1:00 pm EST, February 13, 2019

‘The Dead Queens Club’ book review: History has its eyes on you, Henry VIII

The Dead Queens Club by Hannah Capin reimagines the story of the six wives of Henry VIII in a present day high school setting, and in doing so, powerfully reasserts a narrative stolen by the sands of time.

Today, February 13, is Galentine’s Day, an unofficial holiday recognized by feminist pop culture lovers since its coinage on NBC’s Parks and Recreation in 2010. Galentine’s Day, as Leslie Knope taught us, is a day that honors female friendships for the powerful and valuable pillars that they are. A day to celebrate your beloved girl gangs, when women lift up women with tenderness and pride. In layman’s terms, for the heteros among us, it’s Chicks Before Dicks, but no matter what romantic persuasions may or may not factor in to the following day, Galentine’s is a moment to cherish the platonic bonds between women that so many of us depend on.

But long before Leslie, February 13 held an awful significance in history for another cute and cheerful woman, and those who later learned her story. On the morning of February 13, 1542, a teenage girl named Katheryn Howard was taken from her cell in the Tower of London and beheaded on Tower Green. She was the fifth wife of Henry VIII, and the second of his queens to die on his orders. The first, Anne Boleyn, was Katheryn’s elder first cousin, and she was executed some six years earlier.

The grounds for these punishments were the same in both cases — treason against the king in the form of adultery. Anne’s story is the better known, not least because Henry’s pursuit of her after a 20+ year marriage to Catherine of Aragon literally ripped apart Christianity, and because of all Henry’s heirs, Anne’s daughter Elizabeth eventually succeeded the throne and became one of the most prominent female rulers the world has ever seen.

But Katheryn’s story is a special sort of miserable — shorter, quieter, and in its own way more horrific. Katheryn married Henry at around age 16, when the king was 49. Less educated than Anne, less political, Katheryn was by all accounts a sweet, playful girl who loved animals, positioned in Henry’s path as a pawn by her ambitious family.

She also had a history of sexual promiscuity from a young age, ranging from a consensual extramarital relationship with a royal favorite Thomas Culpeper to what appears to have been cases of rape at the hands of her childhood music teacher, and after her marriage to Henry, blackmail about her past conduct was a large cause of her downfall.

She was a delight to all who knew her, she was deeply naive, and she died horribly at the hands of the most powerful man in the world, a man who had become very comfortable with killing whichever family and friends had slighted him or got in his way.

Hannah Capin’s debut YA novel The Dead Queens Club came out two weeks ago, but the fact that Katheryn Howard’s execution anniversary falls on Galentine’s Day is possibly the most perfect summing up of this book — one that relies on the strength of female friendship to overthrow a cruel and deadly male-dictated history — that you could hope for.

You don’t need the above information to find The Dead Queens Club a frantic and fascinating read simply as a high stakes high school drama. Capin’s character voices are so lovingly crafted and her concept is so well executed that I am sure it holds up to a virgin reader, someone who knows absolutely none of the finer details about the source material — that is, the Tudor period as a whole, the charm and tyranny of Henry VIII, the origin stories and final fates of the six women who married him, and the circumstances of his court.

I wish I could tell you how it stands on its own, and I sort of want to have a conversation with someone who could. But The Dead Queens Club does not lean away from what it is, and Capin clearly wrote this novel from a place of passionate and personal investment in this period of history and the stories of these women, and as someone who has such specialty subjects of my own and more than a passing interest in this one myself — I’m no professional historian, but I sit at one end of the bell curve as an extremely invested amateur, and have eaten up every Tudor novelization or biopic I’ve encountered since childhood — this is exactly why I wanted to read it.

The concept sounds, at a glance, almost impossibly reductive — how could you possibly recreate the reign of Henry VIII and his horrible spousal track record in a contemporary high school setting? How would you actually make it feel — well, not real, but impactful?

