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Bad Romance

May 30, 2012

True, he was young, but there are some things even youth does not excuse.

— Dorothy L. Sayers

I was nineteen when I read my first Anne Boleyn novel and it didn’t take me long to wonder if I could perhaps write one myself. I had read two or three histories of Henry VIII’s wives as well as the one novel, had gotten a 5 on my AP European History exam, and knew how to put a sentence together — surely these were enough ingredients to make a passable novel? Even so, I decided that maybe I should hedge my bets and make it a straight-up genre romance novel instead of a capital-N Novel, since minor anachronisms and major plot contrivances seemed less likely to be be an issue there. At least, I was pretty sure this would be the case; I had never actually read a Harlequin or anything similar at that time. Even I realized, however, that if I was going to take a shot at a historical romance I should probably read a few of them, and when I arrived home for Christmas break I went straight to the public library and randomly chose about five or six paperbacks with raised-print lettering and women wearing tight bodices.

I spent most of my vacation reading them, except for the day when my parents had a post-Christmas family get-together and my mother made me hide the books in my room so that my aunts wouldn’t see them and think she was the one reading them. I cobbled together something that I happily believed was an acceptable plot, and when I got back to college I spent a few happy hours of down time writing a feverish prologue and then a few displaced scenes. All told, it came to seven pages single-spaced. Then I closed the file and somehow never got around to working on it again; those few hours, while enjoyable, had also made it very clear that I could no more handle the subject acceptably than I could pick up the moon and carry it on my back. It may have been the world’s shortest attempt at a novel. It was certainly one of the most ridiculously plotted. But since this blog is devoted to analyzing the better-realized attempts of other writers, it seems only fair to mention my own.

Here, insofar as I can remember it, was the plot. It was going to be seen through the eyes of a lady-in-waiting (at the time I truly thought this was original); in this case the woman in question was a Spanish lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon, named Isabel de las Rocas — I don’t remember where the name came from. Isabel had been living happily in Spain and having a clandestine love affair with her tutor Eduardo until her alternative suitor, Gesualdo, betrayed them both to her father. In the grand tradition of pulp romance, her father was displeased on a large scale; worse, he had discovered Eduardo’s Dark Secret, which was … well, here’s how I told the story in 1998.

“Don Gesualdo lies!” Isabel’s voice was higher now, with a tinge of red fury to it. “Eduardo and I kissed once, and that was truth. He would never have done anything to dishonor me. Don Gesualdo hated Eduardo because I loved him, and that was why he told you that tale – no falsehood was too low for him to destroy Eduardo, even if it destroyed my reputation.”
” You would have me believe that Don Gesualdo, my oldest friend in the world, lied to me, and that he cares nothing for your reputation?”
“I would, Papa. Because he has lied. If we had truly been doing what he said we were, why did he take more than an hour to bring you word? Why would he not want you to see it yourself?”
“Dear God, Isabel, are you as stupid as mule, as well as being as stubborn as one? You think he cares nothing for your reputation, but indeed he cares more than you suspect – or deserve. He took so long to tell me so that there would be no uproar, so that the pair of you would not be discovered in the act of sin and set the palace gossips telling everyone in the country. He cares greatly for your reputation.”
“Does he.” Isabel almost spat out the words.
Her father came over in two swift strides and slapped her face so hard that her headdress and veil were knocked askew. “Insolence,” he hissed. “Go to your chamber now. Your food will be sent up to you, and you will have time to meditate and pray for forgiveness of your sins, not to slander those more honest than yourself. Go. Now.”
“Papa,” her voice came out as a whisper.
“Where is Eduardo? I don’t ask to speak with him, but I want to know where he is.”
“He is where his kind deserves to be – in a cage, being carried to Madrid. God willing, he will face Ximinez and the Inquisition shortly.”
Isabel gasped, and the Conte said bitterly, “Yes, we have found that out too. Not only did you play the whore, you played the whore with a Jew.” There was a cold pause, then the Conte called “Micaela!” in a harsh voice.
Isabel’s governess came into the room.
“Micaela, take Dona Isabel to her chamber, and have the servants make sure that she does not leave. I will have to decide what is to be done with her.”
Micaela curtseyed to Isabel, then beckoned. Isabel left without a sound.

