Don't be fooled by the regal pomp and ceremony attending the May 31 publication of "The Lisle Letters" in London. True, the cast of characters is impressive. Henry VIII, T. S. Eliot, and Queen Elizabeth II each have had roles in publishing these six volumes of letters sent to and from Arthur Plantagenet, Viscount Lisle, when he was Henry's Lord Deputy of Calais from 1533 to 1540.
Equally true, the letters have been expertly edited by Muriel St. Clare Byrne , scholar, historian, and authority on Tudor life and especially Henry VIII.
But the importance of this publishing undertaking doesn't lie, alone, in the undoubted historical value of the letters. It is found as well in the remarkable drama of Miss Byrne's 50-year effort to make a set of neglected historical documents freely available to the general public.
Miss Byrne didn't want to tuck these letters away in a textbook for scholars only, unaccessible to other readers, as Catharine Seybold, senior editor at the University of Chicago Press, which is publishing the six-volume set, soon learned upon meeting her in 1977.
On that visit to Miss Byrne in Scotland, Catharine Seybold was struck by Miss Byrne's "great sense of drama" and realized that the Lisle story appealed as much to the dramatist and detective in her as to the scholar. "The whole story appealed to her because it had a definite beginning, middle, and end," says Miss Seybold, "all taking place in those seven years, with the whole of England as a background at a particularly dramatic time politically."
Miss Byrne started digging into the Lisle letters in 1932, pleased that Henry VIII's decision in 1540 to imprison Lisle for suspected treason resulted in the seizure of all Lisle's correspondence. Even in the 20th century, those letters were being preserved as important state papers.
T. S. Eliot learned of Miss Byrne's research and signed her up with his publishing firm of Faber & Faber in 1941. Over the years the size of the undertaking grew, and in 1965, Faber & Faber decided it couldn't afford to publish the Lisle letters alone, bringing in the University of Chicago Press as co-publisher.
But Miss Byrne's volumes continued to multiply, and the English publishers withdrew, expecting the project to be abandoned. Instead, the University of Chicago Press launched an international campaign to raise funds to help publish a work Chicago had decided was far too important to scrap. In response, Queen Elizabeth II, the Joseph and Helen Regenstein Foundation, and others stepped in with donations.
As funds began to flow in, Miss Seybold started working through Miss Byrne's 4,799 single-spaced pages of typescript.
The remarkable project reaches its conclusion May 31, when the first 2,783 sets of "The Lisle Letters" go on sale at $250 per set.
Despite their impressive price and heft, these letters may well find an audience outside the circle of Tudor historians, thanks in large part to Miss Byrne's approach. In her Introduction she explains:
"This book is about people, people like us, average and below average, and unusual or remarkable or outstanding. They wrote it themselves . . . a gigantic happening -- the great Tudor epic of the ordinary, covering the most memorable seven years of the reign of Henry VIII --and such is the vigour and vitality of these men and women that we are swept up into their happening. . . ."
After his arrest, Lisle survived two years in the Tower of London, dying just as a pardon was being delivered. For those who want to know what happened to his descendants, Miss Seybold can flip instantly to the pages that answer the questions -- proving that after spending five years editing "The Lisle Letters" she remains as intrigued by the drama as Muriel Byrne is after 50 years. An excerpt from 'The Lisle Letters'
John Husee to Lord Lisle, concerning Anne Boleyn's execution, 13 May 1536:
Here are so many tales I cannot well tell which to write; for now this day some saith young Weston shall 'scape; and some saith there shall none die but the Queen and her brother; and some other say that Wyatt and Mr. Page are as like to suffer as the others; and the saying now is that those which shall suffer shall die when the Queen and her brother goeth to execution. But I think verily they shall all suffer, and in case any do escape it shall be young Weston , for whose life there is importunate suit made. And this day the rumour is that Harry Webbe should be taken in the West country and put in hold for the same cause. By Wednesday all shall be known, and your lordship shall be thereof advertised with speed. . . . Excerpt (c) 1981 by University of Chicago Press