That isn’t to say I went into The Dead Queens Club expecting it to fail. On the contrary, I was highly enthusiastic as soon as I heard that the novel was narrated by Anne of Cleves, Henry’s most amicable ex-wife, the one he divorced (allegedly because of being lied to about her looks, though it’s likely more complicated than that) with no hard feelings and remained friends with.

My confidence was not misguided — Cleves is the best possible entry point to The Dead Queens Club, and Capin’s recreation of her is just plain cool. The novel, which timeline wise shrinks years into months and months into weeks, opens when Henry is dating Katie Howard, and flashes back to events that took place in the prior few years of Cleves’ and Henry’s friendship and quick failed romance, and before touching on the wider successes, I want to shout out the magnificently inventive renames that Capin pulled off for this story, one that deals with a lot of Janes, Annes and Catherines of varied spellings.

For example, Anne of the German noble house La Marck, daughter of the Duke of Cleves, becomes Annie Marck, dubbed “Cleveland” or Cleves for short by Henry, as a cool hometown based nickname when they met at summer camp. Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford, wife of Anne Boleyn’s brother George and a major player in Katheryn’s life, and right executed after her on this day, becomes Parker Rochford — Parker being that lady’s maiden name — and every single student is named, either plainly or in disguise, as a significant courtier who played a part in this era of history.

For a reader like me, these were tasty treats — recognizing or working out the significance of the names in passing and being able to lightly predict how they’d contribute to the plot was a constant exercise in air punching. (My favorite subversive joke in the book is, when asked how she temporarily snagged Henry, Cleves quips that Hans — as in, Holbein, Google it — helped her catfish him.)

But by using Cleveland as our point of view, it also removes predictability, and it certainly allows less obsessive readers to unfold the mystery of Henry’s past and hit the reveals and realizations in the same way that Cleveland does. Because her joke about catfishing is not, in this case, true. Because their bond is real. Because Henry is lovely, until he is not. Cleves believes in him, so we believe in him, to the point where we lose sight of the truth that we know is coming, or at least are very confused about the shifting alliances and motivations at work in Hampton Court, the school’s “pretentiously named” cafeteria.

Henry, to Cleveland, appears to be a bright, irresistibly charming boy, someone who makes everyone he speaks to feel special for being deemed worthy of his attention, talented and troubled with what he feels like is the whole world on his shoulders. Cleves, who was Henry’s long-distance BFF since the Lina era, still harbors a crush on Henry, but she is sympathetic and supportive of his needs as a friend and is Henry’s most trusted advisor.

Despite disapproving of his increasingly erratic behavior about his history with Lina and Anna, they even date for a while when she unexpectedly moves to Henry’s “kingdom,” but due to what we later find out to be manipulative meddling, he soon moves on to Katie Howard, who also becomes Cleves’ best female friend in her new town — the complicated personal dynamic between all of these major players, all underpinned by genuine affection, is another of the novel’s wonderful wins.

As mentioned, the book begins with Henry and Katie — girlfriend number 5 of his high school tenure — after two years with Lina (Catalina Trastámara Aragon-Castilla) and leaving her for the driven and ambitious Anna Boleyn, a relationship that ended in catastrophe. Henry has been chopping and changing girlfriends in an attempt to find the perfect woman to help him regain his family’s honor after his father — the former mayor — allowed the town’s industry to fall to ruin after the death of Henry’s mother and older brother Arthur.

I say that this Henry is “chopping and changing” throughout his final years of high school, and I realize that given the real Henry VIII that could be taken quite literally. While it shouldn’t be, deaths truly are a factor of The Dead Queens Club. I’m not sure what I expected going in — about whether these girlfriends would literally get killed, and whether that would feel believable in this setting — but they do, and it does.

Anna, as well as her brother and Parker’s boyfriend George, were killed the year before in a terrible explosion deemed an accident, but the town still reels and rumors abound regarding Anna, who was severely hated by most of the school — she’s believed to have set up the explosion in an attempt to kill Henry.

