Thursday, May 17, 2012

A divorce most royal

2.5 out of 5 stars

I tell you something, after reading this book, I think I could write a dissertation on the machinations and intricacies in the papal court of the 16th century with enough detail and scholarship to merit a Ph.D. Okay, so perhaps I'm exaggerating, but not by much. This is not an easy book. This is not a book for the general public, for someone who's read a Tudor novel or two and wants to find out a bit more about the subject. For those persons I'd recommend an accessible history as written by Alison Weir or David Starkey. The Divorce of Henry VIII is a book for someone who's a Tudor scholar. Someone who's made a study of the period and, specifically, the divorce of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Someone who could fully appreciate the amount of detail and research which went into the making of this book. Sadly, that person is not me.

From the very beginning I was overwhelmed. Names, places, dates piled on top of each other in ever increasing amounts until they all blended together into one incomprehensible mass. As a historian, it's evident Fletcher is exhaustive; she's lived with these materials for years, delving into the backstories of the players involved, understanding the shorthand, appreciating the wit and humor peculiar to the situations. It's understandable that she would want to share this depth of information. However, for a historian to become a good author, she needs to be able to translate years of scholarly study into a compelling narrative, to weed out the thicket of information and prune it into an appealing shape, taking knowledge which makes for an excellent dissertation and shaping it into a good story. This is where Fletcher fails as, basically, she's given us an expanded version of what, I'm sure, was her Ph.D. thesis. And while a thesis is great for proving one's scholarly aptitude, it's not necessarily the best entertainment.

Ostensibly revolving around the actions of one Gregorio Casali, an Italian diplomat and Henry VIII's agent at the Vatican, representing Hal's interests in his “Great Matter” (his divorce from Catherine of Aragon), the book branches out to include the entire Casali family, most of whom were also involved in some manner with the king's divorce, not to mention the stories of the many other diplomats, agents, spies, regents, rulers, pontiffs, and churchmen who moved across the giant chessboard of European politics. While we're presented with tales of skulduggery, of bribes and threats, even of kidnapping, as Henry's cause is fought for, set against a backdrop of a Rome recently invaded and ravaged by the Spanish army and a Europe divided by war, the book never really captures the imagination or the attention. To be truthful, after trying (valiantly) to fully immerse myself in the first 8 chapters (out of 17, so don't think too badly of me), I ended up skimming through the rest of the book. I just couldn't take the information overload anymore.

I would recommend this book only to someone who has devoured all available books on King Henry VIII and wishes to now delve into the minutiae of Henry's divorce--basically a colleague of Catherine Fletcher, another historian or scholar. For anyone else, I'd say to give this one a skip. Even if you enjoy Tudor history, unless you really want to impress someone with a bit of intimate trivia about the divorce, I think this book is just too much to wade through.

Read April 9-25, 2012
Originally reviewed for the Amazon Vine program April 26, 2012

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