DIVORCED, BEHEADED, SURVIVED: A Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII by Karen Lindsey (Addison-Wesley: $25; 272 pp.) Cleopatra. Marie-Antoinette. Helen, Joan, Salome, Mata, Mae. Some women never lose it. No matter the state or the season, they continue to intrigue. So do we need another book on Henry VIII's six wives? Absolutely. This one's different. "They hover in our imaginations around the king like faithful satellites orbiting a splendid sun," writes Karen Lindsey, who then says what she really means--"and the fact that on scrutiny the sun reveals itself as a great, ugly mass of hot air does little to lessen the fascination." Old Henry Tudor takes his posthumous lumps here, not that he doesn't deserve them. Lindsey concedes that he came to the throne handsome, exuberant, intellectually curious. Soon enough--maybe sooner than is decent--he becomes a "roaring tyrant enveloped in layers of decaying flesh"; by the time No. 5, Catherine Howard, slips between the royal sheets, it's beside "the old, pusoozing flesh beneath the king's robes." Lindsey's account is lively, well-researched, entertaining and often elegant, but it is by no means the first feminist take on the wives.
The dogged, and dangerous, insistence of Catherine of Aragon (No. 1) that she was the only rightful queen is explored at length. Anne Boleyn (No. 2), sophisticated, cunning mother of Elizabeth I, comes across not at the "vicious shrew" of song and story but as a champion of the poor and a strong influence on Henry's faith. Quiet, colorless obedient No. 3, Jane Seymour, "the perfect wife," gets short shrift, save for her craving for fat quail while pregnant with Henry's only son. Anne of Cleves, No. 4, is the big winner: Repelled by the oaf she's sent to marry, she practices being "meek but not alluring," quickly consents to divorce and is well rewarded. The famously unfaithful Howard is Lindsey's particular heroine, lauded for the "healthy sexual appetite" that "made her life at least tolerable," and never mind that her main squeeze is a documented rapist/murderer. "Decent, ordinary" Catherine Parr wraps up a penetrating peek at women determined to maintain their own identities against horrendous odds, by a biographer with an old ax to grind. That said, off with her head.