The True Queen is the first in a projected six-book series focusing on each of Henry VIII’s wives. A well-trodden path indeed. However, Alison Weir, also a well-known historian, promises to examine new evidence and to consider this oft-fictionalised period from different angles.
In actual fact, I didn’t find much that was new in this volume. What I did find, though, is that the level of detail Weir includes here is so great that she frequently manages to be illuminating anyway. This is a potted, fictionalised biography of Katherine from her arrival in England in 1501 to her death in 1536. The novel is so throughly researched that Weir is able to fully realise events and flesh out characters that other fictional accounts have often just skipped over. Moreover, the way she chooses to depict Katherine’s marriages to the doomed Prince Arthur and to Henry feels very convincing.
As he opened the door to leave, she found she could no longer control her emotions and broke down completely, emitting great, tearing sobs that sounded like an animal in pain. All those years together, all the love that had been between them, the children they had conceived and lost, the joys, the sorrow, the things they had shared … They had been one flesh, and now Henry wanted to break them asunder and end it all. It was more than she could bear.
I particularly admired the fact that Weir didn’t impose 21st century values on Katherine in a bid to make her more relatable to contemporary readers. Katherine is very much a woman of the 16th century here, but we feel sympathy for her plight regardless.
That said, Weir’s prose can be dry and overly simplistic and her skills as a novelist are middling at best, something apparent in her rather emotionless depiction of Thomas More’s demise. She edges towards psychological realism at times, but too often the novel drags and feels like one of those stilted, lightly dramatised TV documentaries.
I would say that there’s just enough here to make the novel worth reading. But The True Queen doesn’t add a huge amount to existing knowledge and understanding of its subject. The second novel in the series, focusing of course on Anne Boleyn, is scheduled for release on May 18th. I’m certainly interested to see what insights Weir can bring to this topic, given that there are more fictional accounts of Anne than of Katherine.