Publication date: May 2019
Review, short version: Two roses out of four.
Review, long version:
I love English royal history, and British writer Alison Weir has been one of my go-to authors for years, for both non-fiction and fiction.
With her non-fiction books – 19, according to her website – I count on Weir for her great writing, meticulous research, and presenting only the facts as facts.
With her fiction books, I knew she still used that research, but could expand into what-ifs and might-have-beens. Weir has written nine novels, and authors of novels are free to imagine, to tell the story any way they choose.
So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that Weir let her imagination run free in her latest novel, Anna of Kleve: The Princess in the Portrait.
Anna is the fourth in her series about the six wives of Henry VIII, and here’s where Anna fits into that old saying about the fates Henry’s wives:
|Top row left to right:
Divorced – Katherine of Aragon
Beheaded – Anne Boleyn
Died – Jane Seymour
Bottom row left to right:
Divorced – Anna of Kleve
Beheaded – Catherine Howard
Survived – Katherine Parr
We should also add “survived” after Anna’s name, since she did, in fact, survive Henry VIII’s disgust, rejection, and anger.
Back then, people could – and did – lose their heads for less.
As in her earlier books, Weir used her research throughout Anna of Kleve. As always, her writing and storytelling were good. And as always, with her fiction, I believed that Weir was telling the story based both on what she knew to be true, and what she thought could be true.
In this case, I think she may have gone overboard.
Or as Weir said in her Author’s Note, the book has “a storyline I suspect will provoke some controversy.”
I was well acquainted with Henry VIII’s disgust with, rejection of, and anger at Anna after their marriage.
But Weir is the first author I’ve read – ever – to suggest that Henry’s reactions were caused by his discovery on their wedding night that Anna, never married and supposed to be a virgin, had instead given birth sometime prior to their marriage.
This is the storyline Weir was referring to above. She then weaves in a complete fiction about who Anna had sex with, where and when she gave birth, the sex of the baby, what happened to it afterwards, her ongoing relationship with the child’s father, a second pregnancy by him, and revealing her identity to that now grown-up first child just before Anna died.
Yup, that’s an imagination running free.
So free, that not long after the book’s publication, two British newspapers made headlines out of it:
In the first article Weir says, “Was some scandal locked away in Anna’s past? It is inconclusive and speculative, but I think you might find it convincing.”
I didn’t, but I’ll allow it’s possible.
And it’s possible Weir felt she needed to spice things up to make Anna’s life more interesting to the reader. I sometimes think of Anna as Henry VIII’s forgotten wife – not noteworthy, like being his first wife or last; not the mother of his only legitimate son, like Jane Seymour; not sexy like Anne Boleyn, or sexy and unfaithful like Catherine Howard.
So perhaps to some, Anna may seem rather dull. She was German and barely spoke English, so no reputation for witty remarks handed down through the ages. She’d led a quiet life, and was getting on in years for that era – age 25 when she married Henry. Seven months later Anna agreed to an annulment, she remained unmarried, lived the rest of her life in England, and died of an illness at age 42.
She was mostly a No-Drama-Anna.
But did she or didn’t she? Was she or wasn’t she?
Weir says Anna did, and she wasn’t.
I say only Anna knows for sure, and even now, after more than 400 years…