Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Autobiography of Henry VIII

Author: Margaret George
Publication Date: 1987
Cost: The book is available new for just over $12.00 on Amazon, but the book has been in print for so long that, among used copies, the least expensive is a mere $0.20. The Kindle edition is on offer for $9.99.
Where Did I Hear About it: I found this on offer at Booksfree.

The Backstory

Henry VIII was a rare man. He was also king during a rare time in history. Born in 1491 to usurper Tudor king, Henry VII and his wife, Elizabeth of York, Henry was the "spare heir" to his brother, Arthur. As with many younger brothers in this time period, he was originally intended for the church, but his fate altered drastically when Arthur died in 1502 having recently married Catherine of Aragon. All attention turned to Henry, who would succeed his father seven years later.

Henry VIII was a very intelligent man who enjoyed both learning and intellectual debate. It is clear that there were high hopes for him when he became king. In addition to his exceptional talents, Henry's world was a place of upheaval and change in political, social, and religious order. Henry used his overbearing personality to get what he wanted from Parliament, and his domestic practices both bankrupted the country and damaged the economy. Henry's court was dominated by "new men": people who rose to prominence through force of will rather than by wealth and traditional family connections. Often, their rise corresponded to an eclipse of those who felt it was their hereditary right to be in the king's inner circle. It was during Henry's reign that the first effects of the Protestant Reformation could be felt in England. Although Henry zealously prescribed to the orthodox practices of the Catholic Church, his decision to renounce the authority of the Pope and declare himself "Supreme Head of the Church in England" invited a unintended reconsideration of Catholic Church practices. Henry built a cult of personality around himself as king, involving himself in these, and many other, aspects of the operations of his kingdom.

It is clear that England, and perhaps the Western World, was a very different place in 1547 when Henry died. Since Henry's world, the kingdom of England, was very much about Henry by that time, it makes sense that a successful monarch post-Henry would be someone who understood this and could fill his large, undeniable place. Edward showed signs of some of these traits, but he perished long before he could exercise any personal control. Mary is consistently criticized for not understanding what she had to be to be a successful Queen of England. Elizabeth, however, perhaps more like Henry than any of his other children, did understand, and in doing so, became the first successful female monarch in England and ushered in the country's first Golden Age.

What About the Book?

Generally, scholars and authors take one of two directions when they choose to write about Henry: either they focus on the political and religous transformations during Henry's reign or they focus on Henry's remarkable marital history. Margaret George takes the latter approach to Henry's life in her rather extensive novel. The book is framed as a gift sent to Mary Boleyn's daughter, Catherine Carey, by Henry's former professional court fool, Will Somers. The implication, of course, is that Catherine is actually Henry's illegitimate daughter by the rather infamous sister of Anne Boleyn. The novel begins by setting these relationships in place through epistolary correspondance. The rest of the book is the text of Henry VIII's supposed autobiography with occasional notes written by Will throughout.

First, this is a very long book--it is nearly 1,000 pages in length, although it is a rather easy read. Any book that attempts to cover six marriages in sufficient detail would inevitably turn out to be rather long. I have to admit that I was definitely drawn in by the first few chapters of the book focusing on Henry's experience with his father. If not compelling, there is no question that George frames this time period in Henry's life in a very interesting way. However, I will admit that this is the first book on this blog that I didn't actually finish. I got to the point where Henry VIII is considering a relationship with Catherine Parr, his sixth and final wife. Then, I stopped. Honestly, I had grown rather bored with the book, and I didn't feel like reading through yet another marriage for Henry, even if it were his last one. Although the novel does draw the reader in, it doesn't keep the reader's rapt attention after a certain point. In examining where my interest stopped and my desire to finish the novel began, the line would probably fall somewhere between Henry's marriage to Jane and Jane's death.

