Charline Poirier reviews Wendy Dunn’s ‘All Manner of Things’

‘All Manner of Things’ by Wendy Dunn
Poesy Quill Publishing
ISBN 9780648715221

 

Wendy Dunn’s Book Two of the Katherine of Aragon Story, Falling Pomegranate Seeds, ‘All Manner of Things’, is a historical novel that recounts the story of Katherine of Aragon from the time she embarks on a ship heading for England in 1501 at the age of fifteen to her death in 1536.

In the prologue, Maria de Salinas, who had been Katherine’s childhood friend, is near death. She writes to her daughter, Katherine Brandon:

‘[…] before I die, I want you to understand –nay, I need you to understand why our lives have turned out as they have. I want – no, need to tell you my story. But it is not just my story… from the beginning, the threads of my life have been woven with that of my beloved queen’s…’

The two lives, we find out, are indeed tightly intertwined.

Most historical accounts of royal courts, at least in Europe, tend to centre on the friendships of kings and leave in shadows the lives of queens and their companions. Dunn’s account, in contrast, brings these latter into the light of day, through her depiction of Katherine and Maria.

The storytelling uses two main devices. First, typically at the beginning of chapters, Maria’s letters to Beatriz Galindo (La Latina), her childhood mentor, provide historical context and framing:

‘Dona, my dear Latina,

Today, I accompany the princess from Durham House to the London home of the Archbishop of Salisbury for my princess’s betrothal to Prince Henry. The young prince also celebrates his twelfth birthday on this day.

A promised bride once more, Princess Catalina no longer wears the colour of mourning….’

Second, shadowing Maria, we enter the queen’s inner sanctum:

[Maria said] ‘I know the story well. It makes a promise of a happy outcome. But the picture is a lie.’

[Katherine said] ‘“You grow too cynical, my sister. Tristan and Iseult’s love was not a lie. I do not believe love is ever a lie.” Catalina writhed, throwing her head back. “Dear God, dear God,” she moaned. Alice [the midwife] came to the bed and placed The Girdle of Our Lady in Maria’s waiting hands. The girdle sent from Westminster Abbey for the queen’s labour. Maria wound it carefully around Catalina’s swollen belly.  

“My queen,” the midwife said, “this will give you ease. I do not think you will be waiting much longer before you hold your babe.”

Alice was proved right. The last day of December ended and the first hour of January brought with it the cry of a living child.’ 

Maria is at Katherine’s side at the critical moments of her life. She witnesses the princess’s hopes for happiness as Prince Arthur’s wife; her torments when she is ostracized from the court by Henry VII after Arthur’s death; her elation when she falls in love with young Henry VIII and becomes his wife; as queen, her deep sense of betrayal when Henry takes on mistresses; her grief when she loses her infants to death; her unconditional devotion to her only daughter; and her unshakable Christian faith throughout.

Through Maria’s voice, Katherine’s story is told affectionately, loyally, and movingly. Katherine is vulnerable, too often reduced to being the victim of powerful male courtiers’ selfishness and interests.

Maria’s life, as she mentioned in the letter to her daughter, interweaves with the queen’s and thus, through her accounts, we get to know her too. We accompany her in her herb garden where she grows medicinal plants and secretly meets her lover. She expresses her own happiness and disappointments, her distrust of Henry VIII and some of his courtiers, and her views of court politics and intrigues. At times, she struggles between her unbound friendship to the queen and her own needs for fulfilment:

‘Catalina had propped against her, her body shaking. “My marriage to Prince Henry is an important alliance and will strengthen my parents’ hands against the French.” She released a shuddering breath. “Oh, Maria. I want to go home.” 

Maria had held her friend for a long time, wondering if she betrayed Catalina by no longer wanting the same. If she returned home, she would never see Will again.’

As Katherine falls in love, so do some of her ladies-in-waiting, including Maria, and the parallel love stories here interestingly highlight the differences in freedom and self-determination afforded to women according to their ranks. A suitor’s affection for one her ladies-in-waiting can challenge Katherine’s expectations of loyalty:

‘“Francisca asked me to give you this.”

Catalina took it, and scanned the contents. She dropped the letter to the ground. “Do you know what it says?”

“She loves you, my sister.”

“Loves me? She not only betrayed me, but has married without my permission – and to my money-lender. She saw a way out of these dark days and took it. And she says she loves me. If she loved me, she would not have done any of this.”’

In real life, Maria de Salinas was one of six women – Inés Vanegas and her daughters Inés and Teresa, María de Rojas, and Elvira Manuel – mindfully chosen by Queen Isabella I from the time of Katherine’s childhood to create a lifelong source of nurturing, guidance, and personal care. They piloted Katherine through the intricacies and culture of the English court.

While the perspective chosen by Dunn could, in fact, have led to a deep exploration of the unique nature of this tight inner group, the author has chosen a different direction. Aside from instances of jealousy directed at Maria and some cries for help, the individual roles of the other ladies in waiting and their impact on Katherine’s life remain obscure.

The focus on rich inner emotions leaves untold many aspects of Katherine’s context. While the novel is charmingly ornate with quotes, poems, and lyrics of the time, immersive details of the Tudor period or of important historical figures who crossed Katherine’s path tend to be brushed over. As well, her achievements and personal greatness are barely touched upon. If, then, you are looking to be absorbed into this era and gain insights into the events that made it, you may be disappointed. But if you want to peek into a side of the queen and one of her intimates often neglected in other historical works, this is the book for you.