Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Boleyn Inheritance

I love historical fiction, but it has been difficult for me to find good writers in that genre. I often find that either the historical details are accurate, but the story is dull or hokey, or that the story is interesting, but poorly rooted in the setting.

One author I love is Philippa Gregory. She is well-known for her vivid depiction of the tragic lives of King Henry VIII's six wives. I respect her because she researches her novels as well as if they were nonfiction. She takes well-developed characters, gives them strong motivations and depth of emotion, and weaves them into the fabric of true history. At this stage in her career, she must be quite an authority on Henry VIII and the entire Tudor family.

I read The Other Boleyn Girl, which is about Mary and Anne Boleyn's rivalry for King Henry's affections (Anne won, to her obvious detriment). It's a juicy tale full of power-hungry courtiers, back-stabbing relatives, sensuality, desperation, and brother-sister incest. But as riveting as that book was, I liked the sequel, The Boleyn Inheritance, even better.

The sequel is told in three voices: Henry's fourth and fifth wives, Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard, and the high-ranking courtier manipulating behind the scenes, Jane Boleyn. Both Anne and Katherine had short marriages; Anne's ended in a quiet divorce, and Katherine's in another beheading. (I assume there was no need for a spoiler alert there. Most people know the classic Henry VIII rhyme, "divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived".)

The best part of this book is the distinct trio of narrators Gregory provides.

Katherine Howard is silly and wealth-obsessed, but skilled in the art of flirtation and willing to serve her power-hungry clan with blind obedience. Her beauty and feminine wiles earn her the crown and the space in Henry's bed at the mere age of fourteen. She meets her downfall when she can't carry on in her marriage to the aging, fat and flatulent Henry after she falls in love with Henry's new favorite champion, Thomas Culpepper.

Jane Boleyn, Katherine's mentor and guide in the Boleyn/Howard clan, carries around the burden of having sent her sister-in-law Anne Boleyn to her death. She gave evidence against Anne and her own husband, Anne's brother George, accusing them of an incestual relationship. Jane still seethes with jealousy and resentment over her own inability to satisfy George. Meanwhile, Jane is determined to do her part to raise her clan into power again, and is hopeful that she will earn a new husband for her efforts. Jane is gradually driven to insanity, and it's fun to read the changes in her "voice" as this happens.

Anne of Cleves is the perfect counterpart to the silliness of Katherine and the insanity of Jane. Anne is an honorable woman, one who tries her best to be a queen worthy of praise and respect, but she has married into an impossible situation: she is the fourth wife of a man who is increasingly spoiled and impossible to please, and the fourth queen of a country that has tired of loving and losing their monarchs. Anne is the sole voice of wisdom and accountability in this novel, and as a result, she is the only one who truly gets what she wants in the end, while the rest of the court goes down in debaucherous flames.

I highly recommend all of these books. I'm currently listening to The Constant Princess, which tells the tale of Henry's first wife, Katherine of Aragon, and I'm enjoying it. It's fun to escape behind the walls of the Tudor castles, with their riches, lords and maids, and courtly delights. And even better, I'm learning about people and events that really happened, handled by a master author who makes the history come alive.

So grab a glass of ale and a roast leg of turkey, and cuddle up in your hardest throne-like chair with one of Gregory's books. I promise you'll lose your head in the story (and not on the executioner's block, like Anne Boleyn).

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