Reading History: “Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World “(Alison Weir)

Elizabeth of York is one of those fascinating figures of English history. Part of this has to do with her elusiveness. As prominent as she was as a figure–the daughter of Edward IV, the wife of Henry VII, and the mother of Henry VIII–she remains something of a sphinx, always hovering on the edge of the frame, taunting us.

Fortunately for those of us in the 21st Century, the British historian and royal biographer extraordinaire Alison Weir is a practiced hand at excavating such tantalizing female figures.

Traditional historiography asserts that Elizabeth was largely overshadowed by the men in her life. This tends to be true of almost any biography or historical fiction about her (of which I include Philippa Gregory’s The White Princess). Elizabeth was the Yorkist heir that allowed Henry to solidify his claim to the crown, and she was the mother of one of England’s most (in)famous monarchs and, through her eldest surviving daughter, she is the ancestress of all subsequent English kings and queens. Yet what was she like?

Admittedly, Weir only has so much to work with, but it is refreshing that she gives Elizabeth more agency and control over her destiny than has been the case with many other interpretations (both fictional and nonfictional). She digs through the texts and archives of the period to show a woman who was at the center of the political life of her time, and while she may not have been the dominant personality that the other women in her family were–one thinks of both her mother, Elizabeth Woodville, and her granddaughter, another Elizabeth–Weir convincingly argues that Elizabeth of York worked closely with her husband.

She also dispenses with the many myths that have grown up around Elizabeth, Henry, and Henry’s mother Margaret Beaufort. While most people tend to assume that Margaret and Elizabeth had an antagonistic relationship, Weir asserts that this is based on a selective reading of the evidence. In fact, they probably had a cordial relationship with one another, as one might expect of two women invested in the survival and thriving of the monarchy.

Above all, Weir makes clear that Elizabeth was a survivor, a woman who managed to survive the untimely passing of her mighty father, the disappearance (and presumed death) of her two brothers, and the collapse of her mother’s ambitions for her children. Elizabeth emerged through all of this determined to forge a life for herself, for her husband, and for the several children that she bore him. While she might, understandably, have felt a fair bit of enmity toward Henry when they were first married, Weir convinces us that she was able to find a measure of contentment–perhaps even happiness–with the man who came into England as a conqueror.

As always, Weir pays exhaustive attention to the material details of everyday life in this period (at least as such things apply to those of royal descent). This can make for some tough going at times, but I will say that it does give the reader a very strong, detailed sense of the lives that these people led. I’ve always admired her willingness to get into the nitty-gritty of that world, somehow finding a way to make even the driest of privy purse expenses yield up significance about the lives of those who spent that money.

Of course, the figure of Richard III looms in the background of this biography, and it is quite clear that Weir is most definitely not a supporter of this most infamous of English kings. She remains in no doubt that he was responsible–probably directly–for the murder of his nephews. I don’t want to weigh in on that particular subject (I’m basically agnostic about it), but I do think it’s an essential part of how Weir views Elizabeth and her life.

While I was a little let down by Weir’s biography of Mary Boleyn, my faith has been utterly restored by this outing. While she’s not always the most graceful of prose stylists, Alison Weir does show us that it is possible to be a meticulous, rigorous historian even if you don’t have a degree in history. I very much look forward to making my way through more of her work.

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Reading History: “Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings” (Alison Weir)

By this point, Mary Boleyn has become best-known as the major protagonist of Philippa Gregory’s historical novel The Other Boleyn Girl, the (according to Gregory) younger sister of Anne Boleyn.

Alison Weir, one of my all-time favourite biographers of British royalty, undertakes an effort to excavate what we know of Mary.

And, as her work reveals, that’s not too much. Unfortunately, much of Mary’s life remains shrouded in mystery, precisely because she has been so thoroughly overshadowed by Anne’s dominance in the popular imagination of the Tudor period. It thus takes all of Weir’s considerable skills as a historian/detective to extract from circumstantial evidence details about Mary’s life, her loves, and her actions.

We do know (with a fair degree of certainty) that she was the mistress of the King of France, a dalliance that no doubt stained her reputation and endangered her future in the English court and may have rendered her particularly susceptible to the amorous attentions of Henry VIII (who always wanted to outdo his French rival).

And we also know that, contrary to the mores of the time, she ended up marrying the man she loved, at least on the second time around. Indeed, the decision to once again endanger her family’s fortunes by going against her father’s wishes may well have contributed to her later penury. Weir makes it pretty clear throughout the book that Mary was something of a black sleep among the Boleyns, particularly her father (anyone who has seen Thomas Boleyn in film will find this quite easy to believe).

