It’s not hard to find modern parallels to Henry VIII — there are plenty of public figures whose obsession with power, numerous wives, ruddy complexion, and expanding waistline draw an easy comparison.
It was precisely this combined with the burgeoning #MeToo movement that got author Olivia Hayfield wondering what would happen if the Tudor king and his infamous six wives were reincarnated in our modern era. The result is Wife After Wife, which follows the life of corporate mogul Harry Rose as he works his way through six marriages to Katie Paragon, Ana Lyebon, Janette Morrissey, Anki, Caitlyn Howe, and Clare Barr.
Hayfield plays with history, interjecting plenty of Easter eggs for Tudor obsessives while crafting a story uniquely her own — one that considers the cost of power, love, and reaping what we sow.
Ahead of the novel’s release today, EW called up Hayfield to discuss modernizing Harry, the impact of the #MeToo movement on her writing, and how writing the novel changed who she would call her favorite wife.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you first get the idea to take the story of Henry VIII and his six wives and put it in a modern context?
OLIVIA HAYFIELD: The #MeToo movement prompted the thought because there was all sorts of stuff in the press about men in power, attitudes towards women, and how it was all changing. I’ve always been really fascinated by Henry VIII, and it was just one of those shower moments when I thought, “What would the response be to Henry VIII today?” He wouldn’t get away with that behavior now — the #MeToo movement would scupper him and take him down. Then I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to reincarnate him and give him his comeuppance in the modern day? I thought someone’s got to have already done that because there’s been retellings of Shakespeare stories and so on. As soon as I got out of the shower, I Googled it and nobody had done it before. So I thought I have to do this. It kind of wrote itself once I got started. I had an absolute ball writing it.
Did you have a favorite wife before you started writing? And did it change after writing your book?
I’ve always been an Anne [Boleyn] fan. I went to see Anne of the Thousand Days on a school trip. It really stayed with me. How can a man treat a woman that he loved that much like this? Also, where I come from in Warwickshire in England, there are a lot of places [that] say Anne Boleyn visited here. She was kind of part of my upbringing, so I was always fascinated by her. She was very forward-thinking with her reformist views. Then as I wrote the book, I decided I liked Clare [the equivalent of Catherine Parr] best by the end of it. She knows what she’s getting into. She knows what he’s like. She’s kind of this wise owl figure, so I really love her.
I’m very fond of Caitlin [the equivalent to Catherine Howard]. She gets a lot of flack. I’m reading Alison Weir’s latest book about her, and it’s quite cruel. She was a bit naive and stupid, but that upbringing that she had chucked her into this dormitory full of people having sex all night. It was just awful. She had this hopeless father, her mother died young, she didn’t have any family around, and she was put into this house with all these other girls where they weren’t watched very much. She just did what any impressionable young girl would do. Then, she was thrown at Harry’s feet as a teenager, this revolting man that he was by that time. I just feel very, very sorry for her. It’s absolutely tragic. So I tried to give her hidden depths in my version, a much more sympathetic background, so the reader would understand where she’s coming from or why she was damaged. And why she would behave like she did.
There are the big beats that you get in there — each wife, how they moved on. How did you decide to reinterpret things like the beheadings? Or Henry inventing the Church of England for a divorce?
The two beheadings were the trickiest ones because I wanted the readers to stay onside with Harry. I didn’t want to have him murdering them. I wanted him to be responsible for their deaths, more like putting his head in the sand, turning his back on them. The breaking away from the church seemed like a bit of a gift with Brexit going on at the moment. He turns his back on Brussels. The divorce…I did quite a bit of research and how long it can take to have a divorce these days. If the other person contests it in the U.K., it can take up to five years. So I had the two lawyers on the case mirroring Wolsey and Cromwell. The other big thing was that when Henry VIII was in his tyrant period, and there was the Pilgrimage of Grace and the dissolution of the monasteries, I wanted that to come in. I had him doing his asset-stripping rampage. Jeanette, his secretary, gets really upset, which is paralleling Jane Seymour who apparently did try and stop Henry VIII from being so brutal in the put down of the Pilgrimage of Grace.
As you say, another beauty of the book is the way you get small details in — something like Catherine Howard running screaming down the gallery. Were those things you all plotted very carefully, or did they come very organically as you wrote, almost like guided by the spirit of these women?
Some of them came organically. When I was researching, I’d come across things and I’d think, “Oh, it’d be fun to put that in.” But I always intended to have it working on two levels. I wanted to put some things in for people that did [know the Tudors], so it has those little aha moments, like the bowl of pomegranates on Catherine of Aragon/Katie’s table, little things like that, which some people won’t get at all, but some people that know the story will have a little smile to themselves.
