What she sees in secret, she may not tell.
Mistress Juliana St. John is the lovely, forthright daughter of a prosperous knight’s family. Though all expect her to marry the son of her late father’s business partner, time and chance interrupt, sending her to the sumptuous but deceptive court of Henry VIII.
Sir Thomas Seymour, brother of the late Queen Jane, returns to Wiltshire to conclude his affairs with Juliana’s father’s estate and chances upon her reading as lector in the local church. He sees instantly that she would fit into the household of the woman he loves and wants most to please, Kateryn Parr. Juliana’s mother agrees to have her placed with Parr for a season and Juliana goes, though reluctantly.
For she keeps a secret.
Juliana has been given the gift of prophecy, and in one vibrant vision she has seen Sir Thomas shredding the dress of a highly born young woman, while it was still on her body, to perilous consequence.
As Juliana accompanies Kateryn Parr to court, Henry’s devout sixth queen raises the stakes for all reformers. Support of firebrand Anne Askew puts the queen and her ladies in life-threatening jeopardy, as does the queen’s desire to influence her husband’s—and the realm’s—direction and beliefs.
Later, without Henry’s strong arm, the court devolves to competition, duplicity, and betrayal. The risks could not be higher as Juliana must choose between love and honor, personal fulfillment and sacrifice. Ultimately, her course is driven by a final kept secret, one that undoes everything she thought she knew.
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The Secret Keeper
Her voice sounded by turns pleased and then pleading, her laughter scaled from bass enjoyment to treble fear. A highborn woman held fast the girl’s arms while the rougher hands of a man ran over the young woman’s jawline, her hairline, her hemline. I could not see his face, but on his left small finger he bore a costly gold and black onyx signet ring. With the other hand he took his dagger and began to slash.
Pieces of her black gown fell to the ground, one by one, like the locks of a condemned woman shorn before execution, though he stayed himself from touching her bright red hair before sheathing his dagger again. Her woeful face betrayed that she knew this would be her utter undoing. The gown was ruined and the black clumps, which had plummeted to the ground, received the breath of life of a sudden and became a flock of beady-eyed ravens that took wing toward the Tower of London, whilst we watched in horror and dread.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Secret Keeper includes discussion questions and a Q&A with author Sandra Byrd. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. People sometimes say that, with historical fiction, we insert twenty-first–century values like “girl power” into the world of sixteenth-century women. But could that be a bit dismissive? How were women such as Kateryn Parr, Anne Askew, and Juliana St. John empowered in ways similar to and also different from contemporary women?
2. Two of the charges against both Askew and Calthorpe is that they were unnatural and unkind, mainly because they continued to use their given names in some capacity and for their forthright speech, especially where the exercise of their spiritual gifts was involved. Has that changed with, for example, women such as Anne Graham Lotz, or is there still a sense of that today?
3. Juliana felt social pressure to remain quiet about her sexual abuse, as there were messages, both overt and subtle, that she was “damaged goods” after having been assaulted and that those in power could twist the circumstances to harm her reputation as well as bring trouble to those she loved. Are today’s women equally pressured to “keep quiet” due to the shaming of society, with messages that the way they act, dress, or speak encourages rape? Or are young women today likely to speak up?
4. Why do you think most women are drawn to “bad boys” at one time or another?
5. Have you ever learned a secret that changed your life or the life of someone you know? What was it?
6. Although we come to understand why Frances St. John acted so dismissively toward her daughter, it did not undo the longing Juliana had felt her entire life. Kateryn Parr stepped in, as she did with so many others, as mother and mentor. Do you have a female mentor, or have you had a good mentor? What role did she/does she play in your life that is different from or the same as that of a mother?
7. When Kateryn Parr was mothering Juliana, she had no idea she was teaching her how to be a mother. That kindness was repaid in a way Kate could never have imagined, as Juliana then mothered Kate’s daughter, Mary. Have you known of a circumstance in which you or someone you know has given to another only to be rewarded unexpectedly in kind?
8. Juliana let her pride—her concern that Jamie would view her as unlovely if he knew the circumstances of her life—play a role in her silence. Are there issues today that women are reluctant to be forthcoming about, worried that others would view them badly, when in fact, the truth would set them free? What are some of those common issues?
9. Do you believe that prophecy is an active spiritual gift in today’s world? Why or why not?
10. In the end, the haughty Lady Seymour was reduced, herself, to begging on bended knee for the life of her husband. In the end, Juliana got the man she loved and her own child, though perhaps not the way she expected it to happen. Do you believe that people eventually “get what they deserve”?
A Conversation with Sandra Byrd
In the opening of the novel, we learn that Juliana occasionally has prophetic dreams, and her mother suspects of her being a witch. Indeed, many meaningful dreams end up coming into play in the novel. Why did you choose to use these as a medium?
I had a few reasons, all of which fused in the novel. “Seers” often appear in the Tudor genre, perhaps because spirituality was such an overt part of many peoples’ lives then, or they more readily recognized it. I like keeping some traditional elements of a genre in the books I write, as long as I can do them a little differently. I hadn’t seen it utilized and explained as a gift of the Spirit as explained in the Bible’s book of 1 Corinthians, and so I decided to do that.
Much of this book is about women overcoming the roadblocks they faced, partly in the expression of their spirituality. Various women in the book have the gifts of teaching, of preaching, of giving, of prophecy, and one is called to martyrdom. I wanted to show women publicly exercising their spiritual gifts in an era which did not readily accept anything outside the norm—therefore, dangerous. And then there is that document that historian Zahl says was dropped and then found, warning Parr that accusations which would threaten her life were coming. I believe that was no accident, but was providentially arranged. My plot illustrates one way that could have happened.
