Alison Weir's 'A Dangerous Inheritance' a not-so-wonderful fictional history
Best-selling author Alison Weir has written a gripping book about what happened to England's princes in the Tower of London. Unfortunately, that book was published in 1992. The book published this season, "A Dangerous Inheritance," is the warmed-over remains of the first one, tricked out as historical fiction.
For the uninitiated, the princes in the Tower mystery refers to a series of events in 1483. England's King Edward IV died unexpectedly, leaving his 12-year-old son as his heir, and his 10-year-old son as next in line to the throne. Edward's brother Richard was appointed regent. But rather than help his older nephew rule, Richard put both boys in the Tower, from which they disappeared, and had himself crowned Richard III. Two years later, Richard lost his crown and his life to Henry Tudor, later Henry VII.
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For centuries, Richard was assumed to have ordered the boys' deaths. But later, some historians questioned Richard's culpability and named Henry VII as the more probable murderer.
Still others believed the princes had survived. Ms. Weir effectively dashed these revisionist ideas in that 1992 nonfiction work, "The Princes in the Tower."
In this novel, she takes up the question of Richard's guilt again, but this time told from the point of view of two Katherines. Katherine Grey was the sister of the ill-fated Lady Jane Grey (queen of England for nine disputed days and later beheaded). In Ms. Weir's telling, Katherine is hungry to be queen. Her ambitions get her imprisoned in the Tower, where she begins the unlikely project of researching with her jailor what happened to the erstwhile princes.
The other Katherine is "Kate," Richard III's illegitimate daughter, whose life is less well documented. She also wonders what happened to her cousins in the Tower. But her father marries her off to a lord in Wales, where she (spoiler alert) dies in obscurity.
Ms. Weir relies on unlikely interactions to propel the plot or develop character. For instance, Queen Elizabeth I strikes up conversation with Katherine Grey -- a women she dislikes and mistrusts -- solely to let the reader interact vicariously with Elizabeth.
Then there is the matter of writing. Characters in this book do not talk. They thunder, they bristle, they cry (especially if they are men), they bawl, they bark, they storm. They keel over in faints, double up in pain, and collapse, sometimes in the space of the same sentence. Letters fall to the floor, cloaks are flung, calm is shattered. In short, the melodrama is a bit much.
And there is a certain flabbiness of imagery. A gallery is "fine," dishes are "choice," a yard is teeming with "all manner of offal." Such lack of detail frustrates a reader eager to see, hear and smell what was going on. Worse, Ms. Weir uses some modern expressions that bring the story to jarring halts, such as a character complaining of being treated "as a nonentity" or describing a period of time as "especially challenging."
Adding to implausible elements of the book are the protagonists' feelings toward men and marriage. These are girls ages 12 and 14 at the beginning of the story, but they talk and behave like college-age women or older. It's hard to believe a 12-year-old, even one from Tudor times, would lust for her new husband quite so knowledgeably.
To give the book its due, the middle portion reads suspensefully, even if the reader knows what happens in the end. Some passages paint vivid pictures:
"I look across to where the Queen sits beneath her canopy of estate, with Lord Robert Dudley leaning proprietorially [sic] on the back of her throne. She is watching me, and her expression is hostile. I have been making it too obvious that I am speaking of serious matters, and with the Spanish ambassador at that."
Ms. Weir generally has been at her best in nonfiction. Her scholarship and smooth writing brought to life "The Six Wives of Henry VIII," "The Children of Henry VIII" and other Tudor-era accounts. Given her reputation and the subject matter, this book will likely sell many copies. But readers will come away puzzled.
First Published November 18, 2012 12:00 am