There have been centuries of fascination with these women, Henry, and their relationships — was it challenging to get at the heart of each of them and sift through all that?
It was, but some of the characters were very straightforward and it was very easy to do. Anne was definitely the hardest one to come to grips with. That really came across in the editing process because everybody has an opinion about Anne. If you look in these Tudor Facebook groups, there are arguments going on all the time about, “Was she a victim? Did she know what she was doing? Was she really ambitious?” I had to sift through all that and decide what I felt about her. Everybody has an opinion. It was very hard to get a handle on Anne, but I really hope that I’ve got her right. Her ambition is her downfall in my book as well, which I guess was true, but she was an amazing character and these days she wouldn’t have put up with Harry’s behavior. In my version, she’s the one that kicks him out, which is different from history, of course.
Did you have any preconceived notions of them going in that you felt were disrupted or altered by the end?
Oh, yes. Not the wives, but Harry for sure. I set out to write a comeuppance. That was what I was going to do. I was going to reincarnate him and I was going to bring him down. As I researched him more, I [discovered] there’s a lot more depth to this character than I thought. So I actually had probably three different endings along the way. Originally, I had him a lot more obese and nasty, because I was basing it more on history. Then I started to get this feedback on my initial draft. The first one, which really made me laugh, was “Can we lose the gout?” We lost the gout. And then I was getting, “Can we make him less obese? Can we make him less nasty?” Over the rewrites, he became a lot more personable. I had a really big comeuppance for him at the end. That was toned down a lot. Then when the U.S. picked it up, the U.S. editor said, “Come on, you gotta give this man more of a comeuppance,” so I had to rewrite it again. I had to tread this middle ground where he does get a comeuppance, but it’s not as bad as it was in the original version. He’s lost everything but there’s hope. My opinion of Henry VIII changed a lot. I do think that if he hadn’t had absolute power and health issues, he’d have been a much, much better person.
Almost everyone is a match to a figure in Tudor history. How did you work out which figures had to be included and what form they’d take? Perhaps the transformation of Thomas More to reporter Terri Moore is the most inventive.
It’s funny you should mention the Thomas More character because I only decided probably two-thirds of the way through I could actually make her Thomas More because she’s the voice of his conscience. She wasn’t paralleled at the start, but was towards the end. I wanted to give everyone I could a parallel.
What do you think is the best adaptation of this story besides your book?
I absolutely loved Wolf Hall. I thought it was brilliant…the book as well, but I thought the TV series was great. The Tudors, I really enjoyed. Obviously, there’s a lot of historical inaccuracies in there, but I found The Tudors quite surprising because it’s this really weird mix of complete disregard for history and then there’ll be something in there which is spot on. Anne of a Thousand Days, when I saw that as a child, made an enormous impression on me. I’m still working my way through everything Tudor I can see and all the Elizabethan ones too. I do enjoy Philippa Gregory‘s books. I liked her book The King’s Curse, which is told from the point of view of Margaret Pole. It’s seeing Henry looked at from that slightly oblique point of view, from someone who’d known him as a child, saw him grow up from a really endearing spoiled brat into someone very dangerous who became an enemy. Some of Philippa’s stuff can be a bit out there, but it’s always highly readable. I’m not sure about her take on Anne Boleyn, that was a bit weird, but pretty readable I suppose.
Lastly, you’re working on a sequel. Was that always the plan, and can you tell us more about it?
When my agent came back to me and said they want two books, I just thought, “Oh my God, I can’t do all this again.” It was out of the blue; I hadn’t even considered the idea. This was my first adult novel. I usually write for children and teens, and it was such a different experience. It was so intense. I mostly did it for fun. Then, they came back and said we want a sequel. Suddenly there were all these expectations on me, and it was a whole different ballgame. Eliza was the obvious person to [focus on]. I started reading everything I could find on Elizabeth I. Not knowing an enormous amount about Elizabeth I, to be honest, but I was thinking is there enough here? Because Henry VIII’s story is so well known; everybody knows it. Elizabeth, not so much so. Once I started researching her, an obvious thing was her virginity and the love affair with Robert Dudley — did they or didn’t they? What was he like? And then thinking around Elizabeth, the characters of the time, even though they were later on in her life, Shakespeare and Marlowe…I thought, oh, gosh, you know, we can have them doing a Netflix thing, writing stuff for TV as part of Rose. Characters like Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake, I turned them into girls and have them as her mates. It’s been an amazing experience. It’s been really intense. I actually prefer book two to book one because it’s got such a strong female protagonist.