Review: A Dangerous Inheritance, Alison Weir

 I was eight when I first started reading something written by Alison Weir.  That book was The Six Wives of Henry VIII and I was nearly eleven when I finally finished the thing (I read other things in between).  From there I moved on to The Children of England, The Princes in the Tower, Katherine Swynford, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Mary Boleyn and Elizabeth of York.  I am a fan.  However.  A little while ago though Ms Weir decided to branch out into historical fiction.  I understand why.  They’re a lot less work, require less research, fact-checking, citations and they attract a far broader readership.  I love historical fiction and really hate Philippa Gregory so had some fairly high hopes for what Alison Weir’s novels might offer.  Alas, the first one I read The Lady Elizabeth bored me rigid.  After heartily enjoying a few of her biographies since though I decided to give her another try.  I particularly thought that A Dangerous Inheritance might be promising because it covered people who Weir had never focused on in her non-fiction work.  But yet again … alas.
First of all, Katherine Grey has been having a really good couple of years, particularly considering that she’s been dead for well over four centuries.  Leanda De Lisle’s biography The Sisters Who Would Be Queen seems to have been the match to strike the fire after hundreds of years where all the attention has been on Lady Jane.  I read De Lisle’s book a few years ago and I was struck by how much of a pain in the posterior Jane Grey seemed to have been.  I liked the youngest Grey, Mary, the best, she seemed to have been the only one of the sisters to have much sense.  Anyway, Elizabeth Fremantle also appears to have written a book about their lives and I think I will actually take a look for that one because I was highly impressed by her début Queen’s Gambit … I was less taken by this one.
Katherine Grey & Baby
A Dangerous Inheritance takes the stories of two women, Katherine Grey and Katherine Plantagenet and compares and contrasts their lives.  Katherine Grey was the younger sister of Lady Jane Grey and in many ways her life was a lot harsher than even that of her sister.  Certainly her end was rather more pathetic.  Katherine Plantagenet was the illegitimate daughter of Richard III.  She survived his downfall having married one of the Lords Herbert.  Very few other details of her life are known.  Both Katherines did lead rather short lives – Katherine Plantagenet’s husband was recorded as a widower by 1487 which means that she was probably dead by roughly seventeen.  Katherine Grey’s fate was rather more convoluted.  She had optimistically converted to Catholicism during the reign of Queen Mary in the apparent hope of being named that lady’s heir.  Instead, Elizabeth I acceded.  Elizabeth is well-known for doing the Dance of a Thousand Maybes concerning who would succeed her.  Because of that, she was reluctant to let any of her heirs marry and so the debate raged between Mary Queen of Scots, Katherine Grey, Lady Lennox, Lord Huntingdon etc.  Katherine Grey was not supposed to marry without the consent of her sovereign.  But of course.  She didn’t listen.
It’s very easy to forget when reading history that people have not really changed down the centuries.  You think of the political motivations, the economic factors tra la la.  You forget that people ultimately follow their own inclinations.  Katherine Grey had been married off to Harry Herbert round about the time that her sister was crowned queen but the marriage was swiftly annulled when the rebellion failed.  She was only thirteen but like any teenager girl with a crush, she hoped that they would be reunited.  She hoped it for a long time.  Then she got over it and fell in love with Edward Seymour.  And then she secretly married him.  Then he was sent away abroad and left Katherine barefoot and pregnant and up the proverbial creek with no paddle.  They both ended up in the Tower, she gave birth to a baby boy, he bribed his guard to let him visit his wife three times and hey presto – son no #2 was born.  For the childless Virgin Queen, this was the ultimate insult.  The family was split up and never re-united.  Katherine died of something related to tuberculosis or anorexia but certainly related to the despair of being separated from her adored husband and eldest child.  Elizabeth I said how sorry she was (presumably she needed an onion to get the tears going) and gave Katherine a lavish funeral.
In Weir’s novel, Katherine Plantagenet is really in love with her cousin John Earl of Lincoln.  She even loses her virginity to him shortly before her wedding night since she cannot bear the idea of being deflowered by her ferret-faced husband.  Kate is similarly horrified by the rumours surrounding what her adored father had done with the Princes in the Tower.  She is certain that there must be another explanation than murder.  Eighty years later, Katherine Grey is languishing in the Tower herself and finds herself pre-occupied by the Princes mystery too and also by the papers relating to Kate Plantagenet’s life which she picked up during her short marriage to Harry Herbert.  Troubled by the fate of the boys as she becomes a mother herself, she tries to discover the truth.
The thing is that Alison Weir has really tried with this one.  She has taken two interesting characters and Linked Them Across Time.  She has put in a mystery.  She has included Doomed Romances.  She knows her stuff with the historical background.  The problem I think is that Weir is so used to telling the reader things in her biographies that she has no idea how to show things in fiction.  In Queen’s Gambit, we see see that Henry VIII has become a spoilt and petulant tyrant when he breaks a window he has been attempting to close.  Weir would just state that he was a spoilt and petulant tyrant.  Her characters never irritate the way that Philippa Gregory’s do and although she fictionalises the lives of Katherine Plantagenet and Katherine Grey, I felt that they had been used with respect.
