This is Sandra Byrd’s second novel featuring a lady-in-waiting to one of Henry VIII’s wives (the first was To Die For: A Novel of Anne Boleyn). I have not read that one or any of her other previous novels but requested this one from Netgalley as I’m always interested in trying new historical fiction authors.
The Secret Keeper is narrated by Juliana St. John, a knight’s daughter who becomes lady-in-waiting to King Henry VIII’s sixth and final wife, Katherine Parr (spelled Kateryn in this book). Amid all the intrigue of the Tudor court Juliana is a loyal friend to the Queen and as they get to know each other better a strong bond is formed between them. As we follow Kateryn’s story through Juliana’s eyes, we discover that Juliana is hiding some secrets of her own, including one that won’t be revealed until the end of the book.
Having read about this period many times before, I was familiar with the major events of Katherine Parr’s life including her marriage to Henry VIII, the King’s death and her relationship with Sir Thomas Seymour, and her support for Anne Askew, who was tortured and burned at the stake as a heretic. You don’t really need to have any previous knowledge though, as the story is easy enough to follow anyway (and there are some useful family trees at the front of the book too). Katherine is probably most famous for being the wife who survived, but this novel makes it clear that she deserves to be remembered for so much more. She was a Protestant reformer and wrote and published two books, Prayers or Meditations and The Lamentations of a Sinner. Bearing in mind this was the 16th century, this was a significant achievement (Katherine was apparently the first English queen to have books published under her own name) and I enjoyed the little insights we were given into women’s literacy. The Queen also liked to discuss philosophy and religion with her friends and played an important role in the education of her stepchildren, including the future Elizabeth I, another woman who valued literature and learning.
However, this book was more than just a retelling of Katherine Parr’s life story because Juliana is a fictional character with an interesting story of her own to tell. She goes through some very difficult and traumatic situations during her time at court and one of her ordeals in particular is something that still has a lot of relevance today. Throughout the novel Juliana also experiences prophetic dreams and she must decide what she should do with the special knowledge she has been given.
Juliana was a sympathetic character and I also really liked Jamie Hart, the Irishman who is Juliana’s romantic interest throughout the book. I wished we had spent more time with him, as I felt I didn’t get to know him well enough and I would have liked his relationship with Juliana to have played a bigger part in the story. Normally I find there’s too much romance in Tudor court novels rather than not enough, but in this case I just wanted Juliana to have some happiness and I found I was looking forward to Jamie’s occasional appearances at court almost as much as she was!
Considering the number of novels that have been written about the Tudor court and Henry VIII’s six wives in particular, it must be so difficult to find a different way to approach this subject. Sandra Byrd manages to do this to some extent, by telling the story through the eyes of a fictitious lady-in-waiting, but although I enjoyed reading it there was nothing that I thought really made the book stand out from other historical fiction novels of this type. I did appreciate the way the author had made an effort to use language appropriate to the period and avoided the excessively modern dialogue that can often spoil the atmosphere of historical fiction. Oh, and if you’re wondering about the spelling of Kateryn’s name, the author’s note tells us that there’s some evidence that the queen used this spelling herself, signing her documents Kateryn the Queen, KP.
I received a review copy of The Secret Keeper from the publisher via Netgalley