The sordid tale of King Henry VIII and his six wives is probably the one most well-known to those with even only a passing interest in English history. As an Anglophile myself, I grew up reading Antonia Fraser’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII alongside other titles more obscure on the topic, and heartily enjoyed the many popular TV adaptations. I tended to avoid the fictional stuff, an inclination cemented by viewing the movie of The Other Boleyn Girl. It was so terrible that, for once, Natalie Portman’s acting was the highlight of a movie for me (and she was quite good in it, don’t get me wrong, but the lack of historical rigor was appalling!) Most historical fiction about the six queens tends to follow some weird agenda, such as Ford Madox Ford’s attempt at redeeming Katherine Howard by pretending she was Anne Boleyn in The Fifth Queen. I did, however, give in and read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall because Booker, and found it, while an excellent portrayal of Thomas Cromwell, a somewhat tedious read.
All this is by way of saying that I’ve read tons and tons of books on the subject and consumed so much film and TV on it, that when I watched the Mark Rylance-starring version of Wolf Hall, it was actually a shock to me to realize for the first time what a monster Henry VIII was. It was as if some BBC producer got tired of everyone pretending that Henry was just a quirky horndog and decided to finally put his sociopathy front and center (and God bless you, BBC producer, for doing it.) Pretty much everything ever written or filmed about Henry before the Beeb’s Wolf Hall tried to justify his actions because romance or religion or monarchy or whatever, but guys, he sucked, and nearly everything good that came out of his reign happened almost in spite of him.
And this is where we circle round to The Dead Queens Club by Hannah Capin. It takes the story of Henry and his queens and transplants it to a small-town Indiana high school in the modern day (and frankly, if you’re trying to reshape history to fit your own agenda, this is the way to do it, by changing the scenario entirely so that it makes sense to pick and choose what you carry over.) Our narrator is Annie Marck, the adopted Asian daughter of Cleveland professors, who is the best friend of Henry, the most popular guy in Lancaster, Indiana. As the book opens, Henry is dating Annie’s other best friend, Katie Howard, while Annie, an aspiring journalist, is constantly thwarted by her nemesis, editor-in-chief of the high school paper, Cat Parr. When Katie dies at a party in the woods, Annie must start to confront Henry’s terrible dating history and, more sinisterly, the death of yet another of his exes, Anna Boleyn.
While modern and feminist, TDQC hews quite closely to the history, performing a remarkable feat in repotting this Tudor drama into the hothouse of an American high school. Ms Capin clearly knows her stuff, and readers will find themselves absorbing actual history almost unwittingly, as we’re carried along by the narrative. Her portrayals of Katherine Howard, especially, and (Jane) Parker (Boleyn) Rochford are both loving and illuminating. I have to admit that it took me a while to get really comfortable with Annie’s first person POV, as she’s a decidedly idiosyncratic personality, but that’s sort of the point, that she’s the quirky one. And also? A teenager. Ms Capin does a really terrific job of taking these archetypes and pinning them on to actual teenage personalities.
I really enjoyed this book, and am looking forward to reading more from Ms Capin, perhaps with more non-white characters (tho I’m going to pretend that Lina is a brown Latina, because if Annie can be Chinese, why not?) I especially recommend it to everyone tired of Henry VIII being given a pass on being a bad dude. It doesn’t fix what he did, but it does help people see better the truth of his court, quite an accomplishment for an ostensibly YA novel.