The Wives of Henry VIII, by Antonia Fraser

Last week’s Wolf Hall got me thinking about history. Since most of Mantel’s depiction of Thomas Cromwell’s character was invented, I wondered what right we have to tamper with persons and events from the past. Stories are what we remember, far more effectively than lists of facts. Those early lessons of Abe Lincoln reading in his log cabin and George Washington and the apple tree linger in some essential layer of our imagining, stronger than any later biographical reading, even after we know they are fictional. Film is even more lasting: biopics and even pure fiction about past events seem more real to us than the facts we carefully researched.

Milan Kundera’s Immortality investigates the effects of a tale told after someone’s death and how, told often enough, it can come to seem the truth, even when it is completely false, such as the images Bettina Brentano fabricated about both Goethe and Beethoven after their deaths becoming the ones that would be remembered. We see it today when politicians and talk radio blast a pernicious lie about someone in office, repeating it over and over until the foolish crowd comes to believe it is true. How much more insidious, then, to launch such a campaign after the person is dead and no longer around to defend themselves.

Writing a biography is a tremendously difficult task. Hard as it is to finish a novel—all those blank pages to fill—it is harder to write nonfiction, such as a memoir where you are limited to what actually happened and who people really are, at least to the best of your memory and perception. Biography is that much harder because you must research the person’s life, without your own memories to guide you. And it had better be someone who fascinates you because you are going to be spending years delving into the minutiae of that person’s days.

All these considerations increase my admiration for those historians and biographers who do make the huge investment to bring us stories of past lives. Some years ago, I heard Edmund Morris speak about Dutch, his controversial biography of Ronald Reagan where he inserted fictional characters and even an imaginary version of himself to help dramatise the story. Morris described the years of effort that go into researching a biography and his own horror when he realised that the person was simply not very interesting. While I don’t agree with Morris’s decision to fictionalise his biography, I do understand that in biography, as in memoir, you cannot help but distort the truth of a life by the scenes you decide to dramatise and the words you choose to describe them. Not that any of us knows what the truth is, even of our own lives.

I enjoyed Wolf Hall but knew little about Cromwell’s life and couldn’t evaluate the thoughts and feelings Mantel attributes to him. Certainly her picture of the man is consistent and believable. I did know a bit about the period and decided the best remedy for my uncertainty was to consult other sources.

I’ve always enjoyed Antonia Fraser’s histories. Her style is engaging and easy to read, even though she doesn’t resort to fictional techniques like invented dialogue. In this book, she gives us a Henry who becomes more and more impatient and self-indulgent, and sets this portrait within the context of the times, when marriage for love was rare for anyone, but especially so for a king. But her focus is really on each of the six wives in turn. She not only brings them to life, but uses them as a lens to look at the condition and treatment of women in the 16th century. For example, Anna of Cleves’s mother kept her close, not just to preserve Anna’s virginity with its cardinal importance as dowry, but also her sexual innocence, which gave her an air of virtue, perhaps even more prized than the hard-to-determine technical virginity. However, Anna’s ignorance was so great that she told her ladies-in-waiting that she believed her marriage had been consummated because Henry had kissed her and held her hand. She had no idea how to please the king in or out of bed. Her lack of education in languages and social intercourse—not uncommon in her Germanic home, but very different from the English court with its flirting and courtly humour and love of all things French—put her at a disadvantage and contributed to Henry’s disappointment in her, a disappointment so strong that, although he went through with the arranged marriage for diplomatic reasons, he could not beget the backup heir he so badly needed.

This is quite an interesting book, heavily sprinkled with footnotes which reassure the reader as to the authenticity of the material without interrupting the flow of the story. Sadly—for my purposes—Fraser does not have a lot to say about Cromwell, giving me nothing to set against Mantel’s picture of him. Her depictions of Henry, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn do accord well with those in Wolf Hall. And of course, it is impossible to know the full truth about someone, even a near family member, much less a man who lived almost 500 years ago. It’s hard enough to know the truth about ourselves, as Cromwell discovered near the end of Mantel’s book when he realised that he had the face of a murderer.

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