Monday, January 11, 2010

The King's Rose by Alisa M. Libby review and Q&A with Alisa M. Libby

My Review

In “The King’s Rose”, author Alisa M. Libby brings to life the fifth wife of King Henry VIII.

Born into a family that was notorious for using the women of their family as stepping stones to enhance their status at court, young Catherine Howard becomes their pawn in the devious game of court elevation. Allowed to behave in an unscrupulous manner while living in the house of her grandmother the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, Catherine must now burn her past and pretend it never existed. Knowing that the King’s marriage to Anne of Cleves is drawing close to an end, the Howard’s are once again determined to place one of their own back upon the English throne. Placing Catherine in front of the King, they have built her up as a woman of amazing virtue, much like Henry’s much beloved Queen Jane. Catherine soon finds that she has won the heart of the aging King. Concluding that combination of the King’s love, and the power of the Howard’s Catherine allows herself to believe that she would hold more power than any of Henry’s previous Queens, including her cousin Anne Boleyn. The new Queen soon finds herself surrounded by her old life. The girls that Catherine shared her lodgings and her secrets with during her stay with the Dowager Duchess come calling for a position in her Royal household. Allowing them to join her retinue, Catherine knows she must keep them close to avoid her past from coming to light. Unable to rid herself of the past she was told to destroy and unable to provide King Henry with an heir to throne, she is told that she must restart her affaire with her previous lover, Thomas Culpepper. Enlisting the aid of Lady Rochford, Anne Boleyn’s sister-in-law, who was the downfall of Ann, Catherine slips back into her old life. Suddenly Catherine’s fears become reality when a pair of familiar eyes greet her from behind the mask of a devil, she now realizes that her past is alive and raging like an inferno. The Howard’s now have come to the conclusion that Catherine is of no use to them and brings her transgressions to light. No longer is she the King’s rose without a thorn, she has hurt, betrayed, and humiliated the man who has loved her, the man who has the power to destroy those whom he has raised. Catherine finds herself condemned by her lover, Thomas, the man who has sworn to protect her, and betrayed by her family as well as Lady Rochford. Continuously haunted by her cousin Anne Boleyn, she now learns that she will share her fate as well as her final resting place. Anne and Catherine’s fate are now intertwined forever to be known as traitors to the Kings heart.

“The King’s Rose”, is a remarkable story showcasing the short life of Catherine Howard. Told from Catherine’s perspective, “The King’s Rose”, offers a fresh perspective on the life of this young, doomed queen. Alisa M. Libby has provided us with an up-close and personal narrative that truly brings Catherine to life. No detail has been overlooked, every aspect has been thoroughly researched. Alisa M. Libby has a way of writing that captivates the reader. You can feel the inner war that Catherine is constantly wagging within herself.

As a reader of both nonfiction and fiction works pertaining to the Tudors, I found this book to be a very interesting read. I enjoyed the fact that Alisa chose to write about one of Henry’s lesser known queens. I feel that she has given a voice to Catherine, so that her story though it may be fictional is told. One of the parts that will stay embedded in my memory from the book is at the end where Catherine is pleading to the King to show mercy and Henry just passes by without even a nod in her direction. Reading “The King’s Rose” is sure to provoke an endless steam of thoughts and discussions.

“The King’s Rose” was provided by the author Alisa M. Libby.

If you enjoyed this book you should check out these nonfiction books.

1-The Six Wives of Henry VIII
By Alison Weir
2-Henry VIII also Published as The King and His Court
By Alison Weir
3-Great Harry
By Carolly Erickson

Author Q&A

In your book, The King’s Rose you chose Catherine Howard as your main character. What drew you to Catherine Howard?

Catherine Howard was a young woman caught in what, at first, reads like a fairy tale: she's chosen as a bride by the rich and immensely powerful King of England. However, she quickly learns how difficult it is to please this particular king, and the dangerous repercussions if she does not give him what he requires. Her story would be like Cinderella, if only Henry weren't so terrifying!

