Headline Review | 2019 (2 May) | 528p | Review copy | Buy the book
In 1540 Henry VIII married his fourth wife, here named Anna of Kleve, but it was a marriage that was to last mere months. Henry had fallen in love with Anna’s portrait, painted by the master Holbein, but the reality was, so legend tells us, not so pleasing to the ailing King’s eye. Alison Weir’s marvellous fictional retelling of the stories of Henry’s wives once more takes a fresh look at what is very familiar history. She questions what we know and puts forward an alternative interpretation. Henry famously compared Anna to a Flemish mare but perhaps there was more to it than that. That there were other reasons why the marriage remained unconsummated.
Queen of Secrets begins in 1530 in the court of Duke Johann III of Kleve, a fair city located on the Rhine. Johann’s daughter Anna is fifteen years old, betrothed to the son of the Duke of Lorraine, and very ready to fall in love. And so begins a sequence of events that will overshadow the rest of Anna’s life. I think that the degree to which you enjoy the novel may depend on how far you accept the author’s somewhat controversial interpretation of Anna’s early years. I didn’t necessarily believe it but I wasn’t ready to dismiss it entirely either. This is, after all, a work of fiction and as long as it rings true with the Anna that Alison Weir presents – which it does – then I’m ready to fall once more into the pleasures of Weir’s richly painted Tudor world.
This is the novel of the six that I was looking forward to the most, largely because so little is known, relatively, about this fourth wife. I’ve visited Anna’s home in Lewes, East Sussex, and I’ve always been fascinated by her. It’s hard to imagine how frightened she must have felt to arrive in England only to be rejected by a King with a history of killing his wives. The novel puts all of this in its context, showing us a court torn apart by power struggles as Thomas Cromwell fights for survival.
I found that the most interesting sections, though, are those in which we see Anna and Henry together, forging a friendship, surrounded by all of the little details of the Tudor period. The descriptions of rooms, houses, journeys and so on are painted so visually, benefitting from the knowledge of Alison Weir the historian. Once again in these novels Henry grabs the attention. He isn’t quite the Henry we’re used to from other novels. We’re made to feel some sympathy for him – although I must say this is against my will! It’s intriguing to see a different side to him. It’s also interesting to contrast Anna with Henry’s previous wives as well as spend time with Henry’s daughter, Mary.
Another of Henry’s wives makes her appearance in Queen of Secrets, Katherine Howard. It is as if the story of Anna of Kleves is a respite before the Tudor trauma picks up again with young Katherine.
This series is such a joy. I look forward to its novels each year. You’d have thought that there is little new to give readers with these familiar lives but Alison Weir proves that assumption wrong. She finds so much to fascinate us with and I am filled with expectation for the novel on Katherine Howard. Surely, this could be the most heart wrenching book of the sequence. I long to read it. And I must repeat once more, these are the most beautiful hardbacks!