Reviewed by Angela Wauchop
“‘As a girl, I believed the movement of the stars made music we did not even know we heard.’ […] Catalina’s eyes glimmered in the torchlight. She is not looking at the stars. She is gazing back at a time when life contained love’s promise and the sweet essence of youth. […] ‘I am no longer sixteen and believe the stars make music. Astronomical phenomena are like the seasons; they are only the design of God, and to be accepted and welcomed as such.’”
All Manner of Things is award winning author Wendy J. Dunn’s most recent work of accomplished historical fiction. The novel is predominantly set in England between 1501 and 1539. It tells us the story of María de Salinas, lifelong friend of Catalina of Aragon. The time has come for Catalina to marry Prince Arthur, older brother of Prince Henry and heir to England’s throne. Maria leaves the familiarity and warmth of Castile—and of home—to accompany her beloved Catalina to a dark and unfamiliar England. The two young women embark on a difficult journey that is to become their extraordinary yet tragic lives. Seasons turn into years of huddling under layers of robes and furs, barely escaping the icy drafts inside sprawling manors and scarcely heated castles.
Although a lover of history, I wondered at first what business I had even reading a book entwined with the intricacies of Tudor history. Was my knowledge too lacking? I need not have worried – the author presents an engaging narrative, with flowing dialogue and a portrayal of human nature unchanged by the passage of centuries. It is of course apparent that Dunn knows all about this era of history and knows it well. Yet it is clear that the author’s knowledge and observations of life, people and personal conflict also shine through.
The book exquisitely addresses many important and confronting themes, such as rape, stillbirth, murder and adultery. Yet, my favourite scene was when young María first meets the handsome William Willoughby de Eresby:
“When he smiled, she found it impossible to look away. Reeling, one hand grasped at her rosary at her waist, and the other rose to her chest. Why does my heart hurt? Her legs quivering like jelly on top of feet of lead, she forced herself to move forward again.
His hand grazed against hers, and scorched her flesh, halting her again.”
Most of all, this book made me fascinate over times long ago, times when ancient buildings were brand new, faded portraits were still sharp and striking and faith and loyalty were absolute; times when women had so little autonomy it was never an option for them to venture out on their own and just ditch this damn place. It was a time when babies were not expected to live, when mothers often died giving birth and bloodletting was a universally accepted medical treatment. And merely saying one wrong word or looking at someone with influence the wrong way meant dishonour, exile or death.
“‘Your highnesses’, the woman said through her tears, ‘I found him like that. He was well and lusty last night, but he did not wake this morning. He did not wake…’
Catalina fell to her knees on the other side of the cradle. She leaned on her son’s cradle, and wept. The king knelt beside her, pulling her into his arms. weeping too. ‘It is God’s will,’ he said.”