Also, I was fascinated by Catherine's bad decisions; many accounts state that she had a secret affair while married to the king, an act of treason which had already cost Henry's former queen, Anne Boleyn, her head. Was it lust, desperation, or heartache that drove Catherine to do this? I didn’t have any answers, but I wanted to write her story to figure out what she might have been thinking.

While in England researching Catherine, what did you feel like retracing her steps?
It was wonderful to walk the halls of Hampton Court knowing that this was where Catherine celebrated her days as queen, and also where she was first imprisoned. The most powerful experience of the trip was visiting the place of her execution and burial in the Tower of London. Catherine is buried beside her far more famous cousin, Anne Boleyn, and is often overlooked in favor of Anne. My husband and I visited on February 13, the anniversary of Catherine's execution. I like to think that she was pleased to receive visitors.

What are some of the things that you were surprised to learn about her?
I was surprised to learn how ill-equipped Catherine was for court life, which only made her story more interesting to me. She arrived at court in autumn, as a lady in waiting to the new queen, Anne of Cleves. By the following spring Catherine was receiving expensive gifts from King Henry. He divorced Anne of Cleves and married Catherine that summer. This had to be an overwhelming, heady experience. I don’t think she knew enough about court politics to know how to properly behave as queen.

Authors often find themselves identifying or sympathizing with their characters. When writing/researching this book did you find that was the case with Catherine?

Yes, I certainly sympathized with Catherine. However, I didn’t want to let her off the hook to easily. I didn’t want to make her sound too much like a victim, and I wanted to retain the idea that she did do something wrong. As it is fiction, I could have explained the affair away as a minor flirtation, or an unrequited love, but I didn’t find that as interesting as the story of a girl who does a bad thing and in so doing puts herself and the one she loves in grave danger.

In the book as well as in real life Catherine’s life is a dichotomy. Constantly living out two different roles. Do you feel that the choice was hers or was she forced by the Howards?

I don’t think she had any choice in marrying the king—nor did any of his other brides, for that matter. For a girl of Catherine’s non-royal status, there was no rejecting the king’s proposal. Further, the Howards would never have allowed her to reject it, even knowing the dangers involved.

In the book Catherine is constantly plagued by the memory of Anne Boleyn. Ultimately she shares the same fate as Anne, do you think that she felt a sense of foreboding throughout her life?

I thought it lent an interesting aspect to her character to have Catherine “haunted” by Henry's past wives, particularly the terrifying example of Anne Boleyn. I couldn’t glean from historical texts if Catherine did consider those who came before her, but I imagined that she wouldn’t be able to avoid doing so. Still, it didn't seem to stop her from behaving rashly! But that's what made her a challenging and fascinating character to write about.

With Henry being known as paranoid and distrusting, why do you think he chose to marry someone in the Howard family, a family that already failed him?

This is a wonderful question! I think that when Henry saw what he wanted—be it obtaining or disposing of any one of his wives—he would create any explanation necessary to attain the object of his desire, even if it meant making excuses, bending the rules, or fooling himself in the process. He was instantly charmed by Catherine and was eager to claim her as his youthful and vivacious new bride. He was completely—perhaps innocently, foolishly—convinced by her guise of innocence. He wanted to believe that it was true, that this girl was pure and lovely and that she loved him.

In the King’s Rose Catherine’s affaire with Thomas has ended and restarts after her failed attempts to produce an heir, do you think that the relationship ever truly ended between Catherine and Thomas?

Assuming, for fictional purposes at least, that they did have an affair (you can find historical texts that support or deny this claim) I thought it likely that she might have attempted to be on her best behavior when first married to Henry. He was lavishing her with attention and ordering banquets and masquerades in her honor; I think that this might have distracted and appeased her for a while. It’s later, when she’s feeling weak and desperate and overlooked by the king that her love for Thomas consumes her, again.
In your opinion who was Catherine Howard? Was she a willing participant or just another pawn in the Howard’s elevation to notoriety?

