Sheffield Hallam student Laya Turnbull explores a vintage historical novel new to her.
Upon first searching the name of this book, even before I had read the first page, I assumed the novel would sacrifice the emotion and feeling to stay historically accurate to the story of Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Even though this event is dramatic in itself when I had been taught about this in school as I studied and enjoyed history in my GCSEs and A levels it was made to seem like a drab story of divorce and infidelity and could not even be compared to the romance drama we see in other fiction and on television today. However, Plaidy seems to rewrite this story perfectly conveying the emotion of a wife going through her husband’s affair and eventual betrayal without sacrificing the facts that lead to the divorce.
The novel takes place twelve years after King Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon and they have become involved in a loveless marriage. It also takes place when their daughter Princess Mary is a child and not regarded as a suitable heir to the throne. Henry’s desire for a legitimate son and his interest in the young Anne Boleyn causes a power struggle that ruins the lives of Catherine and Mary. We also see the struggle Henry has to secure a divorce and the relationship he has with Cardinal Wolsey that is shown as a devious puppeteer controlling the king.
Whilst I was reading the book I felt a strong sense of nostalgia because it reminded me of reading the historical fiction books by Philippa Gregory whilst I was in school. Much like Reading Sheffield interviewee Gillian Applegate who said in an interview that she had ‘always had a love for history’ and also mentions that she liked the novels of Jean Plaidy which I feel is very similar to how I feel. We both have a love for history and reading and so we both enjoy the historical fiction genre. Gregory’s books sparked my interest in historical fiction as I loved history in school and researching parts of history I enjoyed in my spare time. I enjoyed reading this book as I liked that I felt I already knew about parts of the historical events that Plaidy mentioned. For example when she mentions the Field of the Cloth of Gold in the first few chapters, I had studied it in school also. I liked the feeling that I was building on my knowledge of the Tudors whilst also being entertained by the plot. I also liked how the novel humanised people who were originally thought as emotionless or people that we forget were actual human beings. For example the portrayal of Queen Mary as a child and her naivety and hopes at the beginning of the book contradicts the name Bloody Mary which we all mostly know her as because of her brutal genocide of the Protestants.
My past experience reading historical fiction is very limited and included some novels by Philippa Gregory and a young adult novel that gave an account of the Babington Plot that was also in the Tudor period. Similarly to these novels I felt that The King’s Secret Matter perfectly balanced the factual events with the fictional thoughts and feelings. Eleanor Alice Burford or Jean Plaidy, her pen name, wrote The King’s Secret Matter in 1962 as the fourth addition to her Tudor series. She was known for her historical romances but wrote for many other genres under other pseudonyms. She is also the 71st most borrowed author of 1990-1991 according to a report about the top 100 most borrowed authors in the UK (British Library, 2017). This shows that her relevance did not diminish – the interest in historical fiction continues even thirty years after she published her novels and she still has a ‘strong presence in British public libraries today’ (Wallace, 2005). The media reviews to the novel have been very consistent praising Plaidy for her ability to write historical fiction. Her novels were popular in many countries, her books having been translated into 20 different languages and the New York Times named her a ‘pioneer of the romantic suspense and gothic genre.’ (Lambert 1993).
I felt that reading this book was easy compared to the others I have had to read for other university endeavours. All of the books I read at the moment or in the past year have all been for my course. The King’s Secret Matter is the first one I have read for a while that I feel I did partly choose for myself which meant that I felt more interested and engaged in the actual plot and story, instead of trying to focus on understanding the book and what I could interpret from it which I have to do for the other books and texts for university. I found that I could actually enjoy this novel without any pressure because I knew I had chosen the book purposely as I knew historical fiction was something I enjoyed reading when I was younger.
After reading the novel my interest in history and especially the Tudor period was re sparked. Reading this novel made me want to continue to feed my interest in history so I started to listen to the podcast You’re Dead to Me where Greg Jenner talks with experts and comedians about different historical events. This will allow me to easily continue my interest in history and can still fit in with my busy schedule as a student. Also I would like to start reading the rest of Jean Plaidy’s Tudor saga because I really enjoyed reading and researching The King’s Secret Matter and will hopefully continue with my interest with historical fiction and romance.
Here is Laya’s reading journey.