To be honest, I find Alison Weir’s work to be a little patchy. I’ve loved some of her work (Innocent Traitor was what got me started) and found others to be very average. I was delighted with the first installment of her six-part series about King Henry VIII’s wives, told from the perspective of Katherine of Aragon, was was looking forward to the second about Anne Boleyn, as much of their stories overlapped and I was intrigued by how different two perspectives of the same story would be.
The result was a little blah in my opinion. There was a very interesting thread throughout the book about the rights of kings – and to a lesser extent, men – in such a time period, that absolute power gives them unchecked rights, and I would have liked to have seen that fleshed out more.
There’s also a fascinating section towards the beginning of the novel about the time she spent in France and the bastion of literacy and education it was for women. In her notes at the end of the book, Weir talked about how she disliked the concept of Boleyn as a feminist heroine, as feminism didn’t exist in the sixteenth century, but that her research had caused her to rethink that as there have certainly been fiery, well-educated women throughout history who held no reservations about utilizing that fire and education. (Perhaps as a foreboding, Queen Claude cites both Isabella of Castille – Katherine of Aragon’s mother – as well as the dreadful treatment of Katherine’s sister Jauna being referenced early in the book.)
The problem, which is a problem with much of the Anne Boleyn-centric literature, is that it failed to capture what was so fascinating about her that Henry tore the country apart and reshaped history in his desire to have her. Perhaps the point is that she wasn’t fascinating, that Henry was a greedy man with an unchecked sense of entitlement who had to have someone who didn’t want him, that Anne was merely a pawn in a game where an autocratic rapist (who didn’t want to be made to feel he was a rapist) called the shots.
(Speaking of autocratic rapists – Weir has long been an advocate of Mary Boleyn’s, claiming her reputation was entirely undeserved. She really goes to town damning both Henry and Francis’s treatment of her, and gives Mary the happy ending of both marrying for love in the end and outliving every member of her scheming family and inheriting the lot.)
Another criticism is of Jane Boleyn – I am yet to read an account which makes sense of her behavior. She lost a lot for her tattling, and every story I’ve read of her portrays her as a vile schemer who seemingly plots for the sheer thrill of it. Either she was severely mistreated by the Boleyn family or she was a sociopath who overplayed her hand, but I’d love to see a novel that fleshes out her motives as something more than a two-dimensional villain, a woman who’s testimony results in the death of several people for seemingly no better reason than petty jealousy.
I actually enjoyed this book, for all my criticisms of it. It just wasn’t as great as the first installment, and failed to elicit any sympathy from me for any of the characters. There are better novels on the Tudor court to read.