I see her as a pawn, and not a terribly well chosen pawn, at that. She was petite and young and pretty, and I think the Howards knew that Catherine would catch Henry's eye. Did they know that Henry would despise his German bride, divorce her as quickly as possible, and immediately marry little Catherine? I doubt they could have foreseen all of this. I'm sure that they were thrilled with this turn of events, but Catherine was ill-prepared for all the responsibilities of being queen, let alone managing Henry's mood swings. I think she did make Henry feel young again, for a brief time. But in the end, she may have been better off as the king's mistress, not his wife!
Lady Rochford knew the cost of deceiving the King, what do you think preempted her to engage in Catherine’s affaire?

Lady Rochford remains an inscrutably evil and reckless character, to my mind. She had already seen her husband, George Boleyn, and her sister-in-law Anne Boleyn, executed for the same charges of treasonous adultery that she was helping to arrange for Catherine. For the purpose of fiction, I decided that the affair was devised to get Catherine pregnant, seeing as perhaps Henry was incapable of doing so. As for the real Lady Rochford, I’ve yet to understand what she was thinking. She was adept at court politics (she must have been, or else she wouldn’t have lasted so long) and maybe she thought she could wiggle out of a dangerous situation, if need be. She had certainly walked away from Anne Boleyn's reign with her head still squarely on her shoulders. When accusations were made in Catherine's case, Lady Rochford placed all of the blame on Catherine, claiming that the young queen had demanded that she help her arrange these meetings with her lover, Thomas Culpeper. Perhaps she thought this would be enough to release her from any responsibility. She wasn’t so lucky.
Everybody has an opinion as to who King Henry really was. Who was he to you?

I see King Henry VIII as a monster created by the age and circumstances in which he lived. Yes, he was often a tyrant, and egotistical and moody and he disposed of his wives—and many of his colleagues, in general—in a repulsive manner. But how can we expect him to act of sane mind? He was a young man when he was crowned, and suddenly his very person was imbued with God-like power. It was believed that the king of England, chosen by God, was to be treated like a God, himself. How, then, can we be surprised at how this twisted his perception of his own power? The convolutions he created to obtain and then discard each of his wives is circuitous and illogical—but it worked, again and again. Regardless of his madness, he was still king, and his servants did their best to give the king what he wanted, no matter whose heads had to roll. The king’s will be done!
The Tudors on Showtime has awoken a new interest in the life of King Henry. Have you always been fascinated with this period of time and would you like others to learn from it?

I have long been fascinated by the Tudor court, and by the time period in general. I like jumping into the mind of a historical character, slipping into their world—it’s world-building akin to high fantasy, but luckily I can research details to help populate that world. And there are so many fascinating details! The clothes they wore, the food they ate, the poetry they read, the games and music they played—it is a time period rich with detail and peopled with fascinating, often malevolent characters.

You mention in your biography that you like writing about characters who do bad things. Why is that? Do you feel that you are giving them a voice, a way to show their points of view?

My first two books are focused on characters who do bad things: the first, Countess Bathory, murdered her servant girls and bathed in their blood, believing that it would preserve her youth and beauty for eternity. Catherine Howard committed adultery. In each case I had a similar reaction to their stories: “What was she thinking?” I wrote to answer this question in a way that seemed satisfying. I like to give these characters a voice—not to make excuses for their bad behavior, but to figure out why they did it. I find “bad girls” very fascinating, and history is full of them!
Was there anything you were surprised to learn about Countess Bathory?

The information about Countess Bathory was far more limited than what I could find out about Catherine. However, I was surprised and fascinated by the magic and folklore that may have been a part of Erzebet’s world, twisted up with her religious beliefs. I read stories about how beating a bird with a white cane was said to protect you from enemies. Medical practices of the time also relied heavily on “bleeding” a patient in order to fix an imbalance of humors in the body. Blood was often involved in magic, as well as in her religious studies: “The life of the flesh is in the blood.” Knowing this, I could see how she would see blood as a magical substance, and how this may lead her to use it as part of her beauty regimen, such was her terror of growing old.
What books would you recommend for those who want to research Catherine Howard, King Henry, or the Countess Bathory?

