Book Review: A Dangerous Inheritance
Keeping Up with the Tudors
by Alison Weir
Ballantine Books, 2012
The Tower of London, as might be intuited from the sub-title of Alison Weir’s new novel A Dangerous Inheritance (wordy sub-titles for novels being something of a dangerous inheritance themselves, in this case from book club-pandering volumes of popular history), looms over this story of two young women named Kate, separated by nearly a century but united both by their shared fascination with the ultimate fate of the so-called Princes in the Tower and also by the fact that each of the girls is the daughter of a traitor.
The first Kate, the illegitimate daughter of Richard III, is a shadowy figure in the historical record, imagined here by Weir as a dear and loyal poppet of her father. Richard served his brother King Edward IV well for many years, took Edward’s two young sons into his custody (in the Tower) after Edward’s death, and, despite (or due to) the fact that one of those young sons was now King Edward V, shortly proceeded to mislay them, much to his ill-fame and much to posterity’s fascination. These were the famous Princes in the Tower, who were last seen in the summer of 1483 and who Richard had declared bastards when he himself seized the throne. Our young Kate hears the rumors circulating in London about her beloved father – rumors that he coldly calculated his nephews’ death – but she steadfastly refuses to believe them. She writes up a manuscript of her life and her beliefs, and a servant hides it away after her death.
Weir splits the focus of her novel, with interwoven segments by this Kate (told rather confoundingly in the third person, as though to underscore the historical impossibility of our guessing anything this young woman actually thought or felt) and the second Kate 80 years later in English history – Katherine Grey, sister of the infamous Lady Jane Grey, who upon the death of Edward VI was queen of England for a little bit longer than a week while her cousin Mary was gathering her forces to take the crown. The Tower claimed more victims when Queen Mary I had Jane and her father executed shortly after she came to power.
It’s thus a tale of two voices, two eras, and two royal upheavals that Weir tells in A Dangerous Inheritance, by far her most ambitious and satisfying novel to date. Weir is a popular historian of English history who’s also established a respectable reputation as a novelist (she’s written books about Eleanor of Aquitaine, the young Elizabeth I, and even Jane Grey herself). Probably she knows better than anybody the unfortunate ways in which the two different genres can befoul each other: historians aren’t supposed to invent; historical novelists aren’t supposed to report – the former is free to have strong opinions about a historical mystery like the Prince in the Tower; the latter is free – indeed, compelled – to solve such mysteries. Along the way, historians and novelists alike are apt to lose their grip on good strong narrative – amazingly (considering all the point-of-view juggling going on here), this never happens in A Dangerous Inheritance.
The key, perhaps not surprisingly, is the mystery. Young Kate Plantagenet is indefatigable in interviewing key players in the transition of England from Edward IV to Richard III to Henry VII (one of those key players being the terrifyingly reptilian Margaret Beaufort), and the document she leaves behind links her intimately with young Kate Grey, who conceives a passion for knowing what really happened to the Princes in the Tower and considers Kate’s document a godsend. Through all the marriage-related hardships and tragedies experienced by both women (a good deal of this novel is set squarely in Philippa Gregory territory), this passion to unravel a mystery keeps everything in focus.
Weir the novelist excels in neat little personal details. Although her Queen Elizabeth I (who, oddly, gets her own narrative segment at a few points, almost disrupting the book’s otherwise-elegant balance) is prone to saying things like “methinks” or “mayhap” (or “Bah!”), her two Kates are creatures of somewhat finer discrimination, as in the early moment when Katherine Grey reflects on her hunchbacked younger sister Mary:
But there is nothing twisted or wicked about Mary. She is a gentle soul who strives to be as normal as Jane and I in order to please our parents. I have seen her holding herself as straight as possible, hiding her poor humped back under a shawl, oblivious to the pain it causes her.
(A great novel could be written about indomitable and heartbreaking Mary Grey, if one of today’s four hundred would-be Tudor novelists had the gizzard for lots and lots of the necessary research)
Our two protagonists are both fate to die young and can never meet, but Weir loads with appropriate melodrama the next best thing, the moment when Katherine Grey comes across Kate Plantagenet’s picture sitting cobwebbed in an attic and feels something click into place:
The girl seems to stare back at me: her face is skillfully painted and uncannily lifelike. I feel I know her from somewhere, but that cannot be, as the style of her dress is years out of date; and yet I am drawn to her. It’s not just that it’s a beautiful portrait. There is something more, something about the eyes. The limner has caught them so craftily, they seem to be looking directly into mine, holding min, appealing … He must have been a master of illusion, I think, as I drag myself away, breaking the spell.
The something that clicks into place is Kate’s hidden manuscript – Katherine uses it as a yardstick by which to measure the other accounts of Richard’s elevation that she comes across – including the little book by Thomas More that’s filled with minute details of appearance and dialogue that strike her as too authentic to be dismissed:
More must have had access to secret information about what was going on in the Tower, otherwise how could he have known such a thing? Did he make it up, just to tell a good story? I think not. I have the strong impression that he was a man of staunch principle, and only wrote what he believed – or knew – to be the truth.
Some part of Weir’s historian-training must have been howling at this characterization of such a liar and fraud as Thomas More, although perhaps not – unlike some people, Weir’s never had much nice to say about Richard III. In any case, the quote shows the expository preoccupation of the book as a whole: through different narrators and in different time periods, the case of the Princes is expounded with a historian’s zeal for dates and details – and instead of sinking the pathos of the whole thing, it increases the reader’s absorption. This same didactic miracle also happens in the ur-text of all such novels, Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time – maybe those unlucky princes are conveying some kind of blessing even now, or the Tower itself is.