I took a course on the history of England in college and found it dry and disappointing. It took Alison Weir and Margaret George to truly bring these historical figures to life for me.
Henry VIII had a larger-than-life personality, and his six wives were fascinating people in their own right. Alison Weir lets the reader get to know each of them. Who knew Anne of Cleves, who had the shortest marriage, would end up the luckiest of the wives? Or that Katherine Parr nearly went to the block, like two queens before her?
Besides telling the stories of royalty, Weir's book is chock-full of fascinating tidbits on what life was like in those times.
The book is easy to read yet backed up thoroughly by research and scholarship -- a perfect book for someone who finds history dull and unreadable. Through the engaging biographies of the six wives, Weir illuminates the history of Henry himself and the tumultuous times in which he lived. My grade: A+
In March, I read Weir's captivating first novel, Innocent Traitor, about the Lady Jane Grey, great-niece to Henry VIII and the ill-fated nine days' queen of England.
When Henry VIII's teenage son, Edward VI, lay on his deathbed, nobles who feared the accession of Henry's Catholic daughter, Mary, schemed to put Jane, a Protestant, on the throne in Mary's place. However, after Edward's death, the English populace rallied to Mary's banner, and the plot's instigators were imprisoned. Mary later had Jane, just 16, executed to prevent other plots, although she knew Jane had simply been the pawn of powerful men.
Weir chose to use multiple narrators in Innocent Traitor, which I enjoyed immensely as I learned more about each character through their unique voices. Weir's portrait of Jane Grey was of a brilliant, courageous, outspoken, exasperating, dogmatic and determined young woman, who in a different time might have grown up to become a great scholar or religious leader. Jane's mother, Frances, was portrayed as an intensely pragmatic but ambitious woman who little understood her own daughter, but who in the end discovered her fierce love for her. The Lady Mary, later queen, was essentially kind-hearted and practical, yet fanatical in her devotion to Catholicism and determined to fight for her birthright.
Weir deftly wove historical events and her character's recorded words into her narrative, telling an enthralling, tragic story that had me glued to the book for hours. I expect this novel will be one of my favorite reads of 2007. Grade: A.
I am more than a bit peeved that Weir's latest biography, about Katherine Swynford, mistress to John of Gaunt and ancestor of the Tudors, will not be released in the U.S. until 2009. I believe I will put the U.K. edition of the book on my Christmas wish list.