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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

“The Autobiography of Henry VIII, With Notes By His Fool, Will Somers”, by Margaret George

932 pages, St. Martin's Press, ISBN-13: 978-0312061456

The first ten or twelve times (yes, it's that good) I read the Autobiography of Henry VIII, I was blown away by the romantic grandeur of 15th-16th century England, and Europe. Enter the world of castles, monasteries, diplomats, priests, peasants and manuscripts (books written by hand on parchment). Margaret George skillfully whisks the reader away from the 20th-21st century to the King's Court, where the ornate intricacies of ballroom and bedroom are as lethal as battlefields dominated by cannon and horsemen. The reader is invited to the private counsel of the King who presides over it all, to discover not only what he says in public, but what he really thinks of his wives, his nobles and courtiers, his rivals in France and beyond. It is a brilliant work of historical fiction, one to be savored many times.

HOWEVER, keep in mind that, as a work of history (as opposed to historical fiction), the books fails badly. Judging by Henry's actual statements and actions, George's interpretation of his life are highly unlikely. There are several events of his life and of his character that go unnoticed or unresolved in the novel. Remember the actual Henry VIII was decried in England for centuries after his death as a bloodthirsty tyrant. The reasons for his legendary cruelty go unmentioned in George's novel. For that matter, Henry's cruelty itself goes largely unmentioned. He is recast, from the vicious tyrant of history, to a love-starved prince of fiction. Simply put, the real contemporaries of Henry VIII would not recognize the king portrayed in this book. Did Henry simply deceive himself, so that he did not know what a shark tank his court had become? Was he an incurable romantic, as the Autobiography suggests? No. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the book does not portray the greatest Tudor king as he was.

Usually when a book is this long, I have a nagging feeling that an editing hand would have made it better, but not this book! It is gripping, spectacular and superb! I stayed up several nights to read it, and I could barely put it down. This book is written from the perspective of Henry VIII - and it makes him more human, more sympathetic, yet more chilling, all at once. He appears to be a smart man, a strong leader, charismatic, and a wise king - but he had a strange childhood of neglect and disfavor by his selfish parents, suddenly interrupted when his brother died and he became king, and was thrust into a world where there were no limits, no brakes upon his conscience, or his power. This odd combination led to a man who, despite his strengths, was in his personal life like a big, dangerous child - when he got tired of wives or friends, he killed them.

Yet the final results of his rule, including the introduction of new ways of viewing religion into England, a breaking up of the old, stale social systems, and the brilliant Queen Elizabeth, were all positive. This book, fascinatingly written from the perspective of Henry VIII with notes from his very wise fool, Will Summers, explores these contradictions in a clever and attention-catching way. The notes by Will add a fresh perspective and balance to the book. Also, the book touches the personality of his wives and shows them as real, flawed humans, the good Queen Katherine, who nevertheless allowed her extreme piety to blind her to her husband's needs, the scheming, shrill Anne Boleyn, the quiet and beloved Jane, the ugly but kind and humorous Anne of Cleves, the (...) Katherine Howard, and finally, the wise Katherine Parr.

All of these characters, as well as the mood of the times, of the diverse English people, the war ridden Europe and the superstitions and religious fervor of the age all come alive in this brilliant book.

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