At what stage does biography become pointless? I would suggest that the answer to that question is when the historical record doesn’t provide enough information to allow for any real insight into or knowledge of the subject. And that, in a nutshell, is why I have abandoned this book at the halfway point.
Elizabeth of York probably had a fascinating life. She may have been in love with her husband, Henry VII. On the other hand, she may have been cruelly treated and suppressed by him. Or perhaps he loved her. Maybe she was seriously affected by the probable murders of her brothers. Or perhaps she was so ambitious for the throne that she tried to persuade Richard III, the probable murderer, to marry her. She may have conspired against Richard to bring Henry to the throne – a ballad written during Henry’s reign suggests so, though that hardly seems like substantive evidence. Or perhaps she had nothing to do with it at all. She may have been influential on Henry in many ways following her marriage. Or she may have done little more than breed heirs. Interesting questions, and I was hoping for interesting answers – but there are none, as Weir freely and repeatedly asserts.
Weir has, I assume, done her best with the available material, but I’m afraid that still leaves Elizabeth as an unknown entity. In fact, I felt I knew her better from reading Thomas Penn’s Winter King, than I do now after reading chapter after chapter of lightly supported and indecisive speculation. It’s good that Weir has made clear the lack of information rather than making assertions about her own beliefs as if they were truths. Admirable – but makes for a dull and rather pointless read. And I’m afraid Weir’s writing style is not sufficient to carry the book – she writes in a dry academic fashion that, for me at least, fails to bring the characters to life and makes even the most dramatic episodes into a tedious recounting of conflicting sources, including extensive quotes, much of which I felt could happily have been relegated to the notes at the back for the use of any serious historian. As a casual reader, I hope for the historian to plough through the sources on my behalf and then present me with a well argued and convincing hypothesis.
The final point where I decided that I couldn’t take any more was when Weir suggested that Elizabeth ‘may have been influential in the development of royal pageantry’. The ‘evidence’ for this is that she would have seen the Burgundian-influenced pageantry at the court of her father, Edward IV. It’s that crucial word ‘may’, with its unspoken implication of ‘or may not’. I could as easily say ‘Elizabeth may have been one of the world’s foremost acrobats’ and bring just about the same amount of evidence to bear – i.e., she doubtless saw tumblers and fools at her father’s court too. And I’m afraid ‘may’ is one of the words most used in the book. (338 times, according to the Kindle search facility.)
So in conclusion this book ‘may’ be of interest to some people – in fact, clearly it is since it is garnering some positive reviews. But I’m afraid I’m not one of them. Perhaps at some point I’ll try one of Weir’s books about a later period in history where enough evidence exists for the word ‘may’ to be replaced by something a little more substantial. In the meantime, I will assume, based on the evidence of this book, that Elizabeth of York may have to remain an enigmatic figure about whom too little is known to allow for an interesting biography to be written.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.