BOOK REVIEW / A 16th-century sexual soap opera called dynasty: The six wives of Henry VIII - Antonia Fraser: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 20

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The Independent Culture
THE TELEPHOTO lens directed at the intimate life of the Royal Family seems the perfect symbol of the callous vulgarity that characterises our public taste. The zest with which Lady Antonia Fraser turns it on the Tudors is, by contrast, wholly inoffensive. There are no children alive to be hurt, though, as she shows, the poor little things were as mercilessly tossed aside by the power struggles of the 16th century as by the circulation wars of the 20th.

In any case she is simply following where the House of Tudor led. The dynastic principle was crucial to political stability. An assured succession, the aim of the King's matrimonial marathon, was the best guarantee against the chaos and disruption, still fresh in memory, of the Wars of the Roses. It is this which led Queen Mary, by nature as haughty and reserved as her mother Catherine of Aragon, to expose herself before her assembled Parliament in order to demonstrate a pregnancy in which few except she believed. It is this which explains the copious detail of the sexual soap opera with which this book is concerned.

Copiousness and diligence are the conspicuous qualities of Lady Antonia's work. She has read a great deal, much tedious and complicated, and she is determined to take her reader over the same rugged and often repellent terrain. Not that prurience inhibits her from providing the kind of detail that would excite readers of the Sun: but she is no less conscientious in catering for the aficionados of the learned journals.

This has its pluses and its minuses. The main disadvantage is that too much of the material is dumped in sentences themselves slack and flaccid. 'There is no way that the King could have met Jane Seymour for the first time at Wolf Hall.' 'One has the impression that Queen Anne was especially competitive with her predecessor in this area.' And so on.

This is a pity, because when she does pause to reflect or distil a generalisation she can show a wit and a punch one would gratefully see more of, as, for example, this footnote on page 60: 'Most people were born, lived and died in what would now be considered a crowd: no one had any real privacy - except the occasional state prisoner who did not want it.'

This lights up the past. But can the same be said of this pronouncement of a general conclusion, worthy of the oracle at Delphi: 'To a greater or less extent each Queen was created or destroyed by her biological destiny'?

Few will read this book without learning something. The author approaches her six heroines with a readiness to sympathise, indeed in the case of Catherine of Aragon with affection and respect. There are no revolutionary revaluations. The full Stalinesque horror of Henry VIII is faithfully rendered, complemented by a vivid presentation of his cumulative physical repulsiveness.

Where the author's thoroughness has proved entirely rewarding is in her choice of illustrations. Although she has found several which have not been previously used she has not disdained the well-known just because it is well-known. It would be difficult to imagine a better selection.

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