I’ve just finished reading Alison Weir’s Elizabeth of York: a Tudor Queen and her World. Alison Weir is one of the great stalwarts of current historical biography in Great Britain, and I’ve read and enjoyed a great many of her books. (She also produces historical fiction, though thus far I’ve only read her biographies.)
I imagine one of the great challenges of writing this sort of work is the fragmentary nature of the evidence one has available. One the one hand, one has to do a great deal of “what if” thinking to fill in gaps in the record and to understand the significance of the material that remains—but at the same time, one can’t go too far in one’s imaginings. (Perhaps that explains the historical fiction she writes.)
Weir began her career as a biographer with her 1991 The Six Wives of Henry the VIII, one of several group biographies of these women to appear around that time. Since then, she’s worked her way through a variety of royals and near-royals including Eleanor of Aquitaine, Elizabeth I, Mary Boleyn (sister of the more-famous Anne), the Princes in the tower, the bastard son of Henry VIII, and Mary, Queen of Scots. Her books have made for consistently interesting reading, a deft balance of intricate detail and clear prose.
I admit that I didn’t find Elizabeth of York one of her best books, but I also gladly admit that I enjoyed every minute of reading it nonetheless. I think the problem lies in the mismatch between my expectations as a reader and what’s actually possible given the historical record (or lack thereof). I find myself hungering not just to know the events of Elizabeth’s life, but to spend time inside her head, seeing her world as she saw it, feeling things as she felt them. And this, of course, is absolutely impossible.
Monarchs in the Tudor era spent their entire lives surrounded by others—courtiers, petitioners, diplomats, abbesses offering honey or rosewater in hopes of a greater gift in return. But this was not our era of the paparazzi. My impression is that even when the events of the day were being recorded, the record focused on the outer lives and experiences of these figures. The desire to “know” them, not sexually, but still intimately, seems much less strong than it is today.
As a result, we can’t “know” Elizabeth of York in the way we know close friends—or even our favorite screen idols. What we can know is drier stuff: household accounts, lists of fabrics ordered in anticipation of court events, highly formulaic correspondence between those in positions of power, a grant of a few pounds (actually quite a substantial amount at the time) in exchange for the rosewater mentioned above.
What I rely on biographers for is an ability to tease meaning out of these lists and accounts. What can fabric for a new holiday dress suggest about the relationship between king and queen? When is a grant an act of politeness; when does it demonstrate something about deep emotional loyalties?
Reading Elizabeth of York, I found the lists (of fabrics, food, jewels and such) very, well, list-y. The book allows for interesting inferences. For example, the price of real goods seems much higher (the present-day equivalent of £100,000 for the purchase of a carriage) than the cost of actual labor (often times equaling less than the equivalent of £100 for a year’s skilled work), which may say something about the value of individual lives at the time. But what to make of a long list of six and seven yard cuts of fabric in unfamiliar weights and weaves? It’s not just that I’m reading a list, but that I’m reading a list of items I can’t always picture—and sometimes the author helps me out with a bit of commentary and sometimes she doesn’t.
So Elizabeth of York was interesting. It piled up details for me to think about. It offered a precise timeline of the course of Elizabeth’s life. What it didn’t, perhaps couldn’t, do is offer me a sense of Elizabeth the individual. One leaves this book feeling more familiar with the practices and economies of the era, than with its characters.
It may be that what I really need right now is Weir’s fiction. It might be fun to see more of the imagining she does that can’t make it onto the pages of her biographies.
You can find Elizabeth of York in your local independent bookstore beginning tomorrow, December 3.
Please note that this review is based on a free, pre-publication e-version of this book that I received from the publisher. I don’t believe that affects my objectivity—but just saying.