The “Six Tudor Queens” project begun by novelist and historian Allison Weir comes to its conclusion with this final volume, “Katharine Parr: The Sixth Wife,” a novel about the last wife of England's King Henry VIII. The series began years ago with a thick volume telling the life and unhappy marriages of Queen Katherine of Aragon, the Spanish princess young Henry inherited when his older brother Arthur, Katherine's first husband, died unexpectedly at the age of 15.
Henry, desperate among other things for a male heir, divorced Katherine years later when it was clear she couldn't provide him with one (although their daughter Mary, equally unhappy in life and marriage, did come to the throne in due time), and as is well known to history, fiction, stage, and screen, Henry then embarked on a lifetime of wives. Some he had executed, some died, one was pensioned off, and the whole garish spectacle of it has proven irresistible to authors of all kinds. It's one of the many instances when truth really is stranger than fiction.
And that's a shame. This morbid fascination with the many wives of Henry VIII tends to obscure both the reign of Henry and the individuality of the wives themselves. It's an altogether unhelpful way to write about an incredibly pivotal English monarch, and as good and entertaining as Weir's series of novels have been, we can all rightly hope they represent the last of their kind.
At least, as with any chronicle of the wives, Weir ends with the most fascinating of the lot. Queen Katherine was something of a pious scold; Anne Boleyn, despite repeated attempts to humanize her, was essentially a one-dimensional shrew; Jane Seymour, the mother of Henry's only legitimate male heir, was an insipid saint; Anna of Kleve (as Weir styles her name) was a confusing and foreign anomaly; Katheryn Howard was a libidinous idiot. But when we encounter this final wife, Katharine Parr, we find ourselves suddenly in the presence of a complex, three-dimensional person, somebody Henry chose not out of wanton lust but for her managerial and maternal qualities. She is immediately intriguing.
Henry hoped she would be a mother to his children, Mary, Elizabeth and Edward, and she was. He hoped she would be an interesting conversationalist and a comforting companion, and she was. He hoped she would be a competent regent in the event of his absence in wars abroad, and she was. And there was none of Henry's earlier mania about the virginal “purity” of his intended—Katharine had been married twice before and was an experienced courtier, property manager, and writer.
When conveying her in fiction, the problem for Weir the novelist is that Weir the historian keeps getting in the way. Writing gripping historical fiction requires lots of research, yes, but after that research is done, the writer then has to make exactly the leap into artful invention that historians try to avoid. Weir's two disciplines have been at odds with each other throughout this series, and the result is fat novels of Tudor historical fiction that are more careful than creative, more dutiful than daring, with almost every moment of expression dulled just a bit by exposition. “Katharine was relieved to hear that Lord Hertford had returned to court,” one such passage goes, “after successfully completing a punitive expedition against the Scots and agreeing to a peace that was only ever intended to be temporary.”
There's also a curious reversion to idiom and cliché that was far less noticeable in the earlier books (possibly Weir was by this point a little tired of her project—who wouldn't be?). Katharine worries that she should have “come clean” to Henry about her “seeing another man,” for instance, and we're told that Henry had “bestridden England like a colossus for more than 37 years.” Too often throughout the book, this kind of placeholder prose crops up and further flattens what's already fairly even terrain.
In one respect, though, “Katharine Parr” succeeds on a level far beyond most other Tudor fiction: it captures Henry himself in something approaching both his flawed humanity and his deceptive complexity. Far too often in novels of this kind, he's reduced to a grotesque, frothing psychopath, a cross between Count Dracula and Lord Voldemort. In Weir's more historically informed handling, he's an even more human figure than the book's main character (although he, too, has a tendency to blurt out anachronistic cliches, forever saying things like “capital idea!”). Something like this ought to be the standard in Tudor fiction.
And here's hoping that Tudor fiction will progress without any more tours through the Six Wives.
Ballantine Books, 2021