The Sunday Review: Getting Up to Speed on the Tudor Court

After Friday’s Travel Diary post, I’ve had several requests for the quintessential book about the Tudor Court. Clearly, I cannot name just one. Impossible. I can, however, give you a glimpse into a reader’s history and how I developed a passion for Anne Boleyn’s story.

Yes, that’s me inserted into the Queen Elizabeth I painting. My son gave me this for my birthday last year!

I came into my obsession through a couple of different avenues, but we’ll start with my childhood reading. As a precocious reader, my parents let me run amok in my hometown library, and I devoured everything I could find about the Tudor Court. I was fascinated with how a man, even if he was a king, could somehow get away with having six wives and killing two of them — remember the old saying, Divorced Beheaded Died Divorced Beheaded Lived? I was entranced with how Elizabeth I got to the throne and at some point, I figured out why the current Queen of England was Elizabeth II. I was hooked.

When I began to teach American history, I realized that my students had no idea why the early English colonists left to start over in what they called the New World. The idea of religious freedom had little meaning if not compared to the religious situation the colonists left. Teaching my students about settlements in what we now call the United States made me want to know more at an adult level about the English Civil Wars and the Reformation in Europe.

Click into this family tree for more resources on the War of the Roses between the Lancasters and the Yorks and how a Tudor got to be king!

Learning about how the Tudors got to the throne made me finally realize why Henry VIII was willing to do just about anything to get a legitimate male heir. After all that his ancestors went through to get that throne, he was pretty determined to keep it — and why Elizabeth I was just as determined to not let marriage undermine her authority.

Click into this family tree to find out even more information about what happened to the Tudor line.

Enter current historical fiction and its magic. Most historical fiction being produced today is well-researched and written by fine writers who do a great job of creating compelling stories that are reasonably accurate. There are myriad resources available to the HF writer today; primary sources are collected and shared in great libraries and on the internet. The body of “domestic” documents (diaries, recipe books, household accounts written by women) that have been collected give the authors a much better view into their characters’ lives and it shows in the books they write. I read historical fiction with my internet browser at the ready so that I can either verify or expand on the material presented. It’s a good time to be a writer of historical fiction and an even better time to be a reader. There truly is magic in these books for the adventurous reader.

So what do I recommend? Let’s start with three female writers who are well-known for their work in historical fiction about this time period. I’ve read “quite a bit” of their work . ūüôā

Phillipa Gregory is a well-regarded historian and author who has written many novels about the York/Lancaster/Tudor saga and her books are probably the most accessible of the three authors I have chosen for this post. ¬†Her web site has a nice feature with her books set against a historical timeline. Personally, if I were starting my reading today, I would follow her timeline and start with The White Queen, the story of Elizabeth Woodville. This book helps set the stage for the rivalries to follow. Next is¬†¬†The Kingmaker’s Daughters, which is followed by her newest and unreleased book about Elizabeth of York, who married Henry VII, thus starting the Tudor line. The Constant Princess depicts a fictionalized version of the life of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife.¬†The Other Boleyn Girl¬†is¬†loosely based on the life of Mary Boleyn, Anne’s sister, who was Henry VIII’s mistress and that relationship was one of the reasons used to declare the marriage between Anne and Henry null and void. The Other Boleyn Girl was also made into a movie starring Scarlett Johanssen.¬†The Boleyn Inheritance covers the time period of Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard, with Jane Boleyn finally getting consequences for her actions.¬†The Queen’s Fool¬†takes the reader into the problem of Mary Tudor, the forgotten heir to the Tudor throne.¬†The Virgin’s Lover features Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley, and finally,¬†The Other Queen is the story of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Hilary Mantel is the author of two highly-acclaimed novels about the Tudor Court, written from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell. Both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies have won the Man Booker Prize in England and are extraordinary extensions for people who already know something about Henry VIII and the political shenanigans that went on during his reign. The third book in the Cromwell trilogy is due to be published in 2015. I loved both of these books and am eagerly awaiting the third of the set.

Last but certainly not least is Alison Weir, also a renowned historian and novelist. She has written so many books about this period that I have just linked up the Alison Weir book list on amazon.com for you to look at. In checking out her online personna, I discovered that she actually leads British history tours. I AM INTRIGUED.

Although none of these ladies wrote a book about Henry’s last wife, Catherine Parr, there are a number of authors that have. I read one of them and was not impressed, but just in case, here’s a link that gives you some options.

