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A wholly uninspired biography--intellectually, stylistically, and otherwise--of Henry VIII's great adviser. Wolsey's life, like Byron's or Rimbaud's, has so much color and dramatic shapeliness that even in a mediocre retelling it arrests our attention. From his lowly birth (ca. 1473) as the son of a butcher, through his meteoric rise to royal almoner, privy councilor, lord chancellor, papal legate, etc., to his catastrophic fall from favor and his death in Leicester Abbey while on the way to face trumped-up charges of treason, Wolsey's career reads like a medieval exemplum, a tragic cautionary tale on the dangers of ambition and the fickleness of fortune. Harvey's version at least conveys a rough sense of the splendors and ironies that caught the eye of George Cavendish (a gentleman in Wolsey's household, his first and best biographer), Shakespeare (in Henry VIII), and many others. But that's about all it does. The narrative gets continually bogged down in long quotations from diplomatic correspondence. As if to compensate for the tedium Harvey occasionally goes in for Vivid Writing, but it seldom works (e.g., the ""bloody flux"" of Wolsey's intestinal disease ""had knotted his body to unsightly betrayal as again the inner urgency lunged him from prayer""). The rhetorical machine (imaginary monologues, echoing questions, etc.) grinds away, mostly irritating instead of entertaining. Harvey does make one novel and intriguing claim, that ""Wolsey wanted to reform everything, to order and improve every facet of the social fabric,"" but her evidence doesn't bear it out. Competent enough in its own way, Harvey's book is nonetheless awkward and, ultimately, unnecessary.

Pub Date: Oct. 6th, 1980
Publisher: Macmillan