One of my great guilty pleasures these days is books and media related to Tudor history. It feels like a very specific combination of nerdy and basic to admit that you are super into Anne Boleyn and friends (too obvious for your average history buff, too esoteric for everyone else). But oh boy am I into it. The story of Henry the Eighth and his many wives has got more sex, death and twists than a soap opera and the best thing is that it actually happened.
British Historian Alison Weir’s book on the wives of Henry the 8th was the gateway Tudor drug for me, as it was for many others. Since then, I’ve consumed a lot more media on the period, both high-brow (Hilary Mantel, a lot of wordy biographies) and less so (The Tudors TV show, selected Phillipa Gregory). Basically, give me book with a period appropriate headdress/ a Holbein portrait on the cover, then I am immediately on board.
So when I discovered that Weir is engaged in writing a separate novel about the lives of each of the 6 wives, it felt like an obvious easy quarantine read. I checked out the Anne Boleyn book to start, because why not?
Oof this book. Here is the thing about Alison Weir, she’s a brilliant historian and a very good writer of compelling non-fiction books. I’ve read elsewhere that she’s now currently the top selling British female historian, which doesn’t surprise me in the least. She brings a really interesting historical take to Anne which I haven’t seen anyone else explore before. Specifically, she devotes several chapters to Anne’s life in France and how that might have shaped her intellectually. She makes a frankly fascinating case that Anne was a proto-feminist due to her time in Europe, and came back to England with views and ideas that set her apart from a lot of her contemporaries.
Unfortunately, her fiction writing skills leave more than a bit to be desired. Her prose is often over written, awkward, or just cliche. Additionally much of the book reads to me as an historian who is so preoccupied with getting the history right, and it suffers from an affliction which plagues a lot of middle tier historical fiction, i.e. exposition dumps that cut awkwardly into the story, and serve as an excuse for the author to show off how much research they’ve done. (Imagine two Tudor era characters having a normal conversation, and they stop and have a forced exchange about Luther and what is he doing in Germany, and my isn’t that unheard of? That kind of thing.)
Lastly, Weir clearly dislikes Anne Boleyn. She’s done interviews saying so explicitly, and it’s clear that she struggled to get into the head of her main character and make her feel sympathetic. The result is an Anne Boleyn who feels very confusingly drawn at points. She is at points, strangely powerless in her own story, things frequently happen around her, or to her, she rarely makes things happen of her own accord. I think this is in part Weir’s attempts to make her more sympathetic, by attributing the blame for some of the more disturbing allegations against Anne (for example, the attempted poisonings of several of enemies) to others around her. But Anne is a compelling historical figure exactly because she made so many things happen for herself, in a time and place when women rarely achieved that level of control. So why not write Anne as a grayer character who did some awful things on the way to achieving her goals? Wouldn’t a flawed human Anne, who was in control of her destiny, be a much more compelling character? (This is what Hilary Mantel did successfully with Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Her Anne was immoral, emotionally complex, and very much a political force in her own right. But you still emphasized with her, and felt for her when she lost everything.)
So really, if you read one novel about the Tudors, I would definitely choose Hilary Mantel over Alison Weir any day. But if you are like me, and looking for comfort reading that’s cheesy and full of french hoods and castles and other fun things, then this is a totally fine choice.
Finally the very ending is graphically upsetting to a degree that I wasn’t quite expecting. Anyone who is familiar with Anne Boleyn understands where the story is going, but Weir goes into a level of detail that felt gratuitous and disturbing. So, please consider this a trigger warning.