Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen by Alison Weir (Ballentine Books, 2016)
Six Tudor Queens: Anne Boleyn, A King's Obsession by Alison Weir (Headline Pub. Group, 2017)
While having a wander through the largest Waterstones Book Store in London recently, I came across a new novel by Alison Weir, Anne Boleyn, A King's Obsession. A hardcover tome, I realized that if I bought it, toting this book on our vacation was going to be a chore---but one that was so worth the effort.
When inspecting the cover of the novel, it became obvious that Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession was the second in Weir's latest writing endeavor; a novel about each of the wives of King Henry VIII, told from the point of view of the unfortunate ladies. Wow! It was like the 4th of July for me. (Actually, it was the 4th of July, come to think of it!)
I coveted this new treasure and sought out its mate, Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen. Alison Weir, a foremost scholar on the Tudor period, who has written scores of historical treatises on the turbulent and intriguing Renaissance in Britain, with her elegant prose and ability to tell this familiar story to her readership, is an extraordinary historical novelist. Both of these works enraptured me as I devoured each page and wished that they would never end.
Before discussing the novels, a word or two must be said about the importance of point of view in how a story is presented. As a Creative Writing teacher for over 30 years, instruction on the value of selecting the best point of view to use in telling a story was one of the starting points for my course each year. Whether one uses interior monologue, the epistolary method, first or third person narrative, point of view determines how the reader will respond to the characters. Alison Weir chose to write this series from the point of view of the wives themselves.
In reflecting on Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen, Weir states, “Writing the story from Katherine's point of view has enabled me to give a different and intimate psychological perspective on this indomitable, courageous, and principled woman.” (Katherine, p. 801) Weir goes on to explain that “In transporting the reader to that world, I have tried to show the past was indeed another country and that modern preoccupations with women's rights, feminism, and political correctness have no place in it. Katherine's situation, as a woman, and her willing subjection to Henry in all things except those that touched her conscience may seem shocking to us, but for her they were normal, right, and not to be questioned.” (Katherine p. 802)
Although Katherine of Aragon was in no way a feminist, she differed fundamentally with her husband on the major issue of their 25 year long marriage. Katherine tried to convince Henry that their only living child, a daughter named Mary, would be capable of succeeding him on the throne. Her argument was based largely on the stamina of her own mother, Queen Isabella of Spain, who had led her country in battle and directly ruled large provinces of Spain. Mary, Katherine argued, was intelligent and devout, and would be prepared to reign upon Henry's death. Had Katherine been able to get Henry to accept the ascension of his legitimate female child to the throne, both Katherine's future, as well as that of England, would have had a very different outcome.
By telling the story through Katherine's eyes, the reader feels the despair that this noble queen suffered, starting with Henry's early infidelities to his shocking decision to approve of his own divorce by turning his back on the papacy of Rome. Henry announced that he was the supreme leader of the Church of England, a decision that crushed Katherine because she believed that Henry had damned his immortal soul and announced to the world in doing so that their daughter, Mary, was not the legitimate heir to the British throne. She never wavered from her insistence that she was the lawful queen of England, even when Henry demanded that she return the crown jewels to him, or when he continued to reduce her circumstances from being attended by 300 loyal servants to a mere three devoted ladies at the end of her life.
By telling the story from Katherine's point of view, Weir achieves her goal of transporting the reader back to the Tudor period. We ride the waves of hope and cruel disappointments with Katherine. We taste the ocean of tears that she sheds with each new blow that Henry strikes in his efforts to obliterate her from his life. When the reader finishes the book, Katherine remains a force to be reckoned with in her faith and courage for what is not only moral, but true to her God.
Weir's portrait of Anne Boleyn is very cleverly done in the second book of the new series. Clearly, in Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen, Anne is the villain, who skillfully tears the affections of Henry from his beleaguered wife. So, how then does the author keep consistent with Katherine's view of Anne, and yet make Anne a sympathetic character in the second book of the series? Weir's explanation of how she approached the telling of Anne's story can be seen in the following statement, “In writing this novel from Anne's point of view, I have tried to reconcile conflicting views of her, and to portray her as a flawed but very human heroine, a woman of great ambition, idealism, and courage who found herself in an increasingly frightening situation.” (Anne, p.509)
In recent times Anne Boleyn has become a much more popular figure than she was during her own age. The British of the Tudor period never warmed to Anne and considered her a usurper of their beloved Katherine. Weir claims that it has become “fashionable” in the modern age to see Anne as a feminist heroine, a woman who spent her youth in the French court, which was far more progressive than Tudor England in courting an intellectual movement.
In Weir's depiction of Anne, we do not see a woman hopelessly in love with the dynamic Henry as Katherine had been when she married the young Henry. Rather, Weir's Anne plays the game of courtly love, but secretly harbors passion for Sir William Norris through the years of her courtship and brief marriage. Anne's motivation to become queen in Weir's story is for the power that she will wield. And, for the six tedious years in which she fended off Henry's physical advances while he attempted to shed himself of Katherine, Anne questions whether the fight is actually worth it because she is not impassioned by Henry.
The power of Weir's writing hits full force in the final scene of the novel. It is certainly no spoiler to include this statement that Weir made regarding the depiction of Anne's execution. Weir states, “Writing the final scenes of Anne's life was a grueling experience that stayed with me for days, and in case anyone wonders about my portrayal of her actual beheading, I must point out that a judge, Sir John Spelman, who witnessed her execution, recorded seeing 'her lips moving and her eyes moving afterwards.'” Due to the fact that the reader does feel transported back to Tudor times, we take every step with Anne as she goes to her death. Just as Weir says she was haunted by writing about the death of Anne Boleyn, I could not stop thinking about the final scene for days after finishing the book.
Fortunately, there are four more books to look forward to in Weir's series on the six wives of Henry VIII. Although the first two queens, Katherine and Anne, surely are the most famous of Henry's ladies, Weir begins setting up for the third queen, Jane Seymour, by introducing her as a background character, seen by Katherine and Anne as a mousey little thing in their courts. Like all of Weir's fans around the world, I anticipate that through her rigorous study of letters and documents of the time, we will get an intimate look at the mother of Henry's only legitimate son. For those who never tire of returning to Tudor England, I can guarantee that Weir's new series will bring you great reading pleasure.