The Tudors are a bit of a cottage industry these days. And the reigning queen of Tudor fiction, at least in terms of popularity, is Philippa Gregory. Her books, most of which focus on the women of Henry VIII’s court, are a historical fiction sensation. But do they live up to the hype?
I’ve had a hard time making up my mind about Gregory. My first Gregory was The Constant Princess, which I listened to on audio. I could get past her suggestion that Katherine of Aragon actually slept with her first husband, Henry VIII’s brother Arthur, even though this goes against the consensus of most historians. I thought the possibility made for an interesting thought experiment, even if I wasn’t convinced. But I was more troubled by her tendency to make Katherine too modern, too enlightened, too politically correct. Would Katherine have actually sought out a Muslim doctor? Would she have worn Muslim garments, even if behind closed doors? This didn’t ring true to me and seriously detracted from my enjoyment of the book. (And don’t get me started on the whole salad business.) But, that said, the book was entertaining and made the drive to and from work a bit more pleasant, so I wasn’t ready to dismiss Gregory.
I then read The Other Boleyn Girl, which offered another thought experiment: Might Anne Boleyn have actually been guilty of adultery and even incest? Here again, Gregory seemed to be trying to make her central character, Mary Boleyn, likable by giving her contemporary values. In this case, Mary Boleyn rebels against the English nobility’s common practice of letting others raise their children. This was somewhat more believable than her characterization of Katherine, so I wasn’t terribly annoyed and was able to just enjoy the story, even if I had to roll my eyes at it from time to time.
So now we have The Boleyn Inheritance. It’s been sitting on my shelf for a while, and I finally read it because it was the winning selection in my first “What Should I Read Next?” giveaway. I’ve heard that this is the best of Gregory’s books, and I agree with that assessment, at least regarding the first half.
Instead of one central character, we have three: Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard, and Jane Boleyn. The three women alternate chapters, each giving her own perspective on the action. I really enjoyed the multiple perspectives, and I was very glad to learn something about two of Henry’s wives that I previously knew only as names in a list. Of course, I don’t assume that Gregory was accurate in her characterization of them, but I do feel better able to keep the broad outlines of their stories straight in my head. (And a quick skim of the relevant chapters in Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII verifies that she got the broad outlines right.)
Unfortunately, by the end of the book, I started to get frustrated with the storytelling. How many times do we have to hear Katherine count her new dresses? We know–she likes dresses. How many times do we have to hear Jane obsess over what her life might have been had Anne Boleyn only lived? We know–she has regrets. How many times does Anne have to talk about being afraid of the scaffold? We know–being Henry’s queen is perilous. Yes, it got tedious. And I was, as usual, jarred by the anachronistic attitudes that snuck in, as when Anne of Cleves snickers when the priests are praying over her marriage bed. Really? Snickering?
And so I’ve finally made up my mind about Philippa Gregory: She’s just not for me. Her stories are entertaining, and I completely understand why people like them, but the anachronisms and the repetitive explaining keep them from satisfying me. I’ve already given away the last two unread Tudor books on my shelf (The Queen’s Fool and The Virgin’s Lover ), and I have no intention of picking up her next, The Other Queen, which is about Mary Queen of Scots. Maybe I’d give one a listen in the car, if the pickings were slim in the audio section of the library one week, but that’s as far as I’m likely to go.
Instead, I’ll get my Tudor fix from Alison Weir, the popular historian who has just ventured into historical fiction. Her Innocent Traitor, about Lady Jane Grey, was quite good, and she’s just released a book on Elizabeth I called The Lady Elizabeth, which I’ll probably read eventually.
And, of course, I’m always interested in historical fiction from other eras. Any recommendations for historical fiction that isn’t too anachronistic but also a ripping good read?