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Contemporary mock Tudor: A modern retelling of Henry VIII and his many wives

Olivia Hayfield's matrimonial saga about a latter-day Henry VIII mixes entertainment with social commentary.

Olivia Hayfield is a pen name, possibly chosen because, given the subject matter of Wife After Wife, the publishers decided Sue Copsey was far too plebeian, darling. British-born Copsey lives in Auckland, and this, her first adult novel, has been snapped up by publishers in the UK, US and elsewhere, all smitten by its central idea: a modern retelling of the matrimonial saga that was Henry VIII and his six wives.

The book is humorous, a mix of romantic comedy and social satire, but history buffs can rest assured it is founded on vast knowledge. Hayfield/Copsey is a Tudor fanatic, and like-minded readers will get the most out of the jokes. For those less well informed, there’s a guide to the characters and their Tudor equivalents.

The story begins in London in the 1980s, with nascent media mogul Harry Rose, only in his twenties but already married to Katie Paragon, his late brother’s ex. Harry is handsome, wealthy and hazy about the concept of fidelity. But casual dalliances no longer satisfy when his current mistress asks him to hire her sister, stylish designer Ana Lyebon. Harry decides he must divorce Katie and take Ana as his wife. Two down. Four to go.

Harry’s inability to regulate his libido is the whole thrust, so to speak, of the novel, and in the climate of #MeToo, Hayfield/Copsey takes a risk by presenting him – initially, at least – as attractive and likeable. But what this book does so well is show how our mores and expectations have evolved. By the end, Harry is held to entirely different standards of behaviour, and the women have come into their power.

Bringing to life our recent history is Hayfield/Copsey’s strength. Her social details are bang on and often extremely amusing. Anyone who decorated a house in the 1980s-90s will wince. She’s also done a clever job of modernising the wives, making them characters in their own right and adapting only slightly the old mnemonic “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived”. Even Sir Thomas More is reworked as a female character, and one who isn’t axed for standing up to the boss.

Wife After Wife is intelligent and witty, and although its main aim is to entertain, it runs a solid thread of social commentary about relationships and power over the past few decades. A jolly good read.

WIFE AFTER WIFE, by Olivia Hayfield (Hachette, $34.99)

This article was first published in the February 8, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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