A larger-than-life king rendered slightly smaller

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The Autobiography of Henry VIII, by Margaret George. New York: St. Martin's Press. 932 pp. $19.95. Don't be fooled by the title. ``The Autobiography of Henry VIII'' is a historical novel, a novel that runs to almost 1,000 pages and weighs more than three pounds.

The subject matter is equally weighty: Henry VIII, who ruled England from 1509 to 1547, severed the English church's ties with Rome, married six wives, beheaded two, and fathered Elizabeth I.

This first novel, in the form of Henry's autobiography written near the end of his life, with comments inserted later by his fool, Will Somers, is obviously well researched. The author claims to have spent 15 years reading 300 books and visiting England and France in order to answer the question, ``What was Henry VIII really like?''

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Unfortunately, Margaret George is not completely successful in answering that question or in making the reader care about the answer. She has managed, in spite of her fascinating subject and first person narrative, to make Henry seem less than fascinating.

A historical novel, regardless of the research that may go into it, is still fiction, and the novelist may exercise her artistic license as she pleases. The reader who wants to learn about Henry VIII and to read an enjoyable book would be better off reading a good biography of Henry, such as Carolly Erickson's excellent ``Great Harry.''

Good historical fiction can bring people and events of the past to life and convey a sense of what it was like to live in a particular time. ``The Autobiography of Henry VIII'' has some good moments, but not enough, considering its length, to make it worth the reader's time.

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