A notorious Tudor queen is sympathetically imagined.
Weir (Katherine of Aragon, 2016, etc.), prolific Tudor historian, biographer, and novelist, offers the second volume in her fictional series about Henry VIII’s six wives, focusing on the outspoken, doomed Anne Boleyn. Anne is certainly the most famous of those unfortunate women and, as Weir admits in an afterword, the least knowable. While Katherine of Aragon left abundant letters, Anne did not, and testimony about her comes mainly from an ambassador to the court who was hostile to her. Weir brings considerable expertise to her portrait of Anne as “a flawed but very human heroine, a woman of great ambition, idealism and courage.” Because Anne spent formative years at the French court, where feminist ideas were debated, Weir chooses to see her as an early feminist, repulsed by the widespread incidence of rape in the royal courts of France and England. Henry raped Anne’s married sister, Mary, who continued an affair with him, ending up pregnant and cast aside; and even Anne’s beloved brother George confessed, to her shock and disgust, that he “forced widows and deflowered maidens,” inflamed by uncontrollable lust. Weir vividly depicts court life: the hundreds of attendants, the sumptuous pageants and celebrations, and Anne’s amazing gowns and jewels. She reprises the plight of Katherine of Aragon and her daughter, Mary, both of whom Anne fervently wished dead; and she gives ample evidence for England’s resentment of Anne, in and out of court. Despite Weir’s well-informed portrayal of her cast of characters, the novel suffers from its focus on Henry’s machinations to dissolve his marriage to Katherine, a process that took six long years of “unbearably frustrating” and nearly intolerable delays, marked by skirmishes, controversies, and conversations that become repetitive. After the pair are married, Weir deals sensitively with Anne’s increasing desperation as she fails to produce a living son and witnesses the king’s blatant philandering. The plot intensifies once Anne is accused of adultery and treason, culminating in a truly shocking and emotional execution scene.
A richly detailed rendering of the familiar Tudor drama.