This might sound strange but I do kind of wince for characters based on real people who are used as caricatures or just made to look stupid in fiction.  Philippa Gregory seems committed to a mysterious personal vendetta against the Tudor dynasty and constantly denigrates them and then also reduces otherwise interesting women to simpering nitwits.  I would be spinning in my grave if Philippa Gregory tried to fictionalise my life but if it was Alison Weir I would just sigh quietly and snooze on.
I like Alison Weir a lot – I think that there is a quiet dignity to how she expresses herself in the afterword concerning the Princes in the Tower, that she had made her opinion clear back in 1992 when she wrote The Princes in the Tower and that she had seen nothing since to change her opinion.  I have read similar words in Elizabeth of York.  Richard III has become quite an emotive figure, particularly since they dug him out of the car park.  Philippas Gregory and Langley seem to get quite over-wrought about him (the Langley one seems harbour some kind of sexual attraction for him, which is odd).  The question of Richard III’s guilt is one of those things that it’s best not to Tweet about unless you want a storm of hatred to rain down on you.  I never have tweeted about it but I’ve learnt to spot an inflammatory topic when I see one.  People really do not want him to be guilty and I have never understood why.
Lady Margaret Pole RIP
I am a Tudor fan – I find them interesting.  There are some very compelling characters.  But that doesn’t mean that I think that they were necessarily nice.  Yes, Richard III is much more likely to have murdered his nephews than Henry VII who was in Brittany at the time or Margaret Beaufort who was under house arrest or Buckingham who definitely did not want them dead or indeed any of the other unlikely suspects.  It was Richard what done it.  But Henry VII had the Earl of Warwick killed who was probably mentally disabled.
Henry VIII is the worst – he had Margaret Pole beheaded when that fine lady was in her sixties and had led a life of exemplary loyalty and even raised one of his children.  Just to underline the point – when Henry VIII decided to divorce Catherine of Aragon and dispossess their daughter Mary, he stripped Mary of much of her household so Margaret Pole offered to meet the cost of keeping it up from her own pocket.  She was a good woman.  And Henry VIII locked her up in the Tower for being descended from the House of York, kept her in very grim conditions and then had her killed.  It’s strange – the Princes in the Tower are so much a part of historical legend that it’s hard to feel the horror of what befell them but Margaret Pole’s awful demise makes me feel genuinely emotional.  Richard III was guilty of an evil deed but he was not the only king to be so.
Anyway, I appreciated Alison’s efforts to construct a piece of historical fiction where the Tudors were not the bad guys and which did not defy logic.  Her Katherine Plantagenet plot made a fair amount of sense.  I was less convinced that an airhead like Katherine Grey would be interested in historical research and investigation but I suppose that for her it could plausibly have been more like family history.  Weir always seems to shy away from the more emotional aspects and never captures the grand passion of Ned and Katherine.  We are told that they had a lot of sex but somehow the personal connection is never convincingly depicted.
De Lisle’s biography caught it very touchingly in Katherine’s letters – she was a woman who loved her husband truly, madly, deeply.  Indeed she must have done.  I am reminded of the opening episode of Pushing Daisies where Emerson Cod asks Ned if he is in love with Charlotte Charles because what he has just done is ‘that level of stupid’.  Similarly, Ned Seymour and Katherine Grey must have been in love because getting married without Elizabeth’s consent was really that level of stupid.
I think though that the most awkward part of A Dangerous Inheritance came from the syntax.  Weir is used to giving us information about characters and does not really have the ability to slide facts in naturally.  So we have odd sentences where Katherine Grey lists all the books that she read growing up, that she ‘even read parts of Polydore Vergil’s history of England.  From these, Aylmer had drawn lessons on morality …’ undsoweiter.  Another paragraph is taken with Katherine listing everything she has ever heard about Thomas More.  Plodders of sentences such as these means that none of her characters ever have a distinctive voice.
Alison Weir is a wonderful and talented writer but I feel that after two of her novels, I can safely judge that she is not a natural novelist.  I will be sticking to her biographical output from here on in.  I think that the story of Katherine Grey’s doomed love for her husband does have the potential to be a highly compelling novel and will be looking for Fremantle’s version.
It’s strange though – there are some love stories such as that of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford which soar in the imagination and can truly inspire.  In comparison, Katherine Grey and Ned Seymour seem little more than two naughty children – he took off to the Continent when she could not be certain whether she was pregnant, she fussed that he would never return and threatened to re-marry Harry Herbert … they just lacked a certain something to make me really sympathise with them. Perhaps their ending was just too depressing.  I think though that the point Weir was trying to make in a slightly laboured way was that the true dangerous inheritance here was royal blood itself.  Those close to the throne had an unfortunate habit of failing to make old bones.
half-star
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A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir
Published by Random House on June 21st 2012
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 528
Goodreads
ISBN: 9781448136452


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