I was able to spend some time reading amidst all the holiday preparations, and I stayed up late last night to finish The Boleyn Inheritance by Philippa Gregory. I've read all of her novels about the wives and daughters of Henry VIII, and in general I love historical fiction. Gregory's previous novel, The Constant Princess, about Henry's first wife, Katherine, was one of my recent favorites. This one, though, left me with mixed feelings.
As is the norm with Gregory's novels, it is a fast read, and I was quickly drawn in to the plot. Gregory uses three separate narrators, Anne of Cleves, Jane Boleyn (Anne Boleyn's sister-in-law), and Katherine Howard, in alternating chapters. I did not know much at all about Anne of Cleves who was Henry's fourth wife and was only married to him briefly. She is also the only one of his wives to survive being set aside by him. Having read this novel, I am interested in finding out more about Anne who is portrayed here as coming in to her own after her marriage ends. She seems a quite unusual woman for the 16th century, and I'd like to find out how accurate the portrayal is. Jane Boleyn has appeared in other Gregory novels and is not a sympathetic character, having given the testimony that sent her husband and his sister, Anne Boleyn, to their deaths. However, she does grapple with this decision throughout the current book.
Knowing the history of Henry and his wives, I knew that the end of this novel would not be a happy one. However, it was still disturbing in its rather abrupt and graphic ending. I was left feeling unsettled by the portrayal of Henry's descent into madness and the capriciousness with which he ran his country. I could also not help but see the warning for us in the experiences of Tudor England. Henry is a despot set on using religion as a way of dominating his people and ridding himself of his enemies. People are tried and convicted in courts controlled by the king with no access to a jury. Laws are often secret and change without notice. Somehow, it all felt a little too close for comfort. In many ways it is amazing that our democracy found its source in the same country that Henry so terrorized. My hope is that our country remembers that we must always value liberty and civil rights in the face of both perceived and real threats. To do otherwise is to sacrifice what we say we wish to protect.