Historical fiction of the Tudor era has an uphill battle. There are just so many novels about that time, from Philippa Gregory’s blatant romances sprinkled with a touch of history to Hilary Mantel’s prize-winning, erudite, and decidedly unromantic [b:Wolf Hall|6101138|Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell, #1)|Hilary Mantel|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1336576165s/6101138.jpg|6278354]. The world is not exactly crying out for more variations of the Henry VIII-Anne Boleyn story.
Still, I had some hope for The Heretic’s Wife
. It focuses not on the portly serial bridegroom Henricus Rex, but on the sister of a bookseller who plays the dangerous game of selling Lutheran (i.e., Protestant) books in England. She becomes involved with historical characters John Frith, a Protestant writer and reformer, and his friend William Tyndale, famous translator of the Bible into English.
In those days, the idea that people should be able to read the Bible for themselves was a perilously radical one, and it could result in its proponents ending their days burned at the stake the final ending for both Frith and Tyndale
. While King Henry had sympathy for some Protestant viewpoints, he was hardly theologically progressive, and didn’t hesitate to dictate the same punishment for those who took the wrong view on transubstantiation the idea that the bread and wine at Communion are literally the body and blood of Jesus
. During those turbulent years, what was considered safe, orthodox belief changed at the whim of the king and whatever powerful people he currently held in favor.”Lord, open the king of England’s eyes” - Last words of William Tyndale, executed in 1536.The Heretic’s Wife
plays fast and loose with some of the historical details, but most of the changes don’t detract too much from the story. The bigger problem lies with the anachronisms. Characters worry about being “broke,” Henry VIII has “flings” with women, and the lawyers seem a lot more concerned with due process and illegal search and seizure than they should reasonably have been in early 1500s Tudor England. Occasionally, the characters pop out with a “verily” or two to remind us of the setting, but with the uneven prose, it isn’t convincing. What is worse, the relationship between protagonist Kate and her romantic interest John Frith commits one of the unforgivable sins of historical fiction, transplanting 21st century sensibilities into people who lived 500 years ago. The effect of the clumsy language and shoehorning of the blandest of chick-lit romances into an otherwise tumultuous period of history is jarring, making it difficult to be absorbed in the story.
It’s a shame, because other aspects of the novel are more compelling, particularly the depiction of the king’s chancellor Sir Thomas More (canonized as a Roman Catholic saint in 1935). More comes across as a villain with sadomasochistic impulses who takes a little too much pleasure in not-so-gently convincing heretics to renounce their beliefs as he marches them to the stake. He is set in contrast to the reformers, who are equally convinced that they are on the path of the righteous. Like the reformers, More was willing to be martyred over his religious beliefs when he was executed for refusing to support Henry VIII’s divorce.
The early Protestant Reformation in England was a dangerous time for people on every side of the religious question. It makes a good background for a novel, but maybe not so great of a setting for a love story.2.5 stars