I don’t always read long books, but when I do, it’s because I know the author’s talent will help me push through my short attention span. Once again, Antonia Fraser doesn’t fail to deliver a book that’s serious yet engaging. In a world where history and politics are often seen as boring and dry, the quality of the writing here is the real star. As much as I love history, politics is something that I always fail to grasp, and as you can imagine it makes this particular intellectual pursuit somewhat challenging. Fraser’s work is perfect for a person like me. I first found this while reading Marie Antoinette: The Journey. While politics must of course necessarily come into play, her focus is rather more on the characters she discusses. She really has a knack for bringing out the personalities of her subjects in a way that almost makes you feel as though you’ve met them before. In fact I’ve been known to defend Marie Antoinette as though she were a close friend of mine. You can really sense the despair and frustration of Catherine of Aragon as she fights to hold on to her rightful place as queen, and the arrogance and tactless ignorance of Anne Boleyn. Jane Seymour is an angel, Anna of Cleves is pitifully naive – or is she? Katherine Howard is a trickster, and Catherine Parr is motherly and wise.
But those are just caricatures. All personalities here are given a fair look. Unsympathetic ones are given credit where credit is due, and sympathetic ones are not shown to be without their faults. The motives of Henry VIII himself are given a well-rounded unbiased look that really lets us get a glimpse into his head. Considering these people all lived nearly 500 years ago, this is an impressive feat. Fraser really understands her subjects like no other author I’ve read. This is why I’ll continue to read her work, and why she’s a favorite author of mine despite me almost exclusively choosing my reading material based on subject matter alone. One day I might even read her 1200+ page Weaker Vessel, but not soon. That would really be pushing it.
Given that there are essentially 7 biographies packed into this book, those of the six wives and Henry VIII himself, it really can’t be said to be too long at all. Other reviews tend towards the opinion that she often strays from her subject matter into superfluous back-stories, but at least compared to other books I’ve read I didn’t actually find this to be the case. There were a few, but all more or less related back to the core narrative. Details about distant relatives, in terms of relation or geography, always supported the political side of the story at the very least. The pacing is also appropriate. More pages are given to the wives who were married to Henry VIII the longest, fewer to wives who’s time on stage is more brief. The whole thing just makes sense, both in terms of composition and in that this won’t be over the heads of readers new to the subject matter. And when there’s just so much to read out there, I’d rather read one book about these people than seven. Wouldn’t you?