THE PLOT: Anna of Kleve: Queen of Secrets is the fourth book in the ‘Six Tudor Queens’ series by Alison Weir. Starting with Anna’s life as a princess in the German duchy of Kleve, it follows her short-lived marriage to Henry VIII of England and her life after the divorce. Much of the novel rests on the speculation that Anna was not a virgin before marriage, for which Weir cites her sources in the author’s note. But ultimately, it’s the story of a survivor – a diplomatic and pragmatic woman who navigates court intrigues and seeks to assert herself independent of men.
RATING: Surprise, surprise, it’s four stars from me! I did consider three and a half, but I feel that would be a disservice to both Anna and the author, whose meticulous research I admire. Overall, I was excited to learn more about one of Henry VIII’s lesser-known queens, and this novel did not disappoint. Apologies for the 500-year-old spoiler, but Anna of Kleve outlived all of Henry’s wives and it was great to learn more about her later life. I also liked how Alison Weir put her own spin on this novel by using it as a sort of counterfactual history to posit why the marriage soured and guess at secrets Anna may have been hiding…
GOOD BITS: This book was slow to start, but I enjoyed it the most once Anna arrived in England. The depiction of her life with Henry VIII, constantly on her guard and afraid of the same fate that befell her predecessors, created real tension and emotion. I was also happy that so much of the book was devoted to her life post-marriage, as I have often wondered about what happened to her. As a bystander to Henry VIII’s later marriages and the reigns of Edward VI and Mary I, Anna is useful way into viewing the time period. Plus, I learned that her name isn’t Anne of Cleves (to rhyme with sleeves), but Anna of Kleve (to rhyme with waver)!
NOT SO GOOD BITS: Anna’s journey to England was quite repetitive and boring. It felt like there were too many names of minor characters, who did not have a role later in the novel. Although factually accurate, I don’t think the reader needed to know which noblemen greeted Anna at every stop of the journey from Calais to London, and the major cast list could have been truncated. I also felt a little uneasy about the romance in the novel as the initial relationship with Anna and her suitor would not pass our modern notions of consent. Therefore, I couldn’t wholly invest myself in their relationship. I did, however, cry at the end, so there was some emotional investment!
OVERALL: For a holistic view on the time period and more information about the courts of Europe and Tudor foreign policy, this book is certainly a winner. It is also a nice story of a princess who didn’t get her fairytale, but did manage to forge a life of her own. My previous recommendations to pick up the series if you’re a fan of Hilary Mantel or Philippa Gregory still stand. However, I don’t believe either authors have written much fiction about Anna of Kleve, so this book could also be a starting point to learn more about the historical figure.