Saturday, August 21, 2010

British History

I once read a book called The Six Wives of Henry VIII. It was the first truly captivating non-fiction book I ever read. Since then, I've become a mini-expert on the reign of King Henry VIII and his children. I got thirsty for more information, and I kept reading the same story over and over - written by different authors and from different perspectives. Then of course there was the Showtime show, The Tudors, a really great visualization of his reign.

It was in this frame of mind that I decided to read the book Jane Boleyn, The True Story of the Infamous Lady Rochford, by Julia Fox. Jane is often portrayed as a bad person, accusing her husband of sleeping with his sister, Anne Boleyn, and later encouraging and abetting Henry's fifth wife in her adulturous affair with one of the King's attendants. Julia Fox's thesis is that Jane isn't so awful, she's just a victim of circumstances.

The book does a good job of paring down the story of Jane Boleyn's involvement in the events of King Henry VIII's court and his parade of wives. My biggest complaint is that the author pushes a little too hard sometimes to prove Jane was mixed up in things (there are a lot of these sentences: "Jane was probably here, because ..."). Also, the author tries too hard to make Jane likable. In fact, she is contradictory in the reasons she lists for us to like / feel sorry for Jane. She makes a concerted effort to portray Jane as a strong woman who did what she had to do to make a living for herself. When her husband was killed for treason, she didn't just run off and marry someone else for security. Instead, Jane bravely appealed to Cromwell for help in getting a financial settlement and a position as a lady in waiting to the new queen. Later, she attributes Jane's eventual downfall to the fact that Jane got caught up in life at court and didn't know how to navigate the politics correctly to save herself. She ultimately wasn't strong enough to do the right thing.

I know that people can be complex and contradictory in nature, but I'm not saying Jane's character is unbelievable. Nor am I unsympathetic to the circumstances in which she found herself. Rather, I do not like that the author wants so badly for us to like Jane that she tries too hard to make her fit into a neat little package. In doing so, she makes Jane less compelling and the circumstances of her life and death less interesting.

I eventually decided to branch out - it's not enough to know about the Tudor Dynasty. The movie, "The Young Victoria" was about to come out, and I decided to read about her reign. Besides, I'm a big fan of Regency and Victorian literature, so I thought it would help give me an idea of the politics and the feeling of the times.

I began with We Two, Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals, by Gillian Gill. The book is about Prince Albert as much or more than it is about Victoria. I will want to read more about her reign from other authors, because this book ends about the time that Prince Albert died - a young man in his forties. He worked himself to death trying to make England a better place and an important part of the international community. There is a lot of valuable information in this book, and it is well-researched, but it's also just a good story, well-told.

Gill is an excellent writer. She organized all of the information about Queen Victoria and Prince Albert very well and made the story of their life compelling - not just because they ruled England, but because they were human. They had faults, but they also did great things. This has become one of my favorites, not because of the subject, but because of the way the story is told.

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