By: Katherine Longshore
The youngest daughter of a family of little fortune and less consequence, as a child Katherine “Kitty” Tylney was sent to live off the largess of the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, until such a time as she should be fortunate enough to make a marriage – should her family deign to expend any such effort on her behalf. Alone and unwanted, the friendless girl was adopted by her more charismatic, and marginally less impoverished peer in the Duchess’s household – Catherine “Cat” Howard. Years pass, and Kitty comes of age in Cat’s shadow, ever loyal to her friend who has become increasingly determined to make her mark on the world, with an eye to escaping Norfolk for the treacherous, powerful court of Henry VIII. When Kitty finally gets her chance to follow Cat into the spotlight of court life, will the price of power prove demand too great a price for their friendship to survive?
I was in the mood for a soap opera, and as absolutely nothing beats the Tudor court for juicy scandal and drama – something Gilt’s lushly appointed cover promised in spades. This novel marks Katherine Longshore’s first young adult foray into Henry VIII’s glittering world, and she couldn’t have picked a more perfect subject than Henry’s infamous teenage bride, the ill-fated Catherine Howard. I’ve always rather thought Catherine must have been rather silly and immature, an opinion that seems to be supported by the historical record. She was certainly far out of depth as her end proves, her rise and ruin complete in just eighteen short months, her fate sealed by the confidence that consequences were for other people – an assumption that as undone many a person, teenage or not, throughout history.
Within the pages of Gilt, Catherine Howard is transformed from arguably Henry’s most inconsequential wife into a fully-realized, deliciously manipulative Mean girl, with stars in her eyes and venom on her tongue, fiercely determined to succeed and equally blind to the pride that would prove to be her downfall. But rather than choose Cat as her point-of-view character, Longshore smartly selects Katherine Tylney as voice and lens through which to view Cat’s rise and fall – as who better to relate Cat’s story than one who knew her best and lived it alongside her? The names and lives of those who served royalty are largely lost to time, as history typically preserves the detailed minutiae of those whos lives are instead writ large across history’s pages. Taking as her inspiration for Kat’s character the brief recorded testimony of the Katherine Tylney who testified at Cat’s trial, therein identified as one of the queen’s servants, Longshore re-imagines Kat as a long-time friend and companion of Catherine, and as such the perfect foil to the ill-fated queen’s temperament and trajectory at court.
How much is history and how much is supposition is up for debate, but Longshore has certainly done her research and her case for Kitty’s role in Cat’s life is a compelling one (Longshore’s author’s note his an informative and interesting glimpse into her research process). Regardless, I cannot recommend this novel highly enough as a stellar example of juicy, compulsively readable historical fiction. I devoured Gilt in a less than two days, a rare feat anymore for this reader – but more importantly than that, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the character of Kitty. She may be largely Longshore’s invention, but that said she’s a believable one, and a starkly honest sketch of a woman’s worth and prospects in the sixteenth century. Longsore doesn’t shy away from the sexual politics or attitudes of the day, but she isn’t gratuitous in the least. And given the recent outcry over the ruling in the Stanford rape case, it’s equal parts disheartening and maddening to read of Thomas Culpepper’s lechery and realize just how far we haven’t come in over four centuries as regards the issue of consent.
I absolutely loved the dysfunctional, occasionally toxic, sisterhood at the center of this novel. Cat and Kitty’s circle is completed by two additional alumna from Norfolk – Joan Bulmer and Alice Restwold (although their intimacy with Catherine pales in comparison to her friendship with Kitty). For all of the jealousies and petty squabbles that ran rife within a circle of four teenage girls, Kitty comes to realize the full value of that circle only when it has been irreparably broken by Cat’s arrest and trial. But even a queen’s ruin cannot dissolve all the bonds of such a sisterhood, as Kitty discovers in her most critical hour that it is Alice, she whom she liked and trusted least, perhaps knew her best, and in doing so orchestrated her unlikely path of salvation. In a world ruled by men, it will never cease to fascinate me to read stories of women fighting to determine their own futures.
Gilt is the perfect summer read – a lushly told, wildly entertaining historical romp. While grounded in history, Longshore gleefully embraces Catherine’s reputation as something of a witless flirt, hopelessly out of her depth at court, but with the added edge of calculating, biting selfishness. Cat is a mean girl on a power trip, which makes for a crazy entertaining, compulsively readable experience. I loved seeing Cat and the Tudor court through the lens of Kitty’s experience, as through her eyes, Longshore examines the cost of power and double-edged sword of secrets and friendship. Kitty’s ending isn’t wrapped in a neat bow as I expected, and I loved it all the more for that air of authenticity. With the far-off promise of possible romance and the hard-won chance at self-determination, Kitty’s story is a welcome, refreshing entry in the ranks of Tudor-set fiction, a world I’ll happily revisit.
About the book:
In the court of King Henry VIII, nothing is free -- and love comes at the highest price of all.
When Kitty Tylney's best friend, Catherine Howard, worms her way into King Henry VIII's heart and brings Kitty to court, she's thrust into a world filled with fabulous gowns, sparkling jewels, and elegant parties. No longer stuck in Cat's shadow, Kitty's now caught between two men--the object of her affection and the object of her desire. But court is also full of secrets, lies, and sordid affairs, and as Kitty witnesses Cat's meteoric rise and fall as queen, she must figure out how to keep being a good friend when the price of telling the truth could literally be her head.