Thursday, 12 March 2015

The Fifth Queen Trilogy by Ford Madox Ford


The Fifth Queen and How She Came to Court  - published 1906
Privy Seal: His Last Venture - published 1907
The Fifth Queen Crowned - published 1908


 
Fifth Queen 1
 

Barely three months ago she [Katharine Howard] had come to the palace of Greenwich riding upon a mule. Now accident, or maybe the design of the dear saints, had set her so high in the King’s esteem that she might well try a fall with Privy Seal. She sat there dressed, awaiting the summons to go to him. She wore a long dress of red velvet, worked around the breast-lines with little silver anchors and hearts, and her hood was of black lawn and fell near to her hips behind. And she had read and learned by heart passages from Plutarch, from Tacitus, from Diodorus Siculus, from Seneca and from Tully, each one inculcating how salutary a thing in a man was the love of justice. Therefore she felt herself well prepared to try a fall with the chief enemy of her faith, and awaited with impatience his summons to speak with him.

 
fifth queen 2



observations: When I did a list of books about the Tudors recently, Roger Allen came into the comments and said ‘Given your admiration for Ford Madox Ford, I'm surprised you haven't mentioned his Fifth Queen Trilogy about Katharine Howard.’ The excellent reason for not mentioning it was that I’d never heard of it. TracyK then said she knew of it too, though hadn’t read it, so it was definitely essential for me to get hold of it. (BTW, there is no set spelling for her first name, so different authors refer to her as Katherine, Catherine, Katharine – I’m going to refer to her as Katharine here, to match up with Ford.)


So your first thought is, how is he going to fill three books about Katharine Howard, when so little is known about her, and she slides into history for a very very short time before dying? Your second thought (once you start) is: oh dear, is he going to keep up this weird cod-Tudor language all the way through? Regrettably, he is.
Privy Seal had such eyes that it was delicate work lying to him…‘Knighton, that the Queen’s breath should turn the King’s stomach against you!’
Thomas Cromwell is, off-puttingly, referred to as Privy Seal for most of the book (Hilary Mantel and her pronouns not looking so bad now, hey?) ‘She might well try a fall with Privy Seal’, in the extract above, is one of the stranger phrases.

However, my complaints about language show all I know, because AS Byatt has written an introduction to the book, which is most helpful, but says
He uses Tudor language with vitality – a pleasure in accuracy and sharpness, not a distant strangeness. His heroes and heroines tend to be excellent Latinists – Katharine Howard is related to Valentine Wannop in Parade’s End. Ford’s prose has the flexibility and elegance of a good Latinist and the roughness and brilliance of a writer interested in the quiddities of the vernacular.
So that’s me told. But given that I am a huge fan of Ford’s, and have a great interest in the era, and still found it difficult reading, anyone else should probably be warned. The plot of the first book revolves round several secret letters, and who has read what, and who really intended this letter to fall into the wrong hands, and who knows that. It is dull and repetitious and hardly worth keeping track.

But all that said, it was well worth pushing through. It is at least a very different picture of Howard – who is normally portrayed as a small, pretty, silly young girl, quite uneducated. For example, Philippa Gregory’s The Boleyn Inheritance is very good and puts an intriguing slant on Anne of Cleves and Howard, but the younger girl does come over as a 16th century Bridget Jones, counting her gowns. Ford is having none of it: his Katharine is clever, tall and speaks Latin.

Ford did find plenty to write about: there’ll be at least one more post on the trilogy, and one linking it with Wolf Hall

Pictures of the Tudor Queens are often disputed and muddled. These are two believed to be of Katharine Howard.















10 comments:

  1. What an interesting take on Tudor history, Moira! And about a character we really don't know well. I think the language thing is a legitimate issue. Tudor language just isn't the same as what we use today, and I think that could definitely be a stumbling block. Still, the story itself sounds fascinating, and certainly sheds a new light on Katherine Howard.

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    1. Yes - I think these books would be forgotten now if he wasn't famous for other works, and they are definitely a minority interest. Still, I'm glad I read them....

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  2. 99%-er. At least you won't be seeing this one appearing in my March additions round-up - GUARANTEED!

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    1. Yes I can see that, even though there's some good thuggish noir behaviour by those court people...

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  3. Thanks for the mention. I am still planning to read this... even more so now that I have warning. How long it will take me to get to it -- or to finish it -- is another matter. I did read The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser in late 2002 and The Other Boleyn Girl right before that, so probably picked it up around then.

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    1. One of these days. The two books you mention are much more readable versions of Tudor history, it has to be said.

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  4. I'd not heard of these before either - thanks Moira. Byatt notwithstanding, I am not exactly convinced. Ford fan though I am ...

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    1. If I had read it blind, I would NEVER have guessed it was Ford, so although it was interesting, I am not particularly recommending it to Ford fans. One surprise to me was to find out just how many books FMF did write, there's shed-loads of them. A case for sticking to the established canon I think....

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  5. As I started you on the book, I'm glad you liked it in the end. I haven't reread it since I did so more than twenty years ago, but I enjoyed the style. I think a historical novel should remind us that always remind us that "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there" Hartley was only writing of the narrator's youth, but it's even more so with a book set centuries in the past. We should be as aware of its pastness there as we are with a book written centuries in the past. It's difficult to do without ending up with Ye Olde Wardour Streete jargon, but it's worth trying.

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    1. Roger, I am so glad you recommended these books to me, because I had never heard of them, and would be sorry to have missed them. The question of language in historical novels is always tricksy, because of course a writer couldn't actually reproduce Tudor language (even if he or she had the technical skill) because it would be close to incomprehensible, and even more so from earlier eras. But as you say, it's probably a good idea to have some distinction in language, to make it clear we are not in the present-day... it's a judgement call for writer and reader as to what works.

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