More than you wanted to know? I hope not. After all, writers are readers and readers make better writers. I hope you will read some of these books and let me know how you liked them. Want to recommend something else? Go for it — I’m always ready for something new in this genre, and thanks for spending time with my great obsession today!

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Book Club: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall came heavily recommended — it won the Man Booker Prize, and all that.

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Hilary Mantel’s 672 page first installment of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy met every expectation. Once I sat down to finish it, I could barely put it down. I spent most of a full day devouring the last 400 pages. It’s not an easy read, but it’s a good one.

Does the name Thomas Cromwell ring a bell?

Not Oliver Cromwell, who was a distant relation and was also important to English history. Thomas Cromwell rose from impoverished beginnings to a post working for Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII’s chief minister. When Wolsey was unable to secure a dispensation from the Pope so that Henry could divorce Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell deftly insinuated himself into Anne’s favor and became Henry VIII’s favorite minister. This resulted in a rapid rise to power and riches, which lasted until his execution in 1540 over the poor choice of Anne of Cleves for Henry’s fourth wife.

Wolf Hall tells the story of Cromwell’s rise to power along with Anne Boleyn and her family. It’s a triumphant book, in which we can’t help but cheer for the success of Thomas Cromwell and his family. Hilary Mantel has created a new paradigm for Cromwell in this lovingly crafted piece of historical fiction.

We already know the story, but what makes Wolf Hall exceptional is its attention to detail.

The book is full of characters, and if you aren’t already familiar with Henry VIII’s court, you will be by the time you’re done — be prepared to read with your Wikipedia open :).

For example, Mantel vividly describes Thomas Cromwell’s relationship with Hans Holbein, who painted at Henry’s court. This painting shows the turquoise ring that Mantel tells us was given to Cromwell from Wolsey — it’s the little things about this book that give us a human picture of a statesman¬†who was also a man.

In this interesting article from The Telegraph, Hilary Mantel talks about how she decided to write a trilogy about this time period.

I was kind of surprised how the book ended and since I already knew there was a sequel, I felt that the book came to a sudden stop.

When she completed Wolf Hall, she realized she had too much material to just put it into her planned two books. Between¬†Wolf Hall¬†and¬†The Mirror and the Light, which will be about Cromwell’s final downfall,¬†Mantel added¬†Bring Up the Bodies, which covers the year prior to Anne Boleyn’s¬†execution.

“When I came to write about the destruction of Anne Boleyn (a destruction which took place, essentially, over a period of three weeks) the process of writing and the writing itself took on an alarming intensity, and by the time Anne was dead I felt I had passed through a moral ordeal,” the author told the newspaper.

“I can only guess that the effect on the reader will be the same; the events are so brutal that you don’t want to take a breath and turn the page, you want to close the book.”

The beauty of Wolf Hall — and why we as readers care about the essentially despicable Thomas Cromwell — is Mantel’s genius at drawing us into Cromwell’s mind. Her plot structure allows us to trust Cromwell’s plan and we believe that he will be successful.

It’s all very well planning what you will do in six months, what you will do in a year, but it’s no good at all if you don’t have a plan for tomorrow.

I can’t wait to read the next installment; I’ve already got it on hold at the library! I hope I don’t have to wait six months.

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A Bloody Season: Books on My List

A friend faithfully reads The New York Times and brings me clippings with tidbits he thinks I might like.

When he read Charles McGrath’s review of Hilary Mantel’s new book about Anne Boleyn, he knew I’d be hooked. I’ve put both books on my queue at the library.

I just finished Carolly Erickson’s The Favored Queen which visualizes Anne Boleyn’s fall through the eyes of her maid of honor, Jane Seymour, who eventually replaced her as Henry VIII’s wife. I wasn’t particularly impressed with the book, but it was an interesting perspective — and not a flattering look at the doomed Anne. As far as Erickson’s work on the Tudors, I think I’m done with her.

Since I’m retiring in eight days, I also will have time to watch more movies. In looking for a photo of Anne, I came upon pictures of Genevieve Bujold as Anne in Anne of a Thousand Days.That’s a movie I want to find, as well as watching all the seasons of The Tudors again.

That puts a thought in my head… how many movies are there in the Henry VIII canon? Do you have a suggestion for me? Or books — there’s bound to be one I haven’t read yet. Feed me, Seymour, with Tudor trash!

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