Book Review: Six Tudor Queens – Anne Boleyn

Six Tudor Queens: Anne Boleyn – A King’s Obsession, by Alison Weir, is the second in a series of specially commissioned books each of which tells the story of one of Henry VIII’s wives from their point of view (I reviewed Katherine of Aragon, here). Like the first, this instalment is a highly detailed, fictionalised story based on known and researched facts, with literary licence taken to aid storytelling. As the author explains at the end, “The scenes in this novel are imagined, but they are not improbable.”

The story of Anne Boleyn has been told many times and from many directions both in books and on film. Each offers a slightly different take on a woman for whom relatively little personal historical detail remains. There are portraits, poetry, letters from the king, and occasional mentions in writing by her contemporaries. These have been woven into the various accounts with which those who have an interest will be familiar. All of this is to say that I was already aware of much of the story being told over these five hundred pages. I needed some fresh angle to hold my attention.

The story opens at Anne’s childhood home of Hever Castle in Kent when she is twelve years old and learns that she is to be sent away to serve at the court of Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands. Anne is delighted by this news, especially as she is gaining preferment over her older sister, Mary. Her only regret is that she will be separated from her beloved brother, George.

Anne spends the next nine years serving in royal courts around northern Europe where she perfects her French language, manners and dress, and learns to play the game of courtly love. She is influenced by the scholars who visit with her mistresses, many of whom espoused enlightened views for the time on the role of women and the church. These views did not preclude the court gentlemen from attempting to have their way where the ladies were concerned. This is presented in what felt a very modern voice.

When war between France and England is threatened Anne returns home where she is found a place at the court of Queen Katherine. Here she falls in love but is thwarted. She is also noticed by Henry who starts his pursuit of her affections.

It took around seven years for Henry to find a way to marry Anne. This period is covered in around two hundred pages during which I struggled to maintain engagement. Naturally Anne changes over this difficult period in her life. She has chosen to eschew the love of others for the potential power of a match with a king.

There are other events to consider, especially those affecting her family. Anne’s regard for George is tested and her increasingly arrogant behaviour gains her enemies. She appears to do little of note while waiting other than call down vengeance on those who will not actively support her cause.

Once Anne is pregnant the story picks up pace although her inability to bear a living son is well known. As Henry seeks his entertainments elsewhere Anne becomes a solitary figure, widely disliked and with her hard fought for power on the wane. Anne’s enemies may now treat her as she did others.

Facing death, Anne takes on a piety that had not previously been obvious. I suspect this is not unusual. I balked at the portrayal of Anne’s decapitation. The Author’s Note at the end, especially on this, was interesting to read.

The author, a respected historian, offers new angles to consider in a number of areas which I will not spoil by detailing. She is an accomplished writer and the story flows. What it lacked, as far as I was concerned, was enough new material to maintain my interest. Given the book’s length, in places I needed more.

For fans of historical fiction this is a carefully researched and nicely written addition to the story of Anne Boleyn. I put my sometimes less than positive response above down to the number of other accounts of this queen that I have both watched and read. I do still look forward to the remaining instalments in this series. I know less about their protagonists.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

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Book Review: Bring Up the Bodies

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Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel, is the second book in a proposed trilogy exploring the life of Thomas Cromwell and his relationships with his contemporaries in the court of Henry VIII (the first in this series is Wolf Hall which I review here). In this part of the story the author covers the machinations which led to the trial and beheading of Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, in order to allow the king to marry Jane Seymour.

Although written with the same assurance and impressive attention to detail I nevertheless found this book less compelling than its predecessor. It is hard to be critical of a work of such high, literary quality; I only do so because I compare it to Wolf Hall and find less to commend. The background to the characters and their relationships have already been covered. These few months of history have been dramatised so extensively elsewhere that there is little new to learn.

What the reader does get is further insight into why Cromwell chose to bring down certain courtiers and not others. He was loyal to his friends and ruthless towards his enemies. His prodigious memory ensured that he did not forget any slight towards himself or those who had helped him in his unprecedented rise within a powerful court reserved for the aristocracy. Cromwell earned his place by ensuring that, when the King required an outcome, he would provide. He gained his own personal revenges along the way.

“He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.”

Cromwell plays a long game, his plans and intrigues reminding me of a game of chess. He can never be sure of his opponents next move but, having studied them carefully over many years, he makes informed guesses and adjusts his strategies accordingly. Much of what he thinks is kept hidden behind his austere facade, calm bearing and growing reputation. He knows that there are many who would wish to bring him down and carefully cultivates those whose loyalty he will one day call upon. Everything is held to account.

This is a deftly written and still fascinating narration from a master story teller. That I did not enjoy reading it quite as much as I did Wolf Hall should not detract from my view that it is an exceptional, historical biography which vividly portrays the politics and passions of the time. Hilary Mantel well deserves the many accolades she has received. I look forward to reading the conclusion to this trilogy when it is published.

 

Book Review: Wolf Hall

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Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, is the first book in a proposed trilogy which explores the life of Thomas Cromwell and his relationships with his contemporaries in the court of Henry VIII. Much has, of course, been written about the Tudors, especially those who came and went during the reign of this much married monarch. The main plot holds few surprises yet the author weaves an engrossing tale around these key events. This is a compelling and fast moving story which takes the reader into the heart of the powerhouses of Britain at that time. It is a reminder that social changes have complex settings.

Thomas Cromwell was noteworthy because he was low born yet rose to become the king’s key advisor in an age when the aristocracy guarded their power with an iron fist. Cromwell’s prodigious memory and attention to detail, alongside his political astuteness, enabled him to ride the changing tides of favour and fortune which brought so many others down. He bought and sold secrets with adroitness, a shadowy figure amongst peacocks. He valued knowledge and looked after his own.

The story is a fascinating biographical fiction but it is the quality of the prose which sets the book apart. Well known names are given life, the period is evoked with precision but also feeling. Cromwell’s inner thoughts offer explanations as to why notable events occurred as they did.

As Cromwell mulls over events, calculating odds on emerging players, he keeps much hidden from the reader, as he does from all those who surround him. In rare moments he will recognise in himself certain of his less admirable characteristics. How often do we all rewrite even our own memories?

Despite being over six hundred pages long the plot moves along apace and the writing flows. Use of language and imagery are exquisite. I am wary of Booker Prize winning novels as I have, in the past, found some to provide turgid reading; to be scholarly more than enjoyable. This is a readers book, an immersive and captivating story presented in an accessible, potent voice.