Henry VIII and his wives in the #MeToo era

30 March 2020

Olivia Hayfield has re-imagined the life of King Henry VIII and his many wives in a modern setting in the novel Wife after Wife (Penguin Random House, 2020). A positive review in the Canvas supplement of the New Zealand Herald encouraged me to read it, though the cover, which is reminiscent of a popular ‘chicklit’ novel, was not appealing. I proceeded for two main reasons: I studied the history of the Tudors in a university class way back in the last century and the premise of this novel is an extremely good idea.

Having finished the 440-page book, I am ambivalent. The writing is patchy and some of the dialogue distinctly jarring. Take this conversation between Harry Rose (Henry VIII) and Ana Lyebon (Anne Boleyn), when he is trying to convince her not to marry Percy North (Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland) because he, Harry, is in love with her.
Ana chuckled.
“Honest opinion? Not good enough for you.”
“So you’re my dad now?”
“If I was, I’d send him packing.”
“Wouldn’t work. Forbidden love is the best kind.”
“Isn’t it just?”
… And so on, till Harry says …
“Ana … ” He leaned forward, holding her gaze. His heart was in his mouth. “I can’t keep … I need to tell you. I want to be more than your boss.”

Also off-putting are the clichéd characters of the ‘blond sex kitten’ Miranda (Mary Boleyn, Henry VIII’s mistress) and the ‘deeply religious’ Maria Rose (Princess Mary, later Bloody Queen Mary), whose admonitions to her father seem wooden and out of place in the modern world.

Despite these drawbacks, this novel has much to recommend it. It was fascinating to see how the writer got around the imperatives of the historical record, for example, the beheading of Anne Boleyn. Her plot device here is ingenious and plausible. Henry VIII’s religious difficulties that ended in his breaking with the Roman Catholic church are not dealt with at all, perhaps not surprisingly in a book set in a more secular age, and his imperative to father an heir is also missing to a large extent. Harry Rose’s third wife Janette Morrissey (Jane Seymour) has a son, Eddie, but he is not more important in Harry’s eyes than his sisters, which is also consistent with 21st century mores. He also survives past the age of 16, which is the age Edward VI died, because of that marvellous medical invention – vaccination.

It was inspired to cast Harry Rose as the owner of an inherited media company – this allows the writer to invest him with tremendous power and influence (à la Rupert Murdoch) as well as incorporating the changes the media has seen in the last 25 years, like online newspapers and magazines and reality TV shows. Another creative idea was to portray one of Harry’s wives as an avatar in an online game – she turned out to be nothing like her avatar in real life, which aligns with Henry VIII’s opinion of his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves – and the marriage is never consummated. I also found the characters of Caitlyn Howe (Catherine Howard) and, to a lesser extent, Clare Barr (Catherine Parr) convincing. Caitlyn’s death is consistent with her back story and the author uses this to overcome the problem posed by the real-life beheading of Catherine Howard.

Not only does Eddie Rose survive in this novel but so does his father, Harry. They had to in order to appear in the sequel Sister to Sister, which has already been written and is scheduled for publication in November. I’m not sure I will rush to read it though!

Straight after I’d finished Wife after Wife, I read another book with ‘wife’ in the title – Someone’s Wife by Linda Burgess (Allen & Unwin, 2019). This is a memoir as opposed to a novel but the other differences are marked – Someone’s Wife is flawlessly written, it moves from the poignant (an account of the cot-death of a baby son), to the whimsical (memories of different trees in different gardens and settings), to the very funny (a teaching colleague who happens to be a subversive nun). It is a delight and I highly recommend it.