Interview with Wendy J. Dunn

Interview by Ellen Irwin

Australian author Wendy J. Dunn has long had a passion for Tudor history—a passion inspiring award-winning fiction that gives a unique voice to Tudor-era figures. One such figure is Catherine Carey, the daughter of Mary Boleyn and favourite of Elizabeth I, and the star of Dunn’s 2014 novel, The Light in the Labyrinth. Applying meticulous research, Dunn now takes a step outside of her normal storytelling to present a nonfictional account of Catherine Carey, making a strong case for the possibility that Catherine was Henry VIII’s natural daughter, and placing her as an important figure to the success of Elizabeth I’s reign. Not only does Henry VIII’s True Daughter, Catherine Carey, A Tudor Life showcase the vital role of women during the Tudor era, but it also lends Dunn credibility as both a researcher and a storyteller in the subject area.

How would you describe this book and its themes. 

To prove that Catherine Carey was indeed the bastard daughter of Henry VIII and the half-sister of Elizabeth I. That was really the important thing. And to bring attention to her as an important Tudor figure, as there is little known about her.

Catherine Carey seems relegated to the shadows of Tudor history. How did you first discover Catherine, and what attracted you to writing her account?

I discovered her years ago. I kept on coming across a legend that Catherine was with Anne Boleyn in the tower of London and actually witnessed her execution. I thought, oh, this is amazing. But when I investigated more, I learned she was another Tudor woman with an uncertain birth year. Most historians date her birth around 1524, which makes her only twelve about the time of Anne Boleyn’s execution. When I worked out that she was only 12, I thought, she’s too young. She might have been in the tower, but she would not have been at execution. So, at first, I put it aside as a prospect for a novel. I wanted to have a story of a young girl as a teenager who was on the brink of becoming a woman. Then I discovered an academic paper that raised further doubts about her age. It suggested she had just turned thirteen or fourteen when Anne Boleyn was executed.. That worked for me. I wanted to have a bit of a romance in my novel, so reading that paper allowed me to run with my story.

After writing this nonfiction work about Catherine, I now believe she was only twelve. The past is a foreign country; they did things differently there. In Tudor times, twelve was the age that girls could legally marry, but even that was very unusual; families generally recognized that if the married their daughters off at twelve, they would need to be kept away from their husbands for a few years until they were old enough to survive childbirth. Yet, considering what Catherine went through in her childhood, it is possible she was a very mature twelve-year-old. Her mother, Mary, ended up marrying down for love. As a result, the family shut Mary out. Mary moved away with her husband, William Stafford, probably to Calais, and Catherine likely stayed behind in the care of her grandparents. That would have been a huge thing for Catherine to deal with—the family’s anger, in addition to her mother disappearing out of her life when she was ten. She had already lost the man she thought was her father (William Carey) when she around six-year-old. She also had a younger brother. Henry, who Anne Boleyn took away from Mary when Catherine was about eight years old. By twelve, she had already been through a lot! Because of this, I suspect she was more mature than most of her contemporaries. That increases the possibility she witnessed Anne Boleyn’s execution. Research always results in more thinking and changing the direction of the story forming in your mind.

It sounds like Catherine was a complex figure with an interesting backstory. What is the most important thing you believe readers should know about Catherine in the context of her time?

That people lived differently in her time. That we cannot take own modern sensibility and impose it on people in the Tudor time, because they had a different mindset to what we have. They were constructed by different things—religion was their lifeblood, life and death were so much different than what we know today. They lived their days knowing they could be dead tomorrow.

I believe Catherine Carey was also amazingly strong and loyal in the context of her Tudor world. She was Elizabeth’s mentor, very much part of Elizabeth’s life from the time of Elizabeth’s infancy to Catherine’s death in her forties. Elizabeth never worried about Catherine betraying her. There’s no gossip attached to Catherine that suggests she was ever playing courtly games or engaging in disloyalty or treachery. I would emphasize that she’s a woman whose story deserves to be told.

I also believe that Catherine learned a lot from her mother Mary about how to counsel Elizabeth. My respect for Mary Boleyn just exploded after my research. I don’t believe that there are passive women. We hide a lot of things behind different masks. Mary must have been a strong person. She had the immense courage to go against her family, go with her heart, and marry beneath her. I suspect she taught Catherine a lot about heeding warnings and being careful at court.

I love the idea that there are no passive women. You got a creative Ph.D. from Swinburne University of Technology with a focus in Feminist Standpoint Theory. What impression did you get from research about how women are viewed during the Tudor era while writing this nonfiction? 

What became apparent to me is that the women who served Elizabeth were not simply important, but they were vitally important. When Elizabeth became queen, there was a lot of betting going on that she would fail. So many things were against Elizabeth—she was unmarried, a woman, the country was bankrupt after being dragged into a war by Mary I’s husband, Phillip of Spain. If she didn’t have that strong group of women serving and supporting her, giving her the gossip about what was going on at court so she could control the men, she might not have been so successful a queen.

Would you share a bit about your research process for this book, as well as mention any professors’ or historians’ works helped influence your own work?

I found a lot of fantastic academic papers which deepened my knowledge of the Tudor time period. I work as a lecturer and tutor at Swinburne University of Technology, so I’ve got access to the university’s library. The internet allowed me to find primary materials, and I’ve used a good balance of books with those academic papers.

In one book, I found the heartbreaking letters of Catherine’s husband, Francis Knollys. Poor man, he was stuck looking after Mary Queen of Scots while Catherine was ill and was desperate to be by his wife’s side. There are other letters written to Catherine—including a very famous letter by Elizabeth I—but nothing left of Catherine’s writing. I possess no doubt she wrote many letters in her life, but history has lost them. That is so frustrating, though I was relieved to find some useful primary resources.

