#58: DIVORCED, BEHEADED, DIED, DIVORCED, BEHEADED, SURVIVED. If you are not a hidebound anti-monarchist—some people are, with, let it be said, very good reason—you will remember those opening six words as a mnemonic device used to summarize the fates of Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anna of Cleves, Katherine Howard and Catherine Parr, collectively biographized, memorialized, analyzed and dramatized as the six wives of Henry VIII. And you would need to be unnaturally proof against the attractions of historical gossip to resist that more-than-operatic tale of court intrigue, lust laced with politics, empires shaken and popes defied, with, at its center, the awesome spectacle of a king rendered grotesque by ambition, vanity and rancor (and did we mention lust?). There have been new treatments of the tale lately by David Starkey and Alison Weir, even Karen Lindsey’s Divorced Beheaded Survived: A Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII (Addison Wesley, 1995), as if the whole business were not a feminist fable on the hoof right from the beginning. But the best of all is still Antonia Fraser’s 1994 book The Wives of Henry VIII (Vintage), which really does show the oft-touted novelist’s eye for character and milieu, as well as a sophisticated and canny sense of the realities of Tudor history. And she writes a sharp, musical prose, with the political backgrounds and colorful personages as splendidly measured weights and counterweights. It’s an absorbing book with a still-potent emotional voltage.
On to the Victorian period. One of the marvelous things about Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages (Vintage, 1983) is that it so consistently refuses to settle for making a series of hanging cases out of its subjects, the marriages of John Ruskin, Thomas Carlyle, John Stuart Mill, Charles Dickens and George Eliot. Given the choice of subjects, the book could have been mere feminist hectoring (however richly deserved) or a baroque catalogue of period horrors. But, in her own words, “It will not do just to say ‘How bizarre.’” She delves unsentimentally but fairly into the particulars of each relationship, not “to move readers either to self-blame or the blame of others,” but to examine the patriarchal slant of the institution of marriage and to consider marriage as “imaginative projections and arrangements of power.” That makes the book sound not only thesis-bound but oppressive; it is in fact a genuine exploration, and as invigorating as intelligent and honest discussion tends to be. Rose gives you a great conversation as well as terrific storytelling. It’s a book you want to put into people’s hands and it’s probably an ideal discussion-group title—if this one doesn’t get ‘em talking, they’ve died.