While we do flash back to scenes with Anna through Cleveland’s eyes — including, rather brilliantly, a daring bike jousting stunt that left Henry with an injury that threw off his athletic career (in real life, Henry VIII sustained such an injury in a real joust, and it took him from the prime of his life into a middle age plagued by obesity, leg ulcers, and seemingly, a personality transplant) the present day timeline closely follows Cleves, Henry, and Katie until Katie’s shocking death, also deemed an accident, but occurring immediately after a very public altercation about cheating.

After getting to know her and finding her so dear — after learning her story and understanding her faults and choices — Katie Howard’s death hurts. It’s meant to, and until it happens I sort of didn’t believe the book would go there — even though I knew it must.

And this is what Dead Queens actually achieves — it fosters investment. By breathing life into these characters — these people — so evocatively, by bringing them into a setting with easy context, it removes the sense of clinicism that many people have around the real horrors of historical fact. We are often desensitized to such things, but ultimately, people have always been people, with the same emotional capacity for love, hate, jealousy, anger, humor, greed, art, the same core drives, and effectively the same needs.

And so if you were to look — to really look — at the life of Henry VIII, to really analyze his behavior as a human being alive on this planet, if you were to truly make real to yourself the circumstances that a girl like Katie Howard faced, to take into account her personality and experience, her past traumas, every single thing that adds into the experience of a very short life that ended with her placing her head upon the block on this day — it is no longer a distant dry text. It is unconscionable. It is one thing to know the details of a fact, another to feel the impact of a truth.

In making the story of Henry’s queens so digestible, Capin proves exactly how indigestible it actually is.

It is extremely easy to memorize a pneumonic to remember that King Henry VIII divorced two wives, lost one naturally, was outlived by one, and had two executed, namely for adultery but truly for a combination of convenience, ego, and paranoia, despite compulsively cheating on them. That he put aside a long, loving, and loyal partnership of 25 years and created a whole new church to be allowed to do so. And that he was never satisfied or settled again.

But it is truly difficult to believe that any human being would find this in any way acceptable. And yet we normalize it, and relegate it to a rhyme.

This remoteness is the curse of history — the thing that allows us to forget what we are capable of. And storytelling is the gift that allows us to remember. It is the gift that Hannah Capin has to give these wronged women — the gift of empathy, visibility, and empowerment.

Katie’s death changes everything for Cleveland. After the deaths of two of Henry’s girlfriends, Cleves — a budding journalist, and frequently restrained from writing controversial pieces by her school paper editor in chief, Cat Parr — begins a secret blog about the conspiracy, and is torn between her genuine loyalty and love for Henry and her wish to find out the truth. While Cleves is the last person to truly suspect Henry, this quest brings all of Henry’s surviving queens together to bring him down.

Capin’s love for these mistreated and misremembered women is clear. In The Dead Queens Club, she grants them personhood, and examines them from every angle. She picks apart the way history remembers them — the slut shaming that has always followed Boleyn and Howard, the conniving villainy of Jane Rochford, the miserable banishment that Aragon faced, and she reexamines Parr’s navigation in surviving Henry, and the dullness and ineffectuality of Jane Seymour. Cleves, as our POV character, has, of course, the richest inner life of all. Capin allows all of them to grow beyond their stereotyped legacies — both the memory of those Henry had killed, and for the others, in the potential of a new life no longer defined by him.

In fiction, Capin allows the solidarity of these women (Happy Galentine’s, y’all) to surpass their romantic connection to the same man, a man who did wrong by every single one of them, she offers them the support system of one another, and she offers them the chance to rewrite their story. She cannot change history, but through The Dead Queens Club, she can change perception, and that’s really what is needed.

The Dead Queens Club by Hannah Capin is available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your local independent bookstore, and Book Depository offers free international shipping. Also, don’t forget to add it to your Goodreads “to read” list and follow Hannah Capin on Twitter!

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