A lot of energy has been expended by other people in wondering why we remain so fascinated by the Tudor period. It’s one I mainly know through historical fiction and TV documentaries, like many of us, and I’ve enjoyed most of Philippa Gregory’s retellings over the years.
The Taming of the Queen (Simon & Schuster, 2015) tells the story of Katherine Parr (or Kateryn, as it’s spelled in the book) who, Gregory believes, deserves to be better known, not just for being a survivor and an outsider, but also for her scholarship. I knew (mainly) from Jean Plaidy’s The Sixth Wife about her attempts at the delicate balancing act of championing religious reform at a time when Henry VIII’s court was swinging back in favour of “the old faith”. Maintaining tension when the reader is likely to know more or less what’s going to happen is always tricky, and Gregory manages this by playing on the psychological terror of the increasingly paranoid court and Kateryn’s emotions as her friends are accused and, in one case tortured and burnt for heresy, and she faces the same charges herself.
I also knew a little about her studies, but not that she was (probably) a published translator. A book called Psalms or Prayers, which is an English translation of Bishop John Fisher’s Latin Psalms was published anonymously, but Gregory accepts the view taken by some historians that Kateryn was behind it. She also suggests that Kateryn worked with Cranmer on translating some of the liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer. How accurate this view is, I don’t know, but I loved the way Gregory writes about the translation process. She sees a chain of the Psalms from Hebrew to Greek to Latin to English. There are little moments where she hesitates over a word, caught between poetry, clarity and slight oddness. And then there’s this:
Thomas Cranmer has worked constantly on his liturgy, he brings it to the king, prayer by prayer, and the three of us read it and reread it. Cranmer and I study the original Latin, and rephrase it, and read it again to the king, who listens, beating his hand on the chair as if he were listening to music. Sometimes he nods his head approvingly at the archbishop or me and says: ‘Hear it! It’s like a miracle to hear the Word of God in our own language!’ and sometimes he frowns and says: ‘That’s an awkward phrase, Kateryn. That sticks on the tongue like old bread. No-one will ever say that smoothly. Rework it, what d’you think?’ And I take the line and try it one way and then another to make it sing. (p. 127)
The tension between meaning and music in translation is something Ros Schwartz talks about a lot, and it’s a very familiar one to those of us who do this thing regularly. But it’s lovely to see it set out in a novel like this, maybe catching the attention of someone who’s never thought about it before.
There’s a proto-feminist reading of Parr and her scholarship, rather too much dramatic irony about the future careers of the Princesses Mary and Elizabeth, not to mention Little Lady Jane Grey, and clumsy shoehorning-in of the “weak and feeble woman with the heart and stomach of a king” bit not once but twice. All the same, and despite the usual caveats, it’s a fascinating account of a fascinating woman, who was married to a wife-killer against her will but became a loving stepmother to three future monarchs.