So, Alison Weir is a bestselling historian, specialising in the sixteenth century. When I was eight, I fell in love with the Tudors as a group, for the first time I actually believed that the people I learnt about in history had been real human beings at one time. My previously ignored Kings and Queens book became an amazing source of information about these people and I also aged eight had a good go at reading Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII. I didn’t get all of it but I kept at it off and on and when I was ten, I finished the thing. Over the next couple of years, I read most of the other ones she wrote about that time; The Princes in the Tower (it was Richard what done it), The Children of England, Elizabeth the Queen. More recently, I read Eleanor of Aquitaine and Katherine Swynford. The point is this, Alison Weir is a very readable historian. What she is not however is a readable novelist.
I had been interested to see that she had started writing fiction but due to my extreme penury had never felt like buying to try it out, but when one cropped up in the local library, I decided to give it a try. Weir is not alone in jumping genres, Philippa Gregory is making the leap the other way and is planning on going non-fiction. That is fair enough, although Philippa Gregory is a bit hit and miss even as a historical novelist as apart from The Other Boleyn Girl which I have read a bunch of times, most of her other books leave you feeling slightly nauseated afterwards. Anyway, after reading The Lady Elizabeth I could completely see why Weir had chosen to start writing fiction; it’s no coincidence that the novels she has written correspond so closely to those she has written in non-fiction. As a historian she always seems to identify closely with her subjects and now she is trying to write their thoughts.
Unfortunately, Weir does not seem to have the courage or the conviction or maybe the ability to make these historical figures her own creations. She uses the medium of fiction to suggest that Elizabeth became pregnant by Thomas Seymour but she never seems to decide if this means that Elizabeth was molested by him or if she was a willing participant. There is a lot of ‘Elizabeth now realised that the Admiral’s behaviour was very wrong’ rather than Weir really capturing her feelings. Also aside from that, the novel just plods through all of Elizabeth’s movements without deviating at all which left me feeling as though I was in very familiar territory, except oh wait, I was because I’ve already read The Children of England and Elizabeth the Queen. It felt really tedious to read this book, which was odd because I do believe that Weir is a talented writer. As a child, I read The Young Queen Elizabeth which was a Jean Plaidy special and this doesn’t seem that much better than that, which is disappointing given what is possible with historical fiction (Wolf Hall, the Shardlake mysteries, many more). Great historical fiction is a human drama rather than going on about the minutiae of the period and here is where Weir falls down.
On a separate point, I think it’s funny the way that Kat Ashley is such an unconvincing character whenever she crops up in fiction. In this incarnation, Weir has her secretly in love with Thomas Seymour so she wants to throw Elizabeth at him to get some kind of vicarious Miss Jean Brodie thrill from it all. In reality, Kat Ashley seems to have been more of a C16th Tiggy Legge-Bourke; borderline incompetent but holding on to her job because she is adored by her charge. Indeed, the parallels between the two young princes and Elizabeth are apparent; both the survivors of hideous divorces, losing their mother at a young age, troubled relationships with their fathers. Not a bit of wonder that they clung to their source of stability no matter what its form took.
Anyway, so I won’t be becoming a fan of Alison Weir the novelist. I have a feeling that fiction is very much her vanity project now that her biographies have paid the bills. I know from my friends who studied history at university that she was seen as a populist historian which always suited me down to the ground because I am after all a hobby historian but I don’t think that she has the nerve to write historical fiction, what comes out is more akin to fan fiction; she loves the people she writes about so much she wants to enter their world but does not dare deviate from the source material so is incapable of writing something interesting.
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The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir
Published by Random House on February 28th 2011
Genres: Fiction, Historical
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