More Lore Than Life

DAUGHTER of Charles VI of France and sister to Charles VII; younger sister of Isabelle, widow of the deposed and murdered Richard II of England; wife of England's Henry V; mother of Henry VI; secret wife of Owen Tudor and grandmother of Henry VII; princess, pawn, woman of power, prisoner - Katherine of France (1401-1437) was all these. ``The Queen's Secret,'' by Jean Plaidy, is her fictional autobiography. Though the daughter of a king, Katherine did not have the pampered upbringing our imaginations tell us she should have had. Instead, she and her siblings lived in near poverty with their insane father in the H^otel de St-Paul, while her unscrupulous mother ruled - many would say ruined - France. By the time Katherine was in her teens, Richard II of England had been deposed by Henry IV and murdered; his widow, her sister, had returned to France and remarried; two of her brothers had died, possibly at the hand of her mother; and France was in the grip of civil war, with conspiracies lurking at every corner.

By the time she was in her mid-20s, Katherine's life resembled the overambitious plot of an overzealous amateur's 19th-century opera. Henry V conquered France and she married him. Their son was born, but Henry V died suddenly. Joan of Arc reunited the French against the invading English. And Katherine had secretly borne to Owen Tudor - her clerk of wardrobe - two sons, whom she left in England while she accompanied her first-born - now King Henry VI - to France. There, among other things, Katherine witnessed the martyrdom of Joan of Arc by the English.

The many historical personages who cross Katherine's path through the course of the novel are given fair treatment by Plaidy. Though these portraits are no more than sketches - often undetailed and necessarily brief - one comes away with a certain sense of the various characters as individuals.

Unfortunately, Plaidy does not maintain this clarity when it comes to her protagonists. Historical lore says that Katherine was bewitched and enthralled by Owen Tudor. Plaidy's Owen Tudor, however, is such a goody-two-shoes, he could not beguile anyone. He's more likely to be a mother's favorite son-in-law, so innocuous, safe, and pure is he.

Moreover, Plaidy's Katherine is a ninny, whining incessantly and gratingly about things that the real Katherine would have accepted as normal and right, such as the education of Henry VI in the household of the Earl of Warwick. Then, too, if she did manage to keep a marriage and three children a secret, Katherine must have been smarter than the spies who abounded in 15th-century England.

Still, what ``The Queen's Secret'' really lacks is the medieval world. There is no sense of the rhythm and order of life, the daily Mass, the pervasive superstition and fear, the illiteracy, the grinding poverty which was the norm. Nor are there detailed descriptions of occurrences or places. Katherine's point of view throughout the novel is unreservedly 20th-century; her comments are repetitive, anachronistic, and unimaginative. All of which makes one thirst for a substantial biography of Katherine, her father, her brother, and her sons.

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