Exit the unfortunate secretly-Jewish Eduardo, stage left, and presumed deceased. Isabel’s father decides to send her away as a punishment, and hits on the brilliant idea of sending her to England; surely doing a stretch in that benighted backwater will teach her to mend her ways. I have no idea how that transfer was going to be effected, by the way — it’s true that Catherine of Aragon brought some Spanish ladies with her when she first came to England, but my story was supposed to be happening in the mid-1520s and it wasn’t like Spain was supposed give her refills every ten years or anything like that. Anyway, Isabel ended up there somehow, arriving just about the same time as another exotic young lady:

Nan was indeed handsome and darkly colored and always at her book, but Isabel found it impossible to like her. They had conversed briefly and politely in French, but Nan seemed always to have something much more pressing on her mind, and at the first possible excuse bade farewell to Isabel and hoped that they might speak again someday. She left Isabel with the impression that she was glad to have escaped her company, and Isabel was not sorry. Mistress Nan had spoken of nothing except her love of France and of all French things, and had looked distinctly put off at Isabel’s mention of their Spanish counterparts. Surely, thought Isabel, people here do not believe that France is the center of the world!

Privacy was naturally hard to find in that era, and Isabel has to get away for a good weep about Eduardo sometimes, so every now and then she’ll roam the damp, rainswept gardens by herself, wondering why fate had been so cruel to them. Then, one day …

As she closed her eyes and remembered his face, she almost thought she heard a whisper from beyond the thickets.
She and Eduardo had always whispered together at first – but this distant whisper was in English, not in Spanish. Isabel’s eyes flew open with astonishment and she was instantly consumed with curiosity. What sort of people would venture out this far into the garden to whisper together in weather like this? She felt a few drops of rain on her face as she edged excitedly over to the rosebushes to see if she could catch a glimpse of the speakers.
Peeping through the twisted, thorny branches she could see the back of a woman whose green dress trailed on the ground beneath her grey cloak, talking with a man whom Isabel had never seen before, an absolute giant who towered over the woman’s head. He was large and had a chest as round as a barrel, and the hood of his cloak was thrown carelessly back to reveal a beautiful satin feathered cap upon his head and a blazing red beard on his chin. With every move he made he carried the assurance that he was a nobleman. Now they were speaking in low voices, and Isabel, frustrated, could only pick out a few words of their English.
“Catherine…not knowing….how long can we….?” and many more words that slipped away from Isabel’s hearing. Then the man bent down and kissed the woman.

Shortly afterwards, she sees Anne emerging from the bushes looking dishevelled and realizes what’s going on. What will she say? What could this mean? Thankfully, we’ll never know because I stopped there.

I have some very sketchy notes on what the rest of the story was going to be: Isabel was going to meet and get semi-involved with a gentleman-usher named William (much like Mary Boleyn, not coincidentally), get involved in an abortive plot to assassinate Anne which involved secret meetings with Imperial agents — Eustace Chapuys is criminally underused in a lot of books, but this wasn’t going to be one of them — and at last, shockingly to everyone but the reader, discover that Eduardo was not actually dead but working as an agent undercover. How on earth he was going to pull this off while being an observant Jew I can’t imagine; I think it was going to be hand-waved with his skills being so valuable that they could afford to overlook things like that. At any rate, they make plans to flee together but are temporarily interrupted when William is arrested and accused of being one of Anne’s lovers. Although Isabel has decided to go with Eduardo she doesn’t want to leave William in the lurch, so she manages to be appointed as one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting in the Tower (these women were chosen for their hostility to her and willingness to spy on her and record everything she said, so I suppose Isabel would have been a plausibly hostile candidate if the entire story weren’t already ridiculous beyond imagining). Once in the Tower, she somehow manages to steal a key — really — and get William out of there secretly, but she doesn’t have time to release the others. Over the wall go Isabel and William, where they meet up with Eduardo, who has booked a quick passage across the Channel for them (William going along as well since obviously he can’t hang around). They reach the shores of France on the very morning of May 19th, 1536. William conveniently fades into the sunrise. Eduardo and Isabel are together and alone at last. Aaaaand … curtain.

From → Essays

  1. Annalucia permalink

    “…Eduardo was not actually dead but working as an agent undercover. How on earth he was going to pull this off while being an observant Jew I can’t imagine…”

    Well, you could have arranged for him to escape to Venice, or to Ottoman territory, and he could be working for the Doge or the Sultan; either one would have been delighted to have him on board 😉

    In fact, with a little bit of luck, he and Isabel could be the Nick and Nora Charles of the sixteenth century. With their brains, and their connections, and speaking half a dozen languages between them, think of the intrigues they could be involved in …

  2. sonetka permalink

    Well, historical detective novels seem to be all the rage (there’s a series about one Matthew Shardlake which is set in the 1530s, and there are some Elizabethan ones as well) but I don’t remember any Jewish agents working for the Venetians or the Ottomans. A niche! Perhaps I should just ditch the English part altogether and Eduardo and Isabel can just elope directly from Spain since staying there would cause them a lot of social problems.

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