Book Review: Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen (2018)

Image result for alison weir jane seymourReview #58

The third wife of King Henry VIII, Jane Seymour was the Queen of England for barely more than a year. Having served in the court of both Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, Jane saw the fall of both women when they failed to deliver an heir for their King. She was widely praised for her virtue and devout Catholic faith, and clung to her religion even as Henry broke with the Roman Catholic Church. She died of complications following childbirth at only twenty-eight years old. Renowned historical biographer Alison Weir writes a fictionalized account of Jane Seymour’s life as seen through her eyes.

This is the third installment in Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series. I’ve read and enjoyed the previous novels, and was interested to see how Weir proceeded after the tumultuous and widely documented reigns of Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. Not nearly as much is known about the life of Jane Seymour, given that she was married to King Henry for a mere eighteen months. I was surprised, therefore, when I picked this book up from the library to find out that it was nearly six hundred pages long.

How do you write a six hundred page fictional biography on a woman’s life that is not well documented? Turns out, you add an insane amount of extraneous detail, milk any morsel of archival evidence, and generally drag things out far longer than is necessary. Reading Jane Seymour felt like an exercise in extreme patience at times, since Weir seems to be striving for a nearly day-by-day record of Jane Seymour’s life during leading up to an including the death of Anne Boleyn.

I think part of the problem is that of all Henry VII’s wives, Jane Seymour is the least interesting. The letters and documents that mention her all describe her as “devout” and “pious”. She was not well-educated like the two queens who came before her, so we simply don’t know if she had strong opinions on anything other than her Catholic faith. And because Jane is defined by her religious devotion, she makes for a rather nondescript character. She lacks the fierce fight and devotion of Katherine of Aragorn, or the wild chaos and manipulative personality of Anne Boleyn. She is simply plain Jane. Weir seems to  understand this, and a great deal of her novel is focused on Katherine and Anne’s tumultuous and historical battle for control of the King. At times, Jane feels like a supporting character in her own narrative.

Jane’s primary character traits are her devotion and her dutifulness. She never seems to take any initiative in deciding her own fate, instead allowing others to take agency over her future. I had to fight the urge to begin taking tally of the amount of times Jane is described as “lowering her eyes” when others are discussing key religious or political ideals. The emotion she seems to convey the most strongly is pious indignation over the sins of others. Which doesn’t make for a terribly interesting protagonist. Instead, Jane feels for all the world like that one coworker we’ve all encountered who smugly informs you that your various sins have condemned you to hell.

I’ve read several of Alison Weir’s books, both fiction and nonfiction. I’ve always appreciated her attention to detail and her dedication to research. The Tudors and their court are often sensationalized as a historical Harlequin romance novel or a medieval soap opera. Weir grounds her novels in historical fact, even if this means that some of the sex appeal is lost. She does her best with the third wife of Henry VII, but ultimately there isn’t enough research available to maintain the narrative. I wonder why she felt the need to make this novel six hundred pages long, when half that length would have told the story equally well.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Book Review: The Autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George (1998)

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Review #15

 

Like so many others, I have always been fascinated by the story of the Tudors. As a child, one of my first forays into historical fiction was the story of Elizabeth I from The Royal Diaries series. I have read most of the Philippa Greggory novels, as well as several by Alison Weir. Even though I’m about as familiar with the history of the Tudor dynasty as it is possible for a non-academic to be, I was still excited to sink back into their world when I picked up Margaret George’s The Autobiography of Henry VII.

This was my fourth novel by George, so I was not surprised to see that Henry VIII was over nine hundred pages of small print. All her books are enormous, and in my opinion she could definitely use a more stringent editor. The amount of detail presented in George’s novels is both impressive and frustrating. She obviously does an incredible amount of research for her books. The question is just whether or not the reader needs that much detail.

Henry VIII’s most memorable legacy is undoubtedly the fact that he had six wives, and had two of them executed. Most books about this time period focus on his tumultuous love affair with Anne Boleyn which resulted in England’s break from the Roman Catholic Church. I was therefore surprised to find that this novel was not a love story in any way. Instead of pages and pages about the passionate relationship between the king and the commoner, Henry VIII chooses instead to focus on the religious aspects of the matter. The wives are relegated to the background for long periods. The formation of the Church of England with King Henry at its head is given a lot of attention here. Rather than love, one almost gets the sense that Henry breaks with Rome due to a childish temper tantrum.

The most interesting parts of this novel detail the mental jumping jacks Henry needs to perform in order to justify his actions. The Henry of this book is presented as insecure and lonely, surrounded by sycophants and unable to trust anyone. His early desire for a father figure leads to his close relationships with people like Thomas More and Thomas Wolsey. The fact that he destroyed the lives of both these men (and all of his wives) is important to note. But we are all the heroes of our own narratives, and since this novel is told from the periods of Henry VIII, we are treated to all manner of rationalizations for these actions. The way he tells it, everything happened for a perfectly logical reason.

Why are we so intrigued by the Tudors? Part of me wonders if it isn’t the same reason why people love to watch the Kardashian family bickering, or the drunken antics of the Jersey Shore cast. We love to see privileged people behaving badly. It gives us a sense of moral superiority. In the case of King Henry VIII, his reign also represents a time of extreme religious and political upheaval. After all, Protestantism was able to gain a foothold in Europe due to the actions of one man who loved one girl.

Margaret George’s The Autobiography of Henry VIII represents another satisfying addition to the historical fiction focused on the Tudors. However, it is far too long. I would recommend it to someone who was incredibly interested in this time period, but it’s definitely an undertaking.

My rating: 3/5

You can find this novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!