The main problem with this novel is that, in an attempt to cover everything, not everything gets covered well. George gives color to earlier characters in ways she does not when it comes to later ones. For example, Wolsey and More are presented as both interesting and complicated people, but Cromwell could either be present or not be present and I'm not sure the reader would care either way. In addition, the book was clearly developed from a list of significant events in Henry's life rather than any deep consideration of those events. In an attempt to include everything, George doesn't develop very much of the story beyond the simple facts. Lengthy dialogue can be skipped by the reader without feeling as if something important were missed. Many people come and go in Henry's life without much of a mention or a thought. This approach would work depending upon what kind of a character Henry himself was given by the author. George clearly attempts to apologize for Henry--it is never actually Henry's fault if he has to kill off his closest advisors and wives. However, George's light character development does extend to Henry himself, and it is rather unbelievable that someone as "nice" as George's Henry would be so completely unaffected by the significant events, gains, and losses in his life. If George had instead painted Henry as a more ruthless, sociopathic character, this kind of approach would certainly be believable--and perhaps a bit more interesting to read.

Will's commentary throughout the book features prominently in some places and is completely absent for chapter after chapter in others. In most cases, it is actually a very interesting footnote to the events in the novel, and I wish George had applied this with more regularity throughout.

Rating: A 5. Any book I don't feel compelled to finish after spending so much time reading it clearly did not keep my attention or interest even to the point that I cared to ensure I completed it.
Buy It or Borrow It: I understand that this was a bestselling novel, but that isn't an argument for reading anything at all. I'm not sure this book is worth reading, but, if you are interested, check your library first before peeling through a bookstore.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn

Author: Eric Ives
Publication Date: 2004
Cost: The book is available on for just under $14.00, and the Kindle edition is slightly less expensive.
Where Did I Hear About It: I looked this book up about two years ago, but I did not get a chance to read it cover to cover until now, although I have used it as a reference book several times.

The Backstory

About a year and a half ago, I read Joanna Denny's biography of Anne Boleyn, and you can see the discussion of Anne's life here.

What About the Book?

If I appreciate anything about this book, it is the fact that Eric Ives clearly knew the limitations of the sources available to compose a biography of his subject. Ives created an excellent analysis of what he had, but he did not offer any particular insight into his subject. If Joanna Denny ran amock with her theory that Anne was England's Protestant savior, Ives used all of the same sources, and more of them, without offering much new analysis. This is almost the exact opposite approach Ives took in his later work about Jane Grey.

Ives truly used every source available to him, and more, to write this book, which makes it an extremely admirable effort. No other work about Anne Boleyn is a better piece of reference material. For example, the images he includes are absolutely remarkable and extensive. In addition, he explores Wyatt's poetry for references to Anne, and one gets the sense that he went through Wyatt's work poem by poem before coming to the conclusion that there wasn't very much to be found, whether direct or veiled references. He also discussed the varying images indicated to be Anne Boleyn and which ones were likely or unlikely accurate candidates.

Although well-researched, Ives's work lacks insight. I think everyone who picks up a biography of Anne Boleyn is looking for insight into her personality and into why she captivated Henry VIII. Obviously, the sources are very much lacking here, but Ives does not offer anything new into the equation. The only exception is Anne Boleyn's fall, coming at the end of the book. Ives includes a lot of detailed information about Jane Seymour's appearance in Anne's and Henry's lives and whether or not Henry VIII had grown tired of Anne. However, Ives could have wrapped up the book a bit more completely with perhaps some information about references (or non-references and/or the destruction of references) to Anne after her execution and how Elizabeth's accession affected the public memory of Anne. Instead, Ives ends his biography with Anne's physical life, and this feels like a missed opportunity to the reader.

Ives's book, for all of its research, is actually a very easy, and a fairly enjoyable read. It is also an excellent reference book on Anne Boleyn--a more complete resource does not exist. Although also well-researched (although less specific), Ives improves upon Starkey's rather salesman-esque writing style. This biography of Anne will be extremely hard to best, even by an exceptional scholar, unless new, undiscovered information comes to light.

Rating: A 9 for writing style and use of a wide range of resources.
Buy It or Borrow It: I would certainly buy it. It is extremely unlikely that a better biography will be published about Anne within the next generation. After reading it, if you're really interested in Anne or in Tudor history in general, this book will be an excellent resource to refer back to when considering historical fiction, television or film, or other scholars who consider a related subject.