OIR: A visit from Alison Weir by OUR INTREPID REPORTER

Article published on June 16, 2016.

Margaret Cain reports:

In an unprepossessing Berkshire shopping centre, among the inevitable charity shops and bookies, lies a little oasis of culture: Chapter One Bookshop. The relief was palpable in Woodley five years ago when John and Mary Baker opened for business; a previous bookshop in the town had lost the battle with the behemoths of the book trade.

Today, Chapter One stocks the latest in contemporary literature to suit all ages and tastes and has built a well-deserved reputation for its commitment to children’s reading. Concerned at the decline in the number of independent bookshops in the UK – now fewer than 1,000 apparently – American author James Patterson has awarded Chapter One a grant to develop a book garden, a dedicated area of the shop where children can share books with their parents.

Chapter One also has an impressive record on meet-the-author events. A Mary Berry book-signing had fans queuing round the block. Children’s author Nick Butterworth, the co-presenters of BBC’s ‘Pointless’, and even the Gruffalo have all put in an appearance recently.

A tea party with author and historian Alison Weir proved a strong draw in June, with Alison’s newly published historical novel – ‘Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen’ – already a Sunday Times top ten bestseller.

A portfolio career

I grabbed a moment with Alison on behalf of nb as she mingled happily with her readers: Why had she been prepared to take time out from writing and trek over from her home in Surrey for the afternoon? She shares James Patterson’s ardent commitment to independent bookshops: “With only WHSmith and Waterstones left on most high streets, we need our independent bookshops. We’re running out of them and must look after them.”

Alison told me that she had been writing historical non-fiction for nearly two decades before she fell into historical fiction almost by accident. While working on ‘Eleanor of Aquitaine, By the Wrath of God’, she wrote a novel about Lady Jane Grey for her own entertainment and stashed it away in a drawer. She subsequently showed it to her publisher, who greeted it with gusto.

The rest, as they say, is history, with four more novels following and now a brand-new series: ‘Six Tudor Queens’, charting the lives of the six unfortunate wives of Henry VIII. It depicts the splendour and brutality of the Tudor age, a world that was dominated by religious change and where, as Alison puts it, “There were few saints.”

Whether writing fiction or non-fiction, Alison is an enthusiastic researcher, enjoying the process of piecing together of fragments of information and trying to make sense of them. 

Did they or didn’t they?

Featured in the spring 2016 issue of nb magazine as a reading group review, Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen is told from Katherine’s viewpoint, starting with her arrival in England in 1501 as a 16-year-old girl to wed Arthur, elder son of King Henry VII. She’s a great prize for a monarch seeking to shore up an insecure kingship.

Set against the macrocosm of England’s international relationships is Katherine’s personal conflict between being an obedient wife and determinedly protecting the rights of her daughter, Mary Tudor, while Henry VIII’s obsession with Anne Boleyn, doubts about his marriage and compelling need for a son converge in a perfect storm. Not for nothing was Katherine the daughter of Isabella of Spain and it becomes a battle of two consciences.

The novel is based in part on new evidence, including a report from Katherine’s doctor, which resolves pretty conclusively the long-debated question of whether Katherine and Henry VIII’s older brother Arthur consummated their marriage – a question that would ultimately affect the fate of the nation.

Alison is set to publish a book in the ‘Six Tudor Queens’ series every year. Anne Boleyn is very much the wicked witch of the first novel, even wresting from Katherine the christening robe that she had brought from Spain as a gift from her mother. It will be interesting to see how Alison switches sides to champion Anne in the second in the series. Having found this opening tale absolutely unputdownable, I, for one, can’t wait!

Margaret Cain

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