Monday, May 2, 2011

Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen

Author: Anna Whitelock
Publication Date: 2009
Cost: Hardcover is listed at $28.00, but you can find a paperback for under $5.00 on Amazon if you look under Mary Tudor: England's First Queen. The Kindle edition is available for $13.99, but it is listed under the Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen title.
Where Did I Hear About It: I found this with the newest books at the local library.

The Backstory:

I'll save myself from repeating Mary Tudor's story--see my review of Linda Porter's book, The First Queen of England: The Myth of Bloody Mary. To clarify, the Mary Tudor in question is Henry VIII's daughter by Katherine of Aragon (his first wife), not to be confused with Henry VIII's sister, Mary, who married Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk.

What About the Book?

At the end of the biography, in the "Acknowledgements" section, the author writes, "This was the book I always wanted to write." Although an appreciated expression of sentimental attachment to the subject, the reader gets no such impression from the emotionless writing, the short chapters, and the complete lack of theory and historical observation. Ms. Whitelock tells Mary's story, but unfortunately, for those of us interested in learning more from a new historian's take on an old subject, this is not the right read.

One of the "Achilles Heels" of this book is how short it is. Granted, the meat of the text is about 350 pages long--not short by any stretch of the imagination. However, the chapters are often 3 to 5 pages long, and they give the impression that she was trying to capture a "snapshot" in time with each episode without actually weaving that technique into the text. I have never read a book--even a novel--with such short chapters, and I wonder what the reader can expect to get out of such brief treatment of big events and mysteries in Mary's life. One gets the feeling that the author was really after a mass-market appeal for her book, but it cost her dearly. She vastly underestimated her readership if she thought a 3 page chapter on Mary's legacy is all that the modern reader of history wants out of her work.

Because chapters are short, the insight of the historian is nearly impossible to find. Readers will learn very little about who Mary was. Readers will also miss out on many of the attention-grabbing, fascinating details surrounding the most significant moments in Mary's life and reign--such as why Lady Jane Grey was executed or what her relationship with her father was truly like or what kind of tension must have existed between Mary and those among her councillors who supported Jane over her right to rule. Ms. Whitelock offers very few interpretations of the history she clearly knows well--she uses excellent sources and seems to know where to look to cite the different events in Mary's life. With every move from one chapter to another, though, the reader will feel that something is missing, and that is Ms. Whitelock's insight.

The beginning of the book suffers in particular because very little of it is actually about Mary herself. One gets the impression that Ms. Whitelock was more interested in covering the breakdown of Henry VIII's and Katherine's marriage than she was interested in the subject of her biography. Several chapters are devoted to this, and the steps Henry took toward divorce were certainly significant for Mary, but Mary is no more than a shadow or a footnote in this part of the book. Here, again, Ms. Whitelock demonstrates that she does not know her readers very well at all--most who read her book will be fairly well-versed, or at least familiar, with the history of Henry VIII, Katherine of Aragon, and Anne Boleyn. It would have been much more to the point to have focused on Mary far more fully in this part of the biography.

This is a very quick read given how short the chapters are, and it is a fairly unfullfilling one. Yes, you'll get the story of Mary's life, but you'll only get the bare bones of it all. Most of us who pick up biographies like this one are looking for the meat. Unfortunately, you'll have a hard time finding it here.

Rating: I'm going to give it a 4 because I would have been just as well off not reading it at all.
Buy It or Borrow It: Neither. Read Linda Porter's book. It is a much more full, real telling of Mary's story. It is clear that Porter really likes Mary, and she doesn't hide her bias, but she is definitely connected to Mary Tudor's story and composed a much better read than this one. If this is what Anna Whitelock could come up with, she should have left Linda Porter to it and moved on to something else.


Dave King said...

Excellent blog. I need more time, though, to explore it.

Kittie Howard said...

Thanks for this honest review. I am hooked on books from the Tudor era. I think Mary's a manic-depressive figure, her depths of despair, her hysterical pregnancy, her need to be loved, her fanaticism, her brutality - all extremes. I guess the fixation is that Elizabeth made it out of that mess alive.