The front cover has a brief comment by a Mary Stewart: “A whale of a book about a whale of a king!” And that’s no lie. At 900+ pages this book took me about three months to finish, but it was worth it to deepen my understanding of King Henry’s life.
I first learned about King Henry the VIII through the Philippa Gregory novel, The Other Boleyn Girl, and I was captivated by the story. I remember wondering at how much pressure was put on women to not only produce a child, but a son at that. I was more than a little disgusted: as now we know that the sex of a baby is “chosen” by the father, all the daughters that were born were because of King Henry, not the mothers. (Although, I will say that I’ve always been fascinated by Queen Elizabeth’s reign and feel it is pretty amazing that she was the heir who ultimately ended up ruling out of all this turbulence.)
At the end of the novel, Margaret George has an author’s afterward where she explains her intent in writing this novel. She says:
When I first began to work on this vast project, I conducted a little survey of my own, asking acquaintances of all ages to tell me what immediately came into their minds when they heard the name ‘Henry VII.’ The overall consensus seemed to be ‘Henry VIII was a huge, fat, oversexed man with gross table manners who had eight wives, killed them all, and then died of syphilis.’ In the course of my work, I found that every so-called ‘fact’ in that sentence was not true…
George spent fifteen years researching the novel “to let Henry speak for himself.” Because there were so many works that condemned him, she wanted to get inside the mind of the King, to look at why he may have made the choices he did.
In this, the job is very well done. It is difficult to read a story of this type: one that encompasses an entire life. Life is so hard and very often sad. I can’t say that I would defend all of King Henry’s actions after reading this novel, but I do think it shows a different side to the story of the King who is, after all, human. Although this work is speculation, of course he would have doubted himself and seconded guessed his actions. In this novel he is portrayed as quite the romantic and, although he had some unrealistic expectations of his wives or, maybe, more likely set expectations for them that even he didn’t have to follow (adultery), I think he was also just trying to find his way in this world.
The scene when Henry dies is so sad, when those close to him who have been there to kiss up, laugh in his dead face. They can’t wait to use his passing to their full advantage. Granted, this is no new realization in the world of politics, but to read of an entire life, the hopes, dreams, highs and lows, and see how it all ends…well it’s a bit much to see a whole life laid out in a book, even if it is 900+ pages. Can an entire life really be reduced down to this?
Anyway, rhetorical question. Just something I thought about when reading.
I did read a review that said they appreciated the interjections by Will Somers, the King’s Fool. I wasn’t a huge fan, although they were able to give another point of view when George wanted to share something with her readers that Henry wouldn’t have known or written (since the story is told by King Henry). His interjections were amusing at times.
Overall, if you’re interested in this bit of history, and have some time, prop this book up on a sturdy table (it’s far to heavy to hold for long reading sessions) and enjoy.
Loving the irony of the last line: “The King is dead: long live the King.”