Let's face it, even by 16th century royalty standards Henry VIII was not a good husband. He was accustomed to getting his own way - absolute monarchs are like that, a bit of a romance junkie, known to sample the ladies in waiting on occasion and fixated on having a son to inherit his crown. Then there is that unfortunate habit of executing former loved ones.

Kyra Cornelius Kramer promises to explain this all to us in Blood Will Tell. Which is part of the problem. When the title of a book promises an "explanation" a certain of amount of explaining is required, particularly if the explanation is medical. The average reader does not possess an advanced degree in medicine so antigens and syndromes will need to be explained. For reasons I cannot begin to fathom, the author of this book chooses to give the most cursory once-over-lightly to both the all important Kell antigen and McLeod Syndrome. Is McLeod common? Rare? Hereditary? Does one inherit it from one parent? Is it recessive? Co-morbid? Fatal? You won't find any of the answers here. You won't even find a reasonably detailed explanation of its symptoms. This "explanation" doesn't get an explanation.

Given the weakness of the medical case, it is somewhat amazing that the weakest links in this thesis are Kramer's interpretation of Henry's behavior and analysis of events. She offers no evidence that Henry was any more tyrannical than his father (Henry VII) or his contemporaries. She lists the number of executions during his reign but does not compare this to what was going on elsewhere. Just to put this in context, at the same time Henry reigned Ivan the Terrible was earning his nickname Tsar in Russia and Francis I was ordering entire villages and cities destroyed on grounds of disloyalty. Kramer never convinced me that, as she contends, Henry's behavior suddenly changed when he turned 40 (she offers no real evidence) nor that he was any more paranoid than his fellow monarchs during this time of extreme religious unrest.

The examination of Henry's wives is something special. Maybe Kramer is reaching for a feminist interpretation of the famous half-dozen but if that's the goal, she fails. Karen Lindsey's Divorced, Beheaded, Survived covers this idiosyncratic ground much more effectively. Kramer doesn't take into account the various factions at court or the accepted policy of putting attractive women in the king's path in hopes that her favors would earn favors for her family. She sees Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn as victims (and, in Kramer's mind, practically girlfriends if only fate hadn't intervened) and Jane Seymour as a petty schemer. Why? Because that's how Kramer - clearly not a historian - sees it. She judges 16th century behaviors by 21st century standards and prejudices.

Kramer presents Henry's domestic arrangements as if history were a soap opera. The influence of Wolsey, More, Cromwell and Cranmer influence never registers. The complex political theories of Eric Ives, Retha Warnicke, and Alison Weir make no impact here. There are no factions, no powerful advisers, no foreign intrigue; just a boy and his hormones, and his Kell antigen. 

What we have here is a serious of suppositions, ifs and sweeping unsupported statements such as:
"Henry would probably have left a very different mark on history if his mind had remained intact." Like, what? On the other hand I did learn some interesting things about how the medical community viewed female reproductive organs - think upside-down-inside-out male organs. Still, Kramer's aside that "It really wasn't a great time for medical wisdom" is a juvenile assessment.

Anyone familiar with Tudor history beyond the least demanding historical fiction is strongly advised to stay away. Even when Kramer is sticking to known ground, her replays of the events of Henry's life reminded me of the famous Heaven's Gate review - "like a forced four-hour walking tour of one's own living room." Despite interesting phrases such as "obstetrical tribulations" this book is not recommended for any reader.

1 comment:

Rhea said...

Hi, I'm Rhea. I read your Amazon review of Blood Will Tell and liked it so much that I wanted to thank you. I created an Amazon account so I could do just that. I then wrote my comment to you, whereupon in my attempt to post it, was told that I must have purchased items from Amazon to post. Well...I'm broke, so...I came here and created a blog so that I could thank you here (not sure if that was necessary), and finally, here I am. Nice to meet you.

Even though I got here through a small series of unfortunate events, I'm glad I did, since now I can read more of your reviews! (There's some logic to it: I was reading Amazon reviews because as I'm broke, I presently have no book of my own to read, and I believe I was pseudo-reading vicariously through others' book reviews.)

Here's my copy-paste comment from Amazon.

Hey, thanks! I recently bit into this chapter of history and cannot learn enough. Henry VIII has lured me in with his sensational life and its many schizophrenic twists. Also, as with subjects like the Holocaust, I have an uncomfortable but driven need to know about the depths of humanity's potential for what I call evil (even if it was roughly on par for Henry's time). It seems vitally important to lay bare our history and learn from it.

I'm just beginning to learn about Henry's complex reign, and your review gave me some ideas for where to head next (e.g. "Divorced, Beheaded, Survived" and theories of Ives, Warnicke, Weir). So thank you.

I savored your review. It's so very well-written and imparts a personal familiarity with history, medicine, and debate...three things I love. Never mind "Blood Will Tell." It didn't take long to choose to look elsewhere. Your review enriched my day.

Namaskar and namaste.