There are some wonderful books out there about Catherine. My favorite was A Tudor Tragedy by Lacey Baldwin Smith. I also enjoyed Joanna Denny's book Katherine Howard (both of these are non-fiction.) If you’re in the mood to read some fiction about King Henry, I highly recommend Margaret George’s novel, The Autobiography of King Henry VIII; it’s massive and fascinating, like the big man, himself. Also, there are wonderful recordings of music of the time period, much of it supposedly written by King Henry. I enjoyed “All Goodly Sports: The Complete Music of Henry VIII” and listened to it a great deal while writing The King’s Rose.

There are fewer books out there about Bathory, but I found some useful information about her in Dracula was a Woman by Raymond McNally and Countess Dracula by Tony Thorne. Thorne's book was particularly interesting, as he gave two potential stories: one of a woman obsessed with bathing in blood, and the other of a woman framed for murder. For fiction, Andrei Codrescu’s The Blood Countess was dark and riveting.

Which was your favorite character to research?

I hate to choose one over another, but at the moment I have to say Catherine Howard. I read her story over so many times over the three or four years that I worked on the book, and I never tired of it. I was constantly revealing some new aspect of her in my research. It was fascinating to take all of those facts and try to craft a “real” fictional girl from what I learned. And in the end, she was a real girl, maybe not so different from myself. Though I didn't agree with her actions, I could empathize with her plight. Visiting England made her even more real to me.
Do you have a subject for your next book? If you do what can we expect?

I have a few projects in the works at the moment. I would love to write another historical novel, but I have to be completely committed to a topic to dive into all of that research; that commitment can't be forced. So I'm working on a few contemporary novels at the moment, each with a splash (or more) of fantasy. One book is about a girl who finds a lost diary while spending her summer vacation in Scotland. It’s been fun to write and the idea actually pulled me out of some post-Catherine Howard writer’s block, so I hope to see it published, someday.
What made you decide to become an author? Was there a particular book that provoked the idea?

I always had the urge to write stories, but there were certainly books and characters that spurred me on in my desire. As a pre-teen I was a big fan of Edgar Allan Poe, Sylvia Plath, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Alfred Noyes (“The Highwayman”), among others.

What was the first book that captured your attention as a child and then as an adult?

Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery. Emily was a writer, just like me, and I loved reading about how she would “spin stories” in her head. Also, The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle has inspired me since I first read it at age twelve. As for the books that inspired me in my adult reading life, the list always changes: Nabokov's Lolita (I love an unreliable narrator, and Humbert Humbert is as unreliable and despicable as you can get), Toni Morrison's Beloved and Marsha Parker's Ghosts would be at the top of the list. Also, Fade by Robert Courmier and the Dangerous Angels novels by Francesca Lia Block.

As both a writer and reader what do you consider makes a good historical fiction book?

I love a book that is impeccably researched, but I know that the author needs to make decisions to create a fully-fleshed out character—there are some details you simply can’t find in historical texts, and those gaps need to be filled in with fiction. Also, I like for the details and the way of life to be true to the time period. The fact that the teenaged Catherine married a fifty-year-old man is repulsive to us now, but it was commonplace at the time. To view it through a too-contemporary gaze only interferes with the story.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Keep writing and keep reading! Writing a book—or whatever it is that you want to write—is absolutely possible as long as you keep at it. There is a saying that “talent is nothing other than a long patience” and I happen to believe this is true. Write, put your stuff aside, then read it again a month later—be critical. Read books critically, and take note of what works for you and what doesn’t. You'll find that you'll learn a lot from what you read. And all of writing is an experiment—don't let your worries about the end result stop you from trying new things, making messes, taking chances. That's the best way to learn.
What is one thing you wish that readers will take away from your books?

I hope that readers enjoy my books and connect emotionally with the characters. If they become interested in the time period and the history, that’s great too, most of all it's about allowing my readers a glimpse into the world and minds of the characters. That's what I enjoy most about writing, and reading as well.


Janet said...

Sounds great - I'm going to definitely get a copy!

Renee said...

It was a great read, not to mention historically sound.