Friday, December 18, 2009

Once More, Revisiting Anne Boleyn Yet Again
By Janet Maslin, The New York Times
Published: December 16, 2009

With “The Lady in the Tower,” Alison Weir inserts herself into the scrum of historians eager to interpret Anne Boleyn’s story. Ms. Weir is no stranger to this crowded realm. She has already written “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” (Anne was the second); “Henry VIII: The King and His Court” (Anne played an active role in court intrigue); “Children of Henry VIII” (Anne bore him one, a daughter); and “The Life of Elizabeth I” (that daughter grew up to be Elizabeth I, a k a the Virgin Queen). She has also written numerous additional works about British royalty.

National Portrait Gallery, London
A portrait of Anne Boleyn about four years before her death.

THE LADY IN THE TOWER The Fall of Anne Boleyn By Alison Weir Illustrated. 434 pages. Ballantine Books. $28.
(Jonathan Cape in UK)

So why another? Because this time Ms. Weir sets out to study one four-month period at particularly close range and to search for the truth by examining primary sources. The narrow range of “The Lady in the Tower” extends from the death of Anne’s predecessor, Katherine of Aragon, in January of 1536 to Anne’s beheading in May of that year. Ms. Weir takes an investigative approach to the forces that toppled Anne from favor and led to her trial and execution.

To Ms. Weir’s credit she is well equipped to parse the evidence, ferret out the misconceptions and arrive at sturdy hypotheses about what actually befell Anne. Her command of minutiae is impressive, as is her enthusiasm for even the most minor aspects of Anne’s frequently distorted story. To Ms. Weir’s disadvantage, this subject has been so frequently dramatized that her sometimes-inconclusive scholarship can seem ponderous and dry.

“The Lady in the Tower” glaringly omits any mention of Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall,” this year’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel, which so ingeniously focuses on the machinations that made Thomas Cromwell the primary architect of Anne Boleyn’s destruction. Yet Ms. Mantel provides such a delectably arch portrait of Anne, and stints so deliberately on the clear historical details, that these two books serve as useful companion pieces. “Wolf Hall” is the more impenetrable. It is also the livelier by far.

“The Lady in the Tower” takes its title from one of the many, many pieces of evidence that Ms. Weir holds up for scrutiny. It comes from a letter of typically shady provenance, since much of the detail surrounding Anne’s undoing surfaced long after she had been undone. The letter is addressed “To the King from the Lady in the Tower,” and it first surfaced in 1649. Some have claimed it was copied by Cromwell from an original letter written by Anne on May 6, 1536, while she was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Historians have long debated the letter’s authenticity, and they have had ample reason to do so. Ms. Weir works hard to analyze not only the historians’ positions but also the essence of the letter itself.
Read Maslin's full review at NYT.

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