Career Women circa 1536

Did every young girl go through a phase of being fascinated by Tudor England? Lady Jane Grey fascinated me the most but Elizabeth Tudor and Anne Boleyn weren't far behind. I read the whole tranche of popular Tudor biographies that were available in the mid 1970s and early 1980s. Fraser, Plowden, Lofts, you name it. I still have a soft spot for Harriet W. Chapman.

The first book on the subject that I remember reading was a novel titled Young Bess by Margaret Irwin. For some strange reason this book about a 15 year old girl who nearly has an affair with her stepmother's new husband was available in my elementary school. One scene I remember as particularly steamy. Well, steamy for a 10 year old and a book written in 1945. It was a great read.

The sight of a familiar portrait on a bookcover is enough to interest me to this day. I've read some great Tudor histories over the years - Eric Ives, Retha Warnicke, Alison Weir - and some hilariously bad ones - Joanna Denny's Anne Boleyn is comedy gold.

Some questions stick in my mind. Why did Henry turn on Anne Boleyn? Was Anne of Cleves stupid or utterly brilliant? Did Catherine Parr know Thomas Seymour was a dog? Two questions have stuck in my mind ever since I read a brief passage in a biography of Catherine Howard noting that lady in waiting Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford and widow of the executed George Boleyn, was executed for helping Catherine meet with her lover Thomas Culpepper.

First, exactly how hard was it to find a good servant back in 1540 if one was willing to employee the wife of the man you'd executed for sleeping with your wife who just happened to be his sister? Second, was Jane Boleyn the dumbest woman of her time? How could she not have clued in that Henry was a tad unreasonable on the topic of wives in general and real or imagined infidelity in particular?

Julia Fox attempts to answer if not exactly these burning questions the questions of who was Jane Boleyn and what lead her to the block. No easy task, this. For one thing, Jane's life is only documented in terms of her husband and her own final trial. Fox soldiers on with the constant use of the words "probably", "perhaps" and "we can't know for sure" not to mention wringing existing documentation for every possible interpretation. The best is when Fox uses the last will and testament of Anne Boleyn's grandfather to draw inferences about Anne's and Jane's commitment to charity. After 2 or so pages (I read this on my Kindle so I can't be sure how many printed pages but it was several paragraphs) of listing every charitable request he made I started to wonder if Fox started out to write a book about Great Tudor Wills and didn't want to give up on all that research. Fox also oversells the importance of Jane's jointure (the settlement made in case of her being widowed) in her ultimate fate. Aside from making clear that Thomas Boleyn was not a nice father-in-law and that women in Tudor England were dependent on men - neither a huge surprise - the jointure doesn't explain all that much.

Where Fox succeeds is in showing how few options there were for any woman who wanted to be in the thick of things. She also makes a convincing case for how hopelessly addictive the King's favor could be. The money, gifts and privileges fell from the sky if Henry took a shine to you. What made this book worth reading was how well Fox demolishes the canards about Jane Boleyn betraying her husband and sister-in-law to Cromwell. It certainly changed my opinion. Fox lays out a case for Jane's behavior in the Catherine Howard matter but even she admits that it's hard to understand the risks she took.

With this fresh in mind I'm ready to tackle The Other Boleyn Girl. Several friends rave about this book, how engrossing it is, etc. I've been putting off reading it for years but now that a friend has lent me a copy I have no excuses. My goal is to go in not hating it.

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