The Fifth Queen

Ford Madox Ford

Oxford University Press 1984
A book review by Danny Yee © 2000
Ford depicts Katharine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII of England, as a tragic heroine: raised from almost nowhere to be queen, she is doomed not so much by her quixotic attempt to restore the old religion but by her inability to compromise, by an other-worldly idealism and a steadfast refusal to give anyone either more or less than their due. Her drama is played out in the claustrophobic world of the English court, amid the shadows and the machinations of Lord Privy Seal Thomas Cromwell (and, after his fall, his successors).

With its set-piece encounters and speeches, long dialogues, and lively Tudor language, The Fifth Queen has a rather Shakespearian feel to it. It is full of memorable, deeply incised characters: Katharine Howard, King Henry VIII, Princess Mary, Thomas Cromwell, Archbishop Cranmer and his servant Lascelles, Katharine's wild cousin Culpepper and, for comic relief, the lecherous latinist Udal. But The Fifth Queen works as historical fiction as well as high drama, wrenching us out of the comfort of the present into a genuinely different world, convincing in both its details and its broad sweep.

The Fifth Queen will not be to everyone's liking — it is far too dark to appeal to most fans of the "historical romance" genre — but it is one of the more powerful novels I have read for some time.

April 2000

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%T The Fifth Queen
%A Ford, Ford Madox
%I Oxford University Press
%D 1984
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0192814672
%P xiv,592pp