Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Don't Lose Your Head: Life Lessons from the Six Ex-Wives of Henry VIII (An Unofficial Survival Guide for Fans of the Musical "SIX") - Harriet Marsden

  If Queens could kiss and tell...

Survive alongside Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and the rest of King Henry VIII's ill-fated wives as they dish out their secrets in this fun and clever guide to life.  With a bit of sarcasm and a lot of charm, each of these legendary ladies explains how their sixteenth-century hard-earned lessons (from living with unstable men to enduring stifling Tudor traditions) apply to timeless topics like dating, marriage, and feminism.  You'll get the facts from the Queen Mother and the less-remembered but no-less important Anna of Cleves, Katherine Howard, and more.

Packed with must-known historical trivia, witty anecdotes, and wise advice, Don't Lose Your Head is the unofficial handbook for fans obsessed with Broadway's latest historical pop musical, Six.

(Summary from back of book - Image from - This book was given to me for free in exchange for an honest review)

This book is independently authored and published and is not affiliated in any way with the musical Six.  

My Review:  Catherine of Aragon. Anne Boleyn. Jane Seymour. Anna of Cleves. Katherine Howard.  Catherine Parr. 

Do these names ring a bell?  They should. These are the wives of King Henry VIII.  Until recently, I didn't know their names.  I knew Henry went through wives like toilet paper, but I couldn't have told you their names to save my life. 

Drawing its inspiration from the musical Six, Harriet Marsden's Don't Lose Your Head calls attention to the lives of these six women who, if you ask me, were handed a very raw deal and suffered horribly at the short end of the historical stick.  Where Six introduced me to Henry's wives by name (and stereotype) -- the pious Catherine of Aragon, the seductive Anne Boelyn, the beloved Jane Seymour, the spurned Anna of Cleves, the promiscuous Katherine Howard, and the stalwart Catherine Parr -- Don't Lose Your Head enhanced that knowledge and helped me get to know their individual histories. 

Don't Lose Your Head tells the story of each woman in first-person historical narrative, written from what the author imagines might be their perspective but with a decidedly more modern voice. The book begins with a family tree, followed by a foreword, a small introduction 'written' by the mother of King Henry VIII (which gives a little of his backstory), and a fact sheet that reads like Henry's own personal dating profile.  Then, we get into the meat of the book: the personal profiles, lists of lesser known facts, and essays 'written' by each of Henry's wives.  I learned a great deal from each of these essays, leaps and bounds more than I ever learned in school.  It all concludes with a basic timeline and a 'curtain call' by Princesses Mary and Elizabeth -- a fitting end for a book that amplifies female stories.

The tone of the book is decidedly unfriendly towards Henry VIII and the surfeit of other men who used these women as pawns in their own power games.  The wives speak freely about their lives, most with a hearty dose of righteous feminine anger with a side of clear bias.  I didn't mind the venom; it felt warranted.  Like the musical, there is an amusing level of resentment and the occasionally bickering among the wives as they interject their own sarcastic commentary (via text bubble) into each others perspectives.  I could have done without the infighting, but it did serve a purpose.  Although the title of this book hints at life-lessons, my main takeaway from the book is not to marry a narcissistic philandering megalomaniac, if you can help it. 

History is often told by men about men, so it was refreshing to hear things from a female perspective, even if that perspective had to be somewhat manufactured. Don't Lose Your Head calls attention to our biased, yet widely-accepted, historical narrative and makes you wonder about all the other women in history who were ignored, erased, or glossed over by history in favor of a man someone deemed more worthy.  What other stories have we lost to history and the men who wrote it?  I loved that this book was only written from a female perspective; the King and his cronies didn't get to weigh in at all and (whether history acknowledges them as such or not) the 'Queens' finally got their say.  

Unfortunately, I am not sure which parts of this book are verifiable and which are based on the authors own interpretation of history.  There isn't a source list provided nor are there any end notes to turn to if I want confirmation of a particular detail.  I suspect that the events are part of the historical record while the general mood is manufactured.  From a review standpoint, this makes the book difficult to categorize?  Is it fiction?  Is it non-fiction?  Humor?  I've decided to label it under all three for the time being, but it still doesn't sit right.    

Like the musical it inspired, Don't Lose Your Head offers a fresh historical perspective delivered in sassy, irreverent style.  I'm a huge fan of the empowering message behind the musical, but don't really care for the more explicit elements.  Same goes for Don't Lose Your Head.  I loved the feminist historical perspective (we most definitely need more of that in the world) but winced at the occasionally crude dialogue, callous quips,* and bawdy moments.  It all boils down to this -- if you love the vibe of the show, then you'll likely enjoy reading this book.  If anything in the sensitive reader section makes you cringe...well, you've been warned.

*TRIGGER WARNING* -- There are some rather tactless comments (made by other wives) about miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant fatality.   Reference to sexual abuse and grooming.  

My Rating:  3.25 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  If you're a die-hard fan of the musical Six, you won't have a problem with this book, but it might not be for everyone on your friends list.  Readers bothered by the occasionally crude humor, crass language, innuendo, and profanity (in any language) might take umbrage with this irreverent view of history.  *TRIGGER WARNING*:  Some rather tactless comments (made by other wives) about miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant fatality.  Reference to sexual abuse and grooming.

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