About seven years ago I snatched up my first historical non-fiction book set in Tudor times from a vintage pawn shop on my way home from East Wenatchee, WA. It was about Queen Elizabeth I by Alison Weir, and although extremely rich in detail and a little tricky to remember names, it was fascinating. Beforehand, I’d only read historical fiction of the somewhat bodice-ripping variety like Philippa Gregory’s novel ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’.
I loved ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’, read everything else Gregory wrote and then branched out to similar authors. It’s an easy way to become familiar with the characters of the period. Eventually I realized that though entertaining, these books are like watching a soap opera when you want to be watching the History Channel.
Since then I’ve come to regard with high respect Weir as a historian and an author. Non-fictional history is notoriously tricky to write while keeping the reader’s attention. If you have ever picked up a non-fiction book and immediately felt like you were being flooded with names and dates that no one could possibly keep straight and hundreds of details that make you want to shoot yourself and burn the book, I commiserate. I look for authors who can write history in such a way that you can follow it! Are still interested! Can kind of juggle the annoying English system of being called by different titles despite their actual names! And teach you in the process.
It’s been a long process naturally, and I’m so familiar with subjects now that I’m ultra picky and have my own opinion of how some historical figures should come across and therefore enjoy some books more or less than others. Okay I’ve talked too long. ‘A Dangerous Inheritance: A Novel of Tudor Rivals, and the Secret of the Tower’ was enjoyable in the way of ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ as in, it’s a very easy introduction into a world you may not be familiar with, and a bit like a soap opera.
It’s what I often call a ‘beach read’ and as such, is well done. The bonus is that the two feminine protagonists are two that I’d heard of or read about before: Richard III’s illegitimate daughter Katherine (Kate), and roughly 80 years later, the doomed eight day queen Jane Grey’s sister Katherine Grey (I’d read Weir’s book about Jane ‘Innocent Traitor’ years before and quite liked it). Between the vantage point of Richard’s daughter and the later Tudor era claimant to the throne they focus on the mystery of the Princes in the Tower.
If you’ve never heard of that prepare for a black hole of personal indecision and historical tragedy, whereupon the two young sons of Richard the III’s older deceased brother vanish under his care never to be seen again. Even Henry VII who defeated Richard seemed to not know their true fate; one boy who was almost crowned, and his younger brother the heir. A fun fact is that crowned or not, they would have been uncles of Henry VIII.
Historians wrangle with who did it and what happened to this day, and Weir’s characters spent more time agonizing over it to show her personal viewpoint than I would have liked.
Weir approaches it from the two viewpoints of the Katherines to show us pro-Richard and con-Richard, though it’s clear Weir feels the blame once all the known facts are counted up, does point to Richard. The chapters bounce back and forth between the Katherines without warning or reason as their tales are told. It was a strange way to write a book and I’m still unclear of the motive, as the link between the two women is tenuously forged throughout the book as strange almost ghost-like sightings and feelings of dread on the part of both the women.
Despite the possibly weak connection on which the entire book is forged, I did enjoy very much learning more about these minor characters who are in history’s footnotes, but at the time must have been very close to all the major protagonists, and who knows what certainties they took to their graves?
Totally unrelated, but my closing sentiment is that Elizabeth I was even more shady and jealous of her throne than I’d known. We know she kept her cousin Mary Queen of the Scots in house arrest for over twenty years, well it was apparently modus operandi for her female rivals, because she totally ruined Katherine Grey’s life as well (she would have been third in line for the throne). Well written, but for me I think I’ll stick with Weir’s non-fiction work.