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23 September 2010

Portents and omens

A little note about what I meant by portents and omens.

In The Confession of Katherine Howard the narration covers two broad periods: November 1541, when Katherine's position is coming unstuck; and time before then, from the time the narrator, Cat, first met Katherine, until shortly before the November events.

In the November narrative in particular, Cat uses portents and omens to signify her authorial knowledge of what will happen.

Here's an example of a portent: on page 3 Cat says: "Kate looked to have a lifetime of queenship ahead of her". Obviously, it's the word "looked" that gives it away. Sometimes, they are less subtle. "Little did they [Cat's family] know that there’d come a time when my obscurity was all they’d wish for.” (page 48).

Omens, I think, are a bit different. They refer to things that have happened in the past (relative to the narration). The mere fact that they are mentioned is significant. On page 14 Cat says "It was unimaginable to me that the jocular, twinkly man [Henry VIII] had, within the past five years, exiled one wife to a lonely death and signed an execution order for her successor.”

When I isolate them like this, both portents and omens can seem unsubtle, manipulative. And it's part of the writer's craft to hide the manipulation. A reviewer's job would be to consider how well the writer has done this, presumably by reflecting on their own experience of reading the book, but also by drawing on wider experience. For example, the phrase "Little did they know ..." is a danger sign. Too many of those, and the reader feels manipulated, resentful; or, even worse, any tension is dissipated.

In this book, you could argue, the whole of the second narrative is a collection of omens. Incidents of Kate's past life reveal a character for which the tragic ending comes to seem inevitable. You could argue, but I'm not sure that's right. I think omens have to be incidents that occurred before the surrounding narrative time. So when Cat's telling us about her (and Kate's) teenage years, an omen has to refer to something that happened before then.

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