Nevertheless, even Weir’s capable hands can only spin so much material out of these few threads of information. The book is one of the shortest that she’s written, and it feels like it. As a result, Weir sometimes has to resort to discussions of issues, people, and materials surrounding Mary, rather than the actual woman herself. Of course, this does give us a good sense of the world that Mary inhabited, as well as the various connections that she would have had as a member of a noble family. However, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Mary is a bit of an absence, a glaring hole around which we can construct a narrative but who nevertheless remains elusive.

Thus, if I have a complaint about this book, it’s that Weir tends to wander off on tangents that are only faintly related to the subject matter. Some of this no doubt reflects the fact that she could find relatively little to say specifically about Mary in the sparse sources, but it does make for difficult reading at times, particularly as Weir–as she often does–tends to indulge a bit too much on the material culture aspect of her biographies. If you want to learn about the many things that early modern nobility spent vast amounts of money on, you will learn much in this book.

For me, arguably the most interesting part of the entire book was the discussion of Mary’s two children, Catherine and Henry, both of whom became very prominent members of Elizabeth I’s court. Weir lays out a convincing case for Mary’s daughter Catherine being the result of her affair with Henry VIII (there was allegedly a pronounced physical resemblance between them), though the same is probably not true of Mary’s son Henry (ironically). Weir also goes into some detail analyzing portraits that may (or may not) be those of Mary.

Overall, I would rate this in the bottom tier of Weir’s books. She tends to make some assumptions and assertions that aren’t adequately supported by the evidence that she has presented. Such is certainly the case with her assertion that Mary’s mother Elizabeth was a woman of ill-repute, evidence for which is quite sparse and relies on a decidedly selective reading of what evidence exists. (For what it’s worth, Weir makes a more compelling case for this in her recent historical novel about Anne, Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession).

Nevertheless, even a low-tier Alison Weir outing is still a good read, and you will learn a great deal about the workings of the Tudor court, the luxuries and dangers of the period, and the fraught position that women occupied in this dangerously beautiful world.

Reading The Wheel of Time: “Knife of Dreams” (Book 11)

I know it’s been a while since I posted about this series, so I thought I’d just update to say that I have, in fact, finished The Wheel of Time. Clearly, I’ve earned some sort of nerd points for doing so. Now that I’ve finished, I’ll be slowly catching up with my entries.

As you may recall, Knife of Dreams was the furthest I had made it with the series, so it was pretty exciting for me to embark on some uncharted Wheel of Time territory.

Unfortunately, in many ways Knife continues to exhibit the flaws of its predecessors. The plot moves forward at a mostly infinitesimal pace, broken up with a few noteworthy exceptions. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but feel that all-too-familiar frustration that things kept getting delayed, with the Last Battle seemingly no closer than ever.

For all of its flaws, however, I was tremendously happy to finally see the Faile-captured-by-the-Shaido storyline brought to a satisfactory conclusion. By now, everyone who has read my earlier entries on the series knows how infuriating I find these two characters. The capture of Faile by the Shaido–and Perrin’s absolute folly in being willing to do anything–and I do mean anything–to get her back is just…excruciating to read. Sure, I know that it’s intended to show Perrin’s growth from being self-centered, lovesick dolt into hero of the Last Battle, but my gods…anyway.

One exciting development was the foreshadowing of Moiraine’s saving by Thom and Mat. Ever since I first read The Fires of Heaven, I’ve always thought it was a damn shame that Jordan got rid of Moiraine. She was one of the few characters that I didn’t find absolutely infuriating, for all that her self-righteous sense of justice was sometimes galling (and brutal). Now, however, we get the distinct sense that she is still alive, waiting to be rescued. Of course, this being Jordan, one knows that it will take two or more books to actually see this plot thread meaningfully resolved.

For me, the highlight of the whole book was Egwene’s time in the White Tower and her determination not to bow to the whims of Elaida. Admittedly, I was very frustrated in the former book when this happened, as I felt it was a bit of a distraction, but gradually the design has become clear. As meandering as he could be sometimes, when it came to certain storylines Jordan clearly had a trajectory in mind that kept him in focus. And, since Egwene is at once both one of the most frustrating yet also enjoyable characters to read, that made these portions of the novel, which show her tremendous strength, all that much more appealing. She clearly deserves to be Amyrlin in a way that Elaida, for all of her strength, never will.

