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Anne of Cleves by Elizabeth Norton

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RATING:3.5/5

BLURB: “‘I like her not!’ was the verdict of Henry VIII on meeting his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, for the first time. Anne could have said something similar upon meeting Henry and, having been promised the most handsome prince in Europe she was destined to be disappointed in the elderly and corpulent King. Forced to proceed with their wedding for diplomatic reasons, Henry and Anne tried to make the best of the situation, but attempts to consummate the marriage were farcical. After only seven months of marriage Henry was so desperate to rid himself of Anne that he declared himself impotent in order to secure a divorce. Anne was also eager to end her marriage and, with her clever handling of Henry obtained one of the biggest divorce settlements in English history. Anne of Cleves is often portrayed as a stupid and comical figure. The real Anne was both intelligent and practical, ensuring that, whilst she was queen for the shortest period, she was the last of all Henry VIII’s wives to survive. Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, lost his head for his role in the marriage, but Anne’s shrewdness ensured she kept hers.”

REVIEW: Prior to reading this biography, I had only ever read about Anne of Cleves in historical fiction or in books that were about all six of Henry VIII’s wives – never before had I read a factual book dedicated entirely to her. Although Norton’s biography of Anne is short, this makes it both concise and easy to read – packing such a large amount of information in so few pages makes the book engaging and interesting the whole way through as each page tells the reader something new. This biography reveals Anne of Cleves to be a fascinating historical figure, highly undeserving of the reputation she generally holds as being dull and unintelligent. Her marriage to Henry was Anne’s first marriage, and in order for it to take place she was separated from her family and sent to a country where she knew no-one and had barely any grasp of the native language – just as Catherine of Aragon had done so many years before. As Anne’s relationship with Henry so famously began to crumble, the reader cannot help but feel sorry for this woman who is unable to seek advice from those around her and is left adrift and unsure of herself in a strange new land. The way Anne handles her separation from Henry, however, is highly admirable, showing a great level of independence and authority for a woman in this time period when her rights would have been so constrained. Anne cleverly and willingly took up her new position as the King’s Sister and showed every honour to Henry, his children and his next two wives until her own demise during the reign of Mary I, many years after the death of Henry himself. Anne was clearly much more strong and intelligent than she has been perceived to be and that was thoroughly well-illustrated in Norton’s book. I did feel, however, that the book could have been longer to avoid parts of it seeming rushed. I also felt that, at time, Norton placed far more of a focus on Henry’s character and feelings rather than those of Anne. Overall, though, I still enjoyed the book greatly and am pleased to have learnt more about this fascinating woman.

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Jude The Obscure by Thomas Hardy

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Jude Fawley, the stonemason excluded not by his wits but by poverty from the world of Christminster privilege, finds fulfilment in his relationship with Sue Bridehead. Both have left earlier marriages. Ironically, when tragedy tests their union it is Sue, the modern emancipated woman, who proves unequal to the challenge. Hardy’s fearless exploration of sexual and social relationships and his prophetic critique of marriage scandalised the late Victorian establishment and marked the end of his career as a novelist.”

REVIEW: ¬†Hardy’s final novel, and possibly his most scandalous, tells the story of Jude Fawley (a young boy at the start of the novel), whose dream is to study in the nearby college town of Christminster and enter into the church just as his old schoolteacher and idol, Master Phillotson, has gone away to do. The novel follows Jude as he grows and sees his attempts to improve himself by learning Latin and Greek and seeking out new ways to learn, readying himself for the journey to Christminster that he believes will make his fortune. Jude’s plans are put on hold, however, when he is seduced by the beautiful but cunning Arabella, who traps him into marriage with a false pregnancy and proceeds from then on to make a misery of her young husband’s life. The couple agree to live separate lives, allowing Arabella to move to Australia with her family and Jude to follow his dreams of living and studying in Christminster. Christminster, however, is not all Jude dreamed it to be, and his lack of money prevents him from gaining entry into one of the prestigious colleges there. He is, however, reunited with his old friend Phillotson, and also meets his cousin, the free-spirited Sue Bridehead who, despite a nervous disposition, prefers works of theology over religion and is openly defiant towards authority. Jude and Sue soon develop feelings for each other, and these feelings both scandalise society and shape the tragic events that take place throughout the rest of the novel. When Sue marries Phillotson, only to leave him months later in order to live openly with Jude, the couple are shunned from town to town and find it difficult to find work, leading them into deep poverty. This only increases when Arabella returns, married again to another man, and brings with her a child of Jude’s whom she leaves in his care. The tale gets sorrier from here on in, with the children’s suffering providing the most shocking part of the story and proving greatly upsetting to the reader. The twists this story takes are such that I cannot reveal any more of the plot, but I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed the novel despite finding it one of the more upsetting Hardy novels that I have read, mainly due to events concerning the children of Jude and Sue. My only problem with the novel was that I could not bring myself to like the character of Sue and found her extremely irritating despite her pretensions to cleverness and wit, and therefore during parts of the novel where she claimed to be suffering I found it difficult to feel anything other than dislike for her. Overall, however, the characters of Jude and Phillotson were particularly interesting and I thoroughly enjoyed reading the novel.

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1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII by Suzannah Lipscomb

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “One of the best-known figures of British History, the stereotypical image of Henry VIII is of a corpulent, covetous and cunning King whose appetite for worldly goods met few parallels, whose wives met infamously premature ends, and whose religion was ever political in intent. Moving beyond this caricature, 1536 – focusing on a pivotal year in the life of the King – reveals a fuller portrait of this complex monarch, detailing the finer shades of humanity that have so long been overlooked. We discover that in 1536 Henry met many failures – physical, personal and political – and emerged from them a different man: a revolutionary new King who proceeded to transform a nation and reform a religion. A compelling story, the effects of which are still with us today, 1536 demonstrates what a profound difference can be made to a nation simply by changing the heart of a King.”

REVIEW: I have read a great many biographies of Henry VIII since my fascination with the Tudors developed, but none captured and held my attention quite as well as this one did. Focusing on one short but extremely dramatic year in the reign of Henry VIII, Lipscomb looks at the crises of religion, masculinity and politics that engulfed Henry in a period that many describe as his annus horribilis,¬†and analyses the effect that these events had on his personality. Prior to 1536, Lipscomb argues, Henry seems to have been beloved by the people, a benevolent King who, despite outbreaks of temper, was on the whole well-liked and respected, ruling with at least an attempt at justice and fairness. After 1536, however, the tyrannical, obese and intimidating monarch that we are all familiar with from school history classes began to emerge. It is this transition – from golden prince to tyrant – that Lipscomb explores. She focuses particularly on ideas about masculinity at the time, and how Henry’s reputation as a man was heavily damaged by the adultery charges brought against Anne Boleyn and the rumours about his impotence which circulated during her trial. This meant that Henry had an even greater need to prove himself as a man and assert his masculinity, which he did through strengthening his religious policy, taking a firmer line against his political opponents and in Parliament, and through the use of royal iconography – in particular, the infamous portrait of him which was painted as part of a mural designed by Holbein. Lipscomb’s explorations of this paints a very believable image of Henry’s descent into tyranny, and clearly explains to the reader why Henry’s need to prove his masculinity was inextricably linked to proving his status as the rightful King and Supreme Head of the Church. This biography was easy to read and understand which made it easier to absorb the information – something that often passes the reader by with more heavily written non-fiction books. I thoroughly enjoyed it and look forward to reading any further works that Lipscomb may publish on the Tudors.