I believe that one day Catherine’s letters will be discovered. The archives in one of the family’s estates unexpectedly revealed the letters of Catherine’s daughter-in-law.. So, there is hope that hers will also one day be found. Catherine had an extensive family—thirteen of her children lived to be adults. Her descendants range everywhere. I’m living in the hope of finding out that I’m a descendant, too. That would make my day!

I imagine so! If you were descended from Mary Boleyn, perhaps you would have already inherited the missing Catherine Carey letters.

Wouldn’t that be nice? [It would add even more to the work I’ve already done].

You are a both a writer of award-winning historical fiction (most recently winning 1st place at CIBA in pre-1750s historical fiction for All Manner of Things) and now of historical nonfiction, with the book we’re discussing. How has the process of writing and publishing historical nonfiction differed from writing and publishing historical fiction for you?

With fiction, since my first Tudor novel was published in 2002, I will usually have a work that is ready to go before thinking about a publisher.

The big difference with this nonfiction is Pen & Sword Books commissioned me to write it. They gave me three projects to choose from—I chose the Catherine Carey project, because that one called to me most. This provided a contract from the start and also a deadline. Along with that, I had an editor—a lovely editor I could go to for questions and encouragement. Now, that first editor has gone on to another publisher, but an equally wonderful editor replaced her. As soon as I sent Henry VIII’s True Daughter, Catherine Carey, A Tudor Life for its first major edit, she asked, “What do you want to write next?” The thing that convinced me to sign is, of course, I discovered more fascinating people during research who have not yet been explored in fiction or nonfiction.

 Considering this book from conception to publication, what was your favourite part of the writing journey?

I enjoyed the research element the most. I just love research. Like all writers of history, I have moments of, oh, this is interesting, let’s go down this rabbit hole and investigate more, and then I realise it has nothing to do with my book.

But it might apply to a future novel or nonfiction publication, you never know…

Exactly! So, the research was more enjoyable, because of that—finding unexpected things. One book I remember well from my research was a Chronicle of Tudor England—the author made it clear to me that though the Tudors didn’t have TV or internet, they had gossip. It made me laugh. Often the author’s focus was on who was doing this to whom. I think that was Tudor’s primary form of entertainment—talking about the doings of others. It makes for good stories.

 It certainly does! Speaking of great stories, what was the last great book you read?

Godmother's Secret eBook CoverI loved Elizabeth St. John’s The Godmother’s Secret. As a fiction, I thought it was a masterpiece. She has taken the legend of the Princes in the Tower and created a really believable suggestion what really happened. I think they should make it into a film! It’s very well deserving of being the Historical Fiction Company 2022 book of the year. I’ve also been reading a lot of poetry books. I’ve been editing my newest novel, and so by the time I go to bed, I mostly too tired to read a novel, but I’ll read a poetry book. I’m also reading a book about witchcraft, because my newest novel has a thread about witchcraft in it, and I wanted to go deeper into understanding that subject.

I love that you’re editing a new novel. It sounds like that’s your next project—following this nonfiction with a fiction?

Yes. I said to my editor when she was talking to me about a new book that I just wanted to go back to the novel. So, she knows that I’m not planning to do anything with my next nonfiction project until I finish the draft of my new novel.


Are you open to sharing what the fiction is about? Is it a sequel to any of your previous novels?

It’s a standalone. It’s a book that I’ve been thinking about writing for a long, long time. Smile, I might as well as share with you part of the pitch I’ve been sending on to agents and publishers:

As an experienced writer and teacher of writing, I have long yearned to write a novel about writing a novel. In Shades of Yellow, I have done this, but in a story also possessing themes I am equally passionate about and hold close to my heart. I believe forgiveness and creativity can transform and heal our lives. Shades of Yellow draws from these driving beliefs of my existence to shape into an original work of fiction.

Set in 2010 over a three-week period, Shades of Yellow is a high stakes story. It follows Lucy Ellis, a young Australian woman who battled breast cancer five years ago. Cancer resulted in her losing a breast and enduring gruelling treatments that destroyed her fertility and broke up her marriage.

During this dark time, Lucy channelled her emotions and creative energy into writing a novel about Amy Dudley, the first wife of Robert Dudley. At the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth I, Dudley and Elizabeth were in love. History tells us Amy may have had breast cancer – which draws Lucy to tell Amy’s story, but also suggests her death came at the hands of others during this time. The mystery of Amy’s death destroyed Dudley’s hope of ever marrying Elizabeth.

My story begins with a bitter Lucy since the discovery of her husband’s affair three years after her cancer diagnosis. She is now separated from him and plans to embark on a research journey overseas to complete her novel. But, before her departure, she receives upsetting news from a routine check-up. Lucy may have cancer again. Terrified of that prospect, Lucy flees to England. Her time there, as well as working on her novel, offers Lucy a way forward for healing and self-discovery, and moving on.

That sounds like a compelling premise. Thank you for sharing. Are there any other comments you’d like to make about your nonfiction that I haven’t touched on that you believe are important for readers to understand prior to reading?

With any work you have to believe in it and be passionate about it, and it is no different here. I’m passionate about this work and have poured hours of immense research into writing it. I have discovered quite a few amazing things about Catherine’s life which no one else seems to have mentioned before. I believe this nonfiction definitely opens a different window into who Catherine really was during these times and allowed me to show how important she was.  I’m really proud of the fact I’m giving people more knowledge about her.

Absolutely. You have opened my eyes to this fascinating Tudor era woman, as well, and I am looking forward to reading this nonfiction to learn even more. Thank you for being willing to talk with me today!

This article was originally published in abbreviated format on Historical Novel Society’s website in August 2023