Also, Loial got married. Much as I’ve always found this character endearing, he has come to seem a bit tangential to the main thrust of the main story. True, that is probably the result of having so many characters and Jordan having to move some of them out of the frame, but I always thought it was a bit of a shame, especially considering he’s been there since the beginning.

To my eyes, this novel seems to mark a tonal shift. I wonder if part of this has to do with the fact that, by this time, it probably became clear to Jordan that he had literally no idea what was going to happen, i.e. how he was going to get from Point A to Point C. He might also have had a sense that he was soon to become terminally ill. Whatever the reason, there is a certain sense of impending doom, a sense that no matter what these characters do they can’t avoid the inevitable cataclysm that might sweep them all away. And, while this isn’t the same sort of world that we’ve come to expect in a post-Game of Thrones environment, there is still a sense that some of these characters might not make it out alive.

Overall, I would rate Knife of Dreams as one of the weaker installments of the series. Next up, it’s on to The Gathering Storm!

Reading History: “Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen” (Alison Weir)

I first discovered the work of the historian Alison Weir when I picked up her Life of Elizabeth I way back in 2000. Since then, I’ve read several of her other historical biographies, as well as some of the historical fiction novels that she’s written. I’ve almost always loved them.

I was a little underwhelmed by the idea of another series about the wives of Henry VIII. Surely, the King’s Great Matter (his desire to have his marriage to Katherine of Aragon annulled so he could marry Anne Boleyn) has been so many times that another novel would feel repetitive.

Boy, was I wrong.

Somehow (probably through magic of some sort), Weir has managed to take this well-worn tale and weave it into something truly compelling, magical, and deeply saddening. A fitting way to describe the life of Katherine of Aragon, yes? Though all of Henry VIII’s queens deserve a measure of pity for having to put up with such a tyrant, Katherine has always occupied pride of place in the pantheon of royal martyrs.

The novel is basically a fictional biography of Henry VIII’s first queen, from the time that she sets out to be the bride of his elder brother Arthur (who dies soon after their wedding, probably from tuberculosis), all the way to her death several years later, after Henry has had their marriage annulled on his own authority and essentially had Katherine imprisoned.

It would be easy for a historical fiction author to paint this story in stark, unsubtle tones, so that Katherine is the virtuous sufferer while Anne is the scheming harlot. Though the novel is told exclusively from Katherine’s  perspective, Weir does manage to keep it from slipping into this simplistic model. Katherine is understandably resentful of her young rival, and we are certainly meant to identify with her, but that’s to be expected.

In Weir’s hands, Katherine emerges as a fiercely intelligent, independent woman who nevertheless accepts her inferior place in Henry’s life. She recognizes that, as a woman in Early Modern England, her status will always remain continent on her husband, and while her decision to defy him is certainly justified by her sincere belief that she was a virgin when she came to Henry–and, contra some other authors, Weir makes it clear that Arthur was not able to seeing the consummation through–and by her belief in her daughter’s inheritance, Weir also makes it clear that Katherine was not always as astute as she might have been.

One of the novel’s great strengths is its willingness to show Katherine in all of her complexity. She was incredibly proud–of her lineage, of her royal blood, of her status as a wife to Henry–and she was also deeply pious. We get the strong sense that she defied Henry not only from pride, but also from actual love for him. Whether or not an Early Modern royal woman could feel those things is rather beside the point.

Through this novel, we get a sense of a world that, as Weir puts it in the author’s note, was by turns beautiful and brutal. This was a world of courtly love and sumptuous banquets, but also of ruthless politicking and brutal executions. Katherine, as a royal, was in both a very powerful and privileged position, yet she too was subject to the whims of a man who gradually grew to believe that he truly was next to God in terms of how much authority he deserved. Thus, her life was always in his keeping, a fact that becomes crushingly evident as his royal favour gradually turns sour and his wrath threatens to fall in full force upon her.

Weir also makes no bones about the fact that Henry was, in many ways, a sociopathic tyrant whose will it was extremely dangerous to thwart. That being said, she doesn’t paint him in the sort of cartoonish villain light common to other works of historical fiction (ahem, Philippa Gregory), but instead as the natural product of his time. This was the period in which the medieval was already a memory and the Early Modern was giving birth to new classes of people. Katherine had the misfortune to fall squarely into that tumultuous period.

Next up, I’ll be making my way through some of Weir’s other works, so stay tuned!

Film Review: “Phantom Thread” (2017) and the Dark Side of Desire

Some spoilers for the film follow.

