The Wives of Henry VIII

categories: Reading Under the Influence

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I bought the The Wives of Henry VIII (Knopf, 1994) when it was new and never got to it, though I really, really wanted to learn more about Anne Boleyn, in particular, and the other wives, too. Antonia Fraser is a noblewoman in England, if they still talk like that. Anyway, she’s Lady Antonia, and who better to take on the subject of the women of the court.

The research here is prodigious, and the information is fascinating. It’s not always presented economically or even interestingly, however, though when it’s good it’s really good, Lady Fraser being a novelist as well. The author assumes maybe more knowledge about English history than many of her readers (yours truly for example) might actually have, and so keeps giving away all the coolest stuff, mentioning repeatedly, for example, that Catherine Howard will be beheaded before long. I mean, I sort of knew that two of the wives had their heads chopped off, but not really, not quite, and didn’t want to find out such important info in asides and footnotes, constant references to the future, stuff you wouldn’t do in a novel.
I was reading this book as a companion to Wolf Hall, and it really helped to have the historical notes alongside Hilary Mantel’s dramatization. The photos, mostly of paintings, were wonderful to have. I just kept staring at Anne Boleyn by Hans Holbein and thinking how she got her fucking head chopped off.

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