Author interview: Alison Weir

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Historian and novelist Alison Weir's new novel Anna of Kleve continues her series of fictional portraits of King Henry VIII's six wives. That roster includes famous figures such as Queen Catherine of Aragon (currently the subject of an opulent TV miniseries) and Anne Boleyn (the object of countless novels and biographies), but it also includes lesser-known figures like Henry's last wife, Catherine Parr. And in that roster no figure is less well-known or more enigmatic than Anne of Cleves, the obscure German princess who was married to Henry only for the half-year necessary for him to have the marriage annulled and Anne herself pensioned off as his “beloved sister.” Henry seems never to have resented Anne, never returned to her in anger or scorn, hardly indeed to have remembered her … all a drastic departure from his reactions to all his other wives. In Anna of Kleve, surely the longest novel ever devoted to Anne, Weir crafts an intriguingly multifaceted portrait of this oddest of all English queens. Open Letters asked her some questions about the challenges of this latest instalment in the “Six Tudor Queens” series:

Open Letters: This novel centers on the woman who was in many ways the strangest of Henry VIII's marriages - what were your first impressions of Anne of Cleves?

Alison Weir: Like many people, I used to think of her as an unattractive woman with bad body odour who repelled Henry VIII. That was the traditional view and her portraits seemed to bear it out. She was submissive, uncomplaining and the lucky one who got away. It was only when I came to research her life in depth that a different picture emerged.

OL: When it comes to this particular character, any novelist is working against the heavy weight of an easy reduction of Anne's story: Henry falling in love with a portrait, being shocked by the living reality, and pensioning her off immediately. What was it like digging deeper into this story?

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AW: First of all, I pondered for a long time over Henry VIII’s repeated complaints that Anna was no virgin, which did not constitute grounds for an annulment. What if he was telling what he believed to be the truth? As I delved further, I found other evidence that Anna was not the virtuous, amenable princess that most people believe she was. At the same time, the historian Elizabeth Norton drew my attention to the often overlooked dispatches of Karl Harst, the ambassador of Kleve, which offer a very different account of Anna’s divorce from the English sources. And further research revealed that Anna was not the luckiest of Henry VIII’s wives, but came to be associated with a very dangerous man and implicated in Sir Thomas Wyatt’s rebellion against Mary I.  From all these strands, a very different picture emerged.

OL: Your book presents readers with a very different version of Anne of Cleves than the one found in most biographies of Henry VIII - how do you go about switching hats, so to speak, from historian to novelist in order to tell that version of the story?

AW: I had written a brief life of Anna in my composite biography, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, published in 1991. For some years now, I have been re-researching and rewriting that book, and the revised version (still a work in progress) is the basis for these novels. For this novel, I expanded my biography of Anna until it was five times as long – then I fictionalised it, working with my new research and theories. I realise that what I have written may be controversial, and I would not have followed that path had there been no evidence to support it; but this is fiction, and so I have the freedom to ask, what if…?