Apparently, 2017 was in some ways the year of desire, or at least that is the impression I get having seen several of the contenders for Best Picture this year. Whether it’s the yearning to be free of small town life and smothering mothers in Lady Bird, the sweet summer of first love in Call Me By Your Name, or the powerful lust for a life outside of the confines of Cold War conformity in The Shape of Water, desire is everywhere.

And it’s darker side is to be found in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread.

Phantom Thread is one of those films that’s deeply unsettling upon an initial viewing but slowly seeps into your consciousness as you think more about its impact on you. Perhaps it’s the film’s gorgeous attention to detail–both visual and auditory–or perhaps it’s the crisp performances from its leads. Whatever it is, this film burrows deep into your brain as the days go by.

Though it’s hard to summarize a film like this, here goes. Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a renowned designer of haute couture, his gowns desired and sought after by society’s finest. He lives with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), in a relationship fraught with quasi-incestuous ambiguity, and his daily life is governed by a very precise set of rituals which he rigorously enforces upon all who lives in his household. All of this is disrupted when he meets a waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps), who slowly but irrevocably disrupts his daily routines as they both find themselves caught in the deadly tide of desire.

This desire seethes in every exchange, every frame, and every sartorial flourish, emerging at key moments to disturb our complacency as viewers. In this film, desire is not just as means by which people seek out a connection to one another, but also the way in which they are able to grasp something about themselves that evades their conscious understanding. Though the film establishes quite early on that Reynolds has a habit of dispensing with the young women who take his fancy, something about Alma–possibly her rakishness, her tendency to resist his control–seems to call to him in a way that keeps him from discarding her.

Desire also writhes beneath the surface of Day-Lewis’s face. Day-Lewis has earned himself a justified reputation for his ability to fully inhabit the characters that he plays, and he brings that to bear on his portrayal of Woodcock. Here, he portrays a man whose desire for control manifests itself in every aspect of his personality, from the rigour with which he approaches the design of his dresses to the absolute silence that he commands. This is a man who takes great care to sculpt his surroundings–including, it should be noted, his sister–into the form that he desires, and any disruption to that order causes an immediate outburst of rage.

And as much as the film’s visual palette is truly stunning, what stood out to me the most was its use of sound: the crisp delivery of the dialogue; the sumptuous rustle of cloth; the infamous scraping of the toast; the soft, delicate skritching of pen on paper. The sounds leap out of the screen, as unsettling as they are pleasurable, a reminder of the sheer physicality of this world. They grate against us just as they often grate against Woodcock, stitching us into his experience of his surroundings.

At the same time, sound also encourages us to see things from Alma’s perspective, to cheer for her as she cheerfully uses sound to break apart Woodcock’s meticulously ordered life. It is thus especially significant that Alma relates the film in voiceover, her voice asserting a measure of control into the narrative that forces us to rethink just how much Woodcock has over anything. But then, her entire presence in the film relies upon the power of sound, whether that is her tendency to always want to get the last word in an argument (one source of the film’s biting and rather acidic humour), or her deliberately goading him at the breakfast table by scraping her toast too loudly (and deliberately pouring the tea from a hilariously high angle).

As the film reaches its final third, Woodcock’s entire life, that he has crafted and sculpted with such meticulous and granular attention, has begun to crack. Cyril defies him at the breakfast table–something she has never done before–and one of his foremost customers has taken her work elsewhere. The film makes it clear that Woodcock’s brittle adherence to detail may well see the ruin of everything that he has worked so assiduously to maintain, both in his professional and personal life.

It is only when Alma begins poisoning Woodcock–thus rendering him incapacitated and totally reliant on him–that they begin to settle into their (deeply unsettling) primal rhythm. Each offers the opportunity to oscillate between control and abandon, a fierce frisson that will, Alma hopes, set the stage for their future together. Unlike Cyril, who has enabled Woodcock in his obsessive control, Alma constantly challenges him.

Ultimately, it seems to me, Phantom Thread explores the perilous nature of desire. It’s what drives (some of) us as human beings to seek out others, even as it is also what threatens to destroy us. Both Reynolds and Alma are individuals whose psyches are haunted by yearnings that they rarely openly articulate, in all likelihood because they cannot describe, even to themselves, what those desires actually are. And because the film seems largely agnostic about how we should feel about this obviously pathological relationship, it’s hard not to emerge deeply unsettled from the whole viewing experience (as many of my filmgoers did).

But then, perhaps that’s the film’s point. Much as we might like to pin desire down, channel it, or just plain understand it, part of it always eludes us. No matter how much we try to repress it, desire will always find away to erupt into our lives, disturbing the placid surface of our everyday reality.