For me, it’s Fraser. When I read these two books side by side, Fraser’s came across as more objective compared to Weir’s more opinionated text. Weir tended to use verbs and descriptors with strong emotional or evaluative connotations, such as “violently raged,” “furious,” and “cunningly misrepresented,” which make for great reading in a novel, but color historical accounts with the author’s own interpretations. If Weir were a professional historian with the training to critically evaluate her sources, I would welcome her conclusions, but she is not, and according to one history professor specializing in the Tudor period, this “gets her into trouble.” He left her book off his recommended reading list, but included Fraser’s with the comment that it was “authoritative.” This speaks volumes to me. I have to say, too, that Fraser’s suppositions tended to be more convincing than Weir’s.
All this is not to say that Weir’s book isn’t worth reading. On the contrary, she brings each woman to life and includes as many details as she can get her hands on. In terms of reading enjoyment, it was wonderful and I actually enjoyed it more than Fraser’s. But I want a non-fiction book to be accurate, and on that count, I’m not confident about her conclusions, especially when they differ from academic opinion.
Getting back to Antonia Fraser, I do trust her presentation. She provides readers with a thorough study of each wife, portraying them as real, complex people rather than stereotypes or “tarot cards.” There is a certain degree of sympathy for these women that tugs at Fraser’s objectivity. As she herself says, they all had to put up with Henry! She does not judge her subjects, but still sees their flaws, such as Anne Boleyn’s tempestuous and jealous nature and Katherine Howard’s tragic naivete. Along the way, she considers various interpretations of events and discusses their merits and possibilities, making for thought-provoking reading.
In the end, both books are well worth reading. But asked to choose between them, I’d pick Fraser’s.
The New York Times bestselling history of the legendary six wives of Henry VIII--from the acclaimed author of Marie Antoinette. Under Antonia Fraser's intent scrutiny, Catherine of Aragon emerges as a scholar-queen who steadfastly refused to grant a divorce to her royal husband; Anne Boleyn is absolved of everything but a sharp tongue and an inability to produce a male heir; and Catherine Parr is revealed as a religious reformer with the good sense to tack with the treacherous winds of the Tudor court. And we gain fresh understanding of Jane Seymour's circumspect wisdom, the touching dignity of Anna of Cleves, and the youthful naivete that led to Katherine Howard's fatal indiscretions. The Wives of Henry VIII interweaves passion and power, personality and politics, into a superb work of history.