800 pages is more than enough for a deeply thought out biography… but this one covers six biographies spanning one of the most important periods in English history. The book gets boring only because the author insists on three points so often. 1) Religion is an effort to accumulate power where otherwise there is none; 2) fate is inescapable and people are 100% consistent in their motivations 100% of the time; 3) most historians have the Tudor chronology all wrong because of a lack of sources from the era; and thus, this version of events is in a different order with different motivations. The second point, ironically, is the most annoying, because we are reminded of it 100% of the time.
Plot: Biographical sketches of all six of Henry’s wives. Catherine, Anne, Jane, Anne, Katherine, and Katherine. And even at 800 pages, it only skims the surface of most of these women. The author has a lot of “new” theories and twists on the historical chronology that make for a more spicy story (which reads like a series of dates-gone-wrong on “Saved By The Bell”). Also covers the political intrigue on the Spanish side of things, with many excerpts from ambassadorial letters (alongside tavern ballads).
Positive: Little details like badges and livery colors, plays, ballads, and court jousting tournaments, keep things interesting. And the constant referral to the Spanish ambassador’s perspective makes for a “Cinderella-as-told-by-the-stepmother” twist to everything that is funny, in a morbid sort of way. (okay, so he’s serious, and unlike the Disney reversal books, few people know enough about this story to find the differences. The reason that’s in the positive section; now I want to learn more, so that I can detect more nuances of error in the future!) And really, it IS funny to think of Anne of Cleves desiring to marry Henry again. She had land, money, power and a nice position in court for the first time in her life; he had just beheaded wife #5 for no good reason. No one wanted to marry Henry by then; not even wife #6! Also, most of his sources are not usually quoted in other works, so, again, to read another side of the story can be good.
Negative: Starsky insists that he has new research to break up the existing schools of thought regarding the Tudor era. Therefore, he claims, much of the chronology given to Henry VIII’s reign is wrong, due to partisanship of the historians and the lack of evidence from the period itself. So, the six wives are reinterpreted from David Starsky’s contemporary, atheistic, and “courtly love” (which in revisionist terms means a mix of the gothic ideal of pining away for a “true love” who is married and the hippie “free love” movement) perspective. Its pretty much a reversal of the history, right down to casting Henry’s 5th wife as the “normal” Tudor-era woman and the best wife of the lot. I disagree with all of the above, but on one point especially I would like to make a case; the Tudor period is one of the most well-documented eras in history. Journalism, journaling, record-keeping, and letter-writing all exploded as fashionable activity during the beginning of Henry VIII’s reign. All this correspondence and availability of records naturally saw an increase in espionage; so if English records aren’t enough, there are often French, Austrian, Spanish, and other countries whose spies recorded the same information in letters to their own country, each other, and often other countries as well via ambassadorial instructions and papers. Tudor history is so well known precisely because of the wealth of records available.
Overall: not recommended, except as a counterpoint to a better biography. I enjoyed the facts as a historian, but as a reader, his style is boring. He says what will happen in the beginning of the chapter, then forecasts it again and again and again with words like “inevitably”, and “a palatable feeling of doom”, etc. When the end of the chapter comes along, instead of giving more detail to make the “yeah-the-guy-was-right-again” part interesting, he gives less detail than even we’ve read so far. He needs some writing lessons, the guy does. E.B. White has a book on writing that’s so good its worth just plain reading (now that’s superior writing skills for you!)