By Weir, Alison
History Today , Vol. 53, No. 5
WHEN I WAS about seven, my father took me on a tour of the Palace of Westminster. I have only the vaguest memories of most of it, but one thing remains clearly in my mind. In the Painted Chamber, I was told to look up at Richard Burchett's Victorian full-length portraits of members of the Tudor dynasty, and I remember distinctly being directed to the one of Anne Boleyn (which actually doesn't portray her at all, but Anne of Hungary). I was not only fascinated to be told that she had had her head cut off, but there was also what amounted to a strange moment of recognition, of familiarity.
The moment passed, and my brief awareness of an interesty in history remained dormant for the next seven years. At the Westminster Kindergarten and Preparatory School, where I was educted to the age of eight, history had been a succession of Stirring tales to enthral a childish mind; even to this day, I still thrill to the epic sweep of great events, the narrative potential in historical happenings, doubtless as a result of my early tutoring. But later, at the City of London School for Girls, I found history dull and uninspiring, a dreary succession of dates, acts and battles. I realised later that it was the personalities, the human aspects of history, that were missing. But of course you only needed facts to pass exams. For me, the ancient Greeks and Romans, the high Middle Ages and even the Tudors passed in a blur of boredom.
As a child, I had been an avid reader, but by the time I moved into the third form at eleven, I had lost interest in books, preferring comics and magazines, much to the despair of my mother. It was not until I was fourteen that I read another book for enjoyment, and that was to prove fateful indeed.
I was off school, suffering from a virus, and had been taken to the doctor, who prescribed a few days at home resting. We had not lived in the area long, and after leaving the surgery, my mother--in yet another attempt to convince me of the pleasures of the written word--took me to the adult library next door to enrol and hopefully choose some books. Wandering around idly, I found one that looked quite intriguing. It was a novel about Katherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII, and it was entitled Henry's Golden Queen the author was the prolific and exotically named Lozania Prole.
Recovering at home, I curled up in a chair with the book and read and read. I could not put it down: I had to know what happened next. A whole new wonderful world was opening before me. I have to admit that it was not just the historical tale that seduced me, but the sex. Of course, this was 1965, and what seemed exceedingly daring then to one who had never read an adult novel would appear very tame now, but I was agog: did people really carry on like that in those days? Were they so preoccupied with matters that were taboo in the middle -class world of the early sixties?
I had to find out more. By the end of the week, much restored, I was in a local bookshop, urging my delighted mother to buy me three novels by Jean Plaidy. Although I would find them much less to my taste nowadays, I still have those novels on my shelf, tattered and yellowed as they are. For they revealed to me the stories of Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard, Katherine Parr and Sir Thomas More, and I was enthralled.
By now I was hooked on Tudor history. I progressed to the novels of Margaret Campbell Barnes, Hilda Lewis and Elizabeth Byrd, or anything else I could get my hands on. I haunted the local libraries. My mother obtained for me Jean Plaidy's The Goldsmith's Wife, about Jane Shore, mistress of Edward IV, and thus kick-started my interest in the Middle Ages. Hilda Lewis's Wife to Charles II encompassed the Stuarts. And so it went on from there.
But I was not just reading novels. My new obsession led me to the history books and to my first researches into historical facts. While my contemporaries were haunting Carnaby Street and discussing the latest records and films, I was beavering away in the school library, becoming familiar with the works of G. …