Both The Secret Keeper and To Die For tell a story from the perspective of a friend. Do you think it is easier or more difficult to write from this perspective? How would you write differently if you were writing in the voice of Kateryn Parr?
I think it’s easier to write from the position of a friend, because a friend sees things a bit more objectively than we might see ourselves and is able to report thusly. A friend sees our good moments, and our bad moments, and loves us anyway. Telling the story from the position of a friend gives access that, for example, telling it from the position of a servant would not allow. I don’t know that it is easier to write this way; I think it depends on what you want to put across. In this series, I’m seeking an insight into the queens’ hearts.
I never considered writing as Parr, because it was important to me to tell a projection of Mary Seymour’s story too. If I had written as Parr, I would not have had the relative outsider’s viewpoint. Juliana was less protected, less studied in the ways of court, and less noticeable, with more freedom. It gives a different point of view than had it been from someone of great power. It was important to me to show the vulnerability of those at court.
Is there a reason you chose this particular moment in the Reformation as your background? What kind of research did you do for this novel? What was it like to write a fictional account of this monumental moment in British history?
I’ve always been enamored of Tudor England, so setting the books during that era was bliss. The English Reformation was transforming the nation during those years; religion played a major role in every sixteenth-century English reign and even those which closely followed thereafter. It is an angle which I felt was underexplored in historical fiction, but was a huge part of the everyday lives of Tudor-era women. Kateryn Parr was an on-fire reformer, perhaps much stronger than I’ve even put across in the novel.
To research, I read her biographies, I read her own written works, I researched what was happening in the world around her, and I read how she’d influenced others. I did a study of the rise of gentry during these years and also of the development of the Church of England. So much has been written, and will yet be written, about this amazing era; I simply hope that whatever books I contribute bring a new shading or nuance to the genre.
Juliana is raped by a man at court, John. Some of John’s excuses seemed all too familiar to the modern reader. Was this a difficult scene for you to write?
Sadly, I believe the self-justification and excuses for rape are as old as humanity, and they haven’t changed. It was a terribly difficult scene to write, and I didn’t add it to the story line gratuitously. I wanted to show the real dangers women faced, and face, because of the lack of access to power and protection. Women then and now face significant emotional, physical, and social repercussions from rape. Wrongly ascribed shame and the physical damage persist long after the attack. Women today are still shamed into silence, though, thankfully, there are now legal consequences and help available in many countries. But it hasn’t changed the numbers.
Up to half of all women still suffer sexual trauma of some kind during their lives. I wanted to acknowledge that, while also encouraging them that they, too, can still have a happily ever after, and to remind them that God sees all and promises to repay.
Anne Askew is another woman to face a horrible fate. As she burns at the stake, her religious convictions remain strong. Do you think that same level of conviction remains today? Or has it faded? What role does faith play in your life?
My Christian faith is central to my life, though as in any long-lasting relationship, there are times when God and I are close, times when I feel distant from Him, questions I wrestle with that aren’t quickly or even ever answered, times I feel like I’m deeply in love, and times when I am angry with Him. When I work through things with God honestly (He’s said, “Come, let us reason together,” right?) our relationship grows deeper and more intimate. I don’t feel the need to have a tidy, easily boxed-up relationship.
I think Askew’s convictions remained strong because she had that certainty, that intimacy with the Lord, conviction, and the courage to stand. There are definitely people today with that kind of strength, but I don’t think you’ll find many where the living is easy! And if you do, once they begin to stand apart, the living won’t be easy anymore. What it will be though, is deeply rewarding in a way that an easy faith, or an easy life, is not.
How you imagine the fate of Lady Mary Seymour is a lovely answer to the long-standing mystery. Did you think of the ending before you wrote the novel? During? After?
I knew before I began the novel that I wanted Mary to live. There is no record that Mary Seymour died, and even the hints are ambiguous. I admire Kateryn Parr, I feel deep affection for her, if I may, and I wanted to give her daughter a life. The book is, at its heart, about mothering: the mothers we are born to, the ones we choose, the people we mother unofficially, and how important good mothering is. How we crave it. There is no doubt that Kateryn Parr mothered the Tudor children well. I think she had a gift for mothering. She mothered Juliana. And in a way she could not have expected, she reaped what she’d sown, in teaching Juliana how to mother Mary.
On your website, www.sandrabryd.com, the first line of your biography states: “After earning her first rejection at the age of thirteen, bestselling author Sandra Byrd persevered and has now published more than three dozen books.” Was this the first story you ever wrote? What was it about?
Actually, it was a poem. And in my innocent naïeveté, I sent it off to a publisher and thought, well that is that, now I’ll be published. I am forever grateful to the intern who took the time to send a rejection postcard to me. I think the first full story I ever wrote, as a teen, was about star-crossed lovers who were magnetically, tragically, melodramatically, attracted to one another, although they were from opposite poles, North and South. You can see why that didn’t get published, either. But writers learn by writing and reading, and by being edited, so I expect it helped somewhere along the line, because here I am, published!
You offer your services as a writing coach on your website. If you had one piece of advice to give to an aspiring writer, what would it be?
I’d echo author Jane Kirkpatrick, whose work I admire:
My best advice is to silence the harpies, those negative voices that say “who told you that you could write?” or “what makes you think your book will get published?” Just write the story of your heart and put duct tape on those harpies.
Sometimes the harpies are inside your head, sometimes they’re other people. Find people who will nurture both you and your story, who help you protect your talent all the while insisting that you grow in your craft. And trust yourself.