Have any of you readers out there ever been snowed by the cover of a book? Where the picture on the cover leads you to think the book will be about one thing, but it turns out to be something entirely different, and not even necessarily what you wanted to read about? The feeling is something akin to picking up a glass of soda you think is Coke and once tasting it, realizing it’s root beer. Ugh.
Well, I was completely taken in by the cover of GJ Meyer’s book, The Tudors. And not in a good way. I will start out by saying I have been (thus far) a HUGE fan of the British Tudor family. I can back that up by noting that 1) I have read Philippa Gregory’s entire body of work, 2)Elizabeth starring Cate Blanchett is one of my all-time favorite movies, and 3)my husband and I devoured Showtime’s series The Tudors. For those of you who know generally nothing about the Tudor family, their ranks include the head-chopping, wife-divorcing Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, she of the red hair and big frilly collars. Throw in Mary I, the inspiration for the drink we know as the Bloody Mary, and a short-lived child king Edward VI, and that concludes the Tudor lineup. Sadly, Meyer’s book would prove that everything positive I thought I knew about the Tudors was either seriously embellished or an outright lie.
So here’s why I was taken in by the cover. On the cover of my book was a lady’s torso, clad in a low cut Renaissance gown, grasping her bosom invitingly. So I stupidly thought this would be the inside skinny on the bed-hopping romantic antics of Henry, and also Elizabeth, who although known as the Virgin Queen to her subjects had a steamy love affair of her own going on behind the scenes. How wrong I was. Meyer’s book took the glamorous, powerful images of the Tudors we’ve been shown in mass media and turned them inside out, revealing them as paranoid, selfish, insensitive mass murderers, caring nothing about the suffering of their subjects and inflicting some of the worst religious atrocities I’ve ever read about. Meyer’s book quickly glossed over the many wives of Henry (except for Catherine, his first wife, and obviously Anne Boleyn, who required that he disavow the Catholic church in order to marry her) and Elizabeth’s flirtations, and focused mainly on the religious turmoil we know as the Reformation that was flooding through Europe after Martin Luther published his works on Protestantism. During the reigns of the Tudors, depending on which Tudor it was and what they believed at the moment (and it could change at any time, without warning), if you happened to believe the wrong thing, you could be tortured, executed, or both, with no chance at a fair trial. And it wasn’t just religious leaders either. No one was safe. The Tudors routinely executed close friends, family members, and their own councilmen if they happened to disagree with them. TV and the movies make this time period look so glamorous, but really, Meyer argues, it wasn’t at all. Thanks to famines, taxes and unemployment, the poor got poorer and the very few rich people got richer.
Meyer slipped small sections about such topics as the Boleyn family, the pope, Martin Luther, peasant life, food, etc in between the book’s chapters, ostensibly to help the reader get more of a feel for what it was like to live in that time period. While some of the bits were interesting, I felt this device prevented the book from gaining what little momentum it might have had with the more important Tudor story.
So you can imagine my disappointment when I expected to get the TMZ skinny on Henry and Elizabeth’s sex lives, and ended up instead reading about executions, burnings, wars, class turmoil, and royalty having hissy fits. I normally only review books I really enjoyed on this site, but because I slogged all the way through it (and believe me, it felt about as long as the Tudor era itself in some sections), I felt I should give it a review. I realize that the media have done an amazing job of glamming up this part of human history, and it’s unfortunate that the fake history should seem so much more interesting than the real history, to the point where the real history is boring. After reading about this era in Meyer’s book, I can understand why movies and TV have gone the direction that they have.