Author Margaret George wrote The Autobiography of Henry VIII in an attempt to create a sympathetic and historically accurate picture of this much-maligned English king, and in my judgment she succeeds on both counts; at least, as much as is possible given the limitations of the material. I'm not surprised that this book receives high marks; I would expect anyone with a special interest in Henry VIII or Tudor history to gobble it up.
I, on the other hand, picked it up merely because I was looking for an interesting historical novel, and found it.... loooooong. My copy has 932 pages. George's breaking it up into 133 short chapters (plus a prologue and epilogue) goes a long way toward making it readable, but for me it was anything but a can't-put-it-downer.
- George seems to have done a good job in assuming Henry's voice. While most authors, writing in first-person, feel the need to make their narrators wise (and coherent), she allows him to go off on self-deluded rants, which--as they're typically brief--are entertaining and realistic.
- The "autobiography" structure, along with the author's commitment to historical fact, result in a non-traditional sort of plot: no rising action, no climax, lots of extraneous elements. For instance, why include Henry VIII's bastard son, who plays no real role; what's his relevance to the plot? Well, none, but he existed in real life, so he's here too.
- On the other hand, this structure allows us to read the comments by Will, Henry's companion and jester. This was an astute decision on the author's part, allowing the reader not only to be present at crucial events Henry misses, but to gain perspective, stepping back from the narrative and realizing where Henry is self-deluded, ignorant, even lying to the reader.
- This book primarily focuses on Henry's emotional life, his relationships (with wives and advisors mostly--there's very little about his kids or sisters) and his spiritual life. Issues of public policy and governance are rarely mentioned unless they're related to one of those three points--his evolving relationship with the Church is explored in detail, and there's some talk of foreign policy and wars, but if domestic policy existed at the time outside of religion and defense, I'm still unaware of it. There was more information about his health problems and description of festivities than I was interested in.
- The bulk of the book details Henry's later life, when he was more controversial; the first 30-odd years, where he's beloved by his subjects, Catholic, and married to Katherine of Aragon, are breezed through in a mere 250 pages or so.
- Speaking of wars: don't expect action sequences of any sort. This is a biography after all.
- This is without a doubt Henry's story: a character study and a biography of his life. The wives are reasonably well-developed, but beyond that, almost all of the other characters remain flat. For instance, Henry's childhood friends: they're listed whenever they're present, which is frequently, but aside from Brandon we never learn enough about them even to distinguish them.
- The material has its limitations. For instance, I was unsatisfied with the story of Anne Boleyn: the book simply concludes that she was an evil, adulterous witch and moves on. Of course, there's a reason for that: the premise of the book is "let's have a sympathetic portrayal of Henry VIII" and if this character who's supposed to be sympathetic has had his wife executed for adultery and witchcraft, at the very least he'd better actually believe it. In my judgment George made the best choice available to her, but from an artistic standpoint (and a historical one) it was disappointing.
Ultimately, this is a great book for those looking for a heavy dose of history in the guise of fiction. I'd be hesitant, though, to recommend it to the casual reader. This book is exactly what it claims to be--a fictionalized biography--and if you'd never read a nonfiction biography of Henry VIII, this might not be for you either.