Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: A Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII

Author: Karen Lindsey

Rating: 2 Stars


Do not be fooled. This is not a 'feminist reinterpretation' of anything. In fact, it is an insult to the feminist movement to call this a feminist reinterpretation. In truth it is a thinly veiled attempt to once again make Anne Boleyn a victim, and be wholly sympathetic to the emerging Protestant cause in the last years of Henry's reign (that being said, I myself am of a Protestant persuasion, so that in itself is not the problem. The issue is the author bias).

I have got to start listening to my gut instinct when I read these days. I knew the moment I read the sentence toward the end of one of the early chapters calling Catherine and Ann (author's misspelling, not mine - seriously, why why why??!!) "equally remarkable", that it was all going to be downhill from there. I would never consider Anne Boleyn remarkable in the way I consider Catherine. Catherine is in a class by herself, continuing to carry herself with dignity no matter how cruel Henry became. Anne was manipulative, self-serving, and schemed her way to the throne. However, the author would have you believe that Anne is not only a victim in how history perceives her, but a victim of sexual harassment by Henry as her pursued her relentlessly and would accept no answer except 'yes'.

Um, really?

Apparently, what Anne was REALLY saying, was that she was politely trying to let the king down gently and doing her best to spare his feelings without coming right out and saying she did not want to marry him. The author interprets Anne's actions as saying, "What is clear is that she did NOT want Henry Tudor."

Right. That is TOTALLY believable.

Except, not at all.

The author also insists Anne never loved Henry, which I find a little ridiculous. While I have time and again given my opinion of Anne Boleyn and her role in the break-up of Henry and Catherine, I do believe Anne loved him. I believe she also wanted to be queen - and the Howard stock she came from would prove time and again to be very self-serving and ambitious - but to say she never loved him seems far-fetched. While he was not exactly in his prime anymore, nor was Henry the ailing, disgruntled, paranoid old man he would become by the time he married Catherine Howard or Kathryn Parr. He was still a 'catch' and had certainly been caught by Anne as she had him (though I don't believe there was witchcraft and any of that rubbish that has been used to further blacken Anne's name over the centuries. I think it was pure, old-fashioned lust, coupled with the fact that Catherine was past child-bearing years.)

The author then addresses poor Jane, who was lucky enough to die, I suppose, before she could displease the king and be divorced or beheaded. Given what little we know of her - and what we do implies she was of much different character than the outspoken and bold Anne - it is safe to say that had she incurred Henry's displeasure, she was more likely to have been of the 'divorced' variety than the 'beheaded'. That was only reserved the Boleyn/Howard family.

Then we come to Catherine Howard, who made some very stupid decisions. Of course, this is all excused away again under the guise of 'feminist reinterpretation' as her simply being a young woman who knew what she wanted and would do as she pleased. Well gosh that's great, now. The only problem is, Catherine does not live in the 21st century. She lived in the 16th century, where it was not so accepted (and by 'not so' I mean 'not at all') and in addition, to cheat on her husband. While Henry was aging and ailing, he was still her husband. Kings were expected to have mistresses, queens were NOT expected to have lovers on the side - the very succession of the throne was at stake. As much as we may not like the double standard today, it was a fact of life then. Much like her cousin, Katherine gambled, and lost. And much like her cousin, she lost her head for it too. It doesn't make it right, it just makes it acceptable in the context of the times in which they lived and died - and really why attempting to reinterpret this time period with a feminist view does not work or make sense at all. 

So, after all that, the book doesn't work because the premise isn't doable. The idea of feminism was not even a thing then, so to take the actions of men and women living 500 years ago and trying to put them into this mold of what feminism looks like today is not possible. Not only that, but we are not privy to most of their thoughts, even when we know what their actions might have been. Aside from that, you will find no new information here, so if you are looking for a book about Henry's wives, look elsewhere.

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