (Studies in Modern British Religious History) by Melissa Franklin Harkrider
  • Catherine Parr: Henry VII’s Last Love by Susan James (2008). Gloucestershire: The History Press. ISBN o75244591X

4 thoughts on “The Sixth Wife by Suzannah Dunn”

  1. I was really happy when you posted previously that you really liked the book, because I have three by this author at home, and I have since heard the complaints about the modern language. I am okay with authors playing fast and loose with history as long as they let me know that’s what they did, but there is something about when the language sounds far too modern that jars me right out of the moment. That’s just my personal opinion. Here is what Suzannah Dunn herself says in defense of her choice to leave the language as she wrote it, even when her agent and editor gave her lists of words that they felt went too far:

    http://suzannahdunn.net/suzannahdunnhist.html

    They are her books and she can do what she wants. Many people will not mind at all and that’s great! I’m afraid that I, however, will be bothered. But I’ll read them eventually anyway, if for no other reason than it will allow me to judge for myself.

    I’m glad you brought this up!!

    Lezlie

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  2. Thanks Lezlie for this comment and the link to Suzannah Dunn’s point of view. I agree that she can do what she wants with her books, and she admits she doesn’t write historical fiction. But she seems to think it’s a matter of writing “do not” instead of “don’t” – maybe that was one of the words her agent and editor thought went too far. It’s more than that – it’s the modern slang that jars. I checked in just one of Philippa Gregory’s book and she uses contractions like “don’t”, “didn’t”, shouldn’t” etc with no problem.

    I also have no problem with authors inventing characters and altering events etc but this was just too much for me!

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  3. I’ve just had the same difficulty with ‘The Angel’s Game’, which I was expecting to enjoy and then found to be a real disappointment. Do you think there have been too many people jumping onto the Tudor bandwagon lately? I haven’t read it, but I know that a number of friends have been very disappointed with Mavis Cheek’s new book about Anne of Cleeves. Having said that I recently read the new Hilary Mantel, ‘Wolf Hall’, which is about Thomas Cromwell, and that is excellent.

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  4. I’d probably be happier reading the list from wikipedia than the novel. It’s one thing to extrapolate a story, it’s another to use it as a springboard to make something up about an actual albeit dead person. OTOH, I would love to know what went on with Thomas Seymour. That man was something else.

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