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THE WIVES OF HENRY VIII by Antonia Fraser

THE WIVES OF HENRY VIII

By Antonia Fraser

Pub Date: Nov. 16th, 1992
ISBN: 0-394-58538-0
Publisher: Knopf

 Fraser (The Warrior Queens, 1989, etc.) brings her personable voice and vivid historical imagination to the six women who married Henry VIII. This group biography pales, though, beside the richly informed and, however cautious, convincing (and almost identically titled) study of the same women by Alison Weir (p. 106). In her preface, Fraser insists that, contrary to popular rumor, she does her own research--which here amounts to a rather superficial sifting through common primary sources to the neglect of social history, and even of Weir's study. Fraser's interest is ``to discover the women behind the stereotypes'': Catherine of Aragon, whom Fraser says has been pigeonholed as the ``Betrayed Wife''; Anne Boleyn, as the ``Temptress''; Jane Seymour, as the ``Good''; Anne of Cleves, as the ``Ugly''; Catherine Howard, as the ``Wanton''; and Catherine Parr, as the ``Mother Figure.'' Fraser claims to destroy these stereotypes by finding in each woman intelligence, courage, passion--qualities that Weir offered convincing proof of--and by finding, behind the actions of each, political pressure to create an heir matched against the biological difficulty of doing so--for which Weir offered a compelling argument as well. In fact, Fraser's generalizations produce new stereotypes of rather stupid, passive women, pawns in a fatal game governed by nature and politics. For subtlety, individuation, depth, detail, and cultural, economic, religious, and domestic background, Weir's book is superior, although there the monumental figure of Henry dominated--a figure whom Fraser characterizes as ``the gigantic Maypole...all round which these women had to dance.'' Royalty buffs would do better to read Weir's book--though neither it nor Fraser's reflects contemporary historical preoccupations with the commonplaces of daily life, or feminist interpretations of the brutal and wasteful marriage rituals that victimized Henry's wives. (Twenty-four pages of illustrations--not seen.)