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The Concubine by Norah Lofts (1963)

June 2, 2012

One of the earliest and still the best of a particular subgenre which I’ll call The Maid’s Narrative: Anne’s career as seen through the eyes of a real or fictional friend or servant. Often these are written in the first person, but this is not; this is another third-person omniscient novel which takes us into the heads of various characters and shows scenes which the protagonist wouldn’t know about. The maid in this case is named Emma Arnett and she’s a pretty remarkable character who is portrayed as nudging Anne towards Protestantism — just as Anne is portrayed as nudging Henry that way, not that Henry was ever much of a Protestant.

This Anne feels that she can no longer love anyone after the Percy affair is broken up and settles for ambition instead, with her first order of business being to revenge herself on Wolsey; it helps that she apparently has the ability to charm a bird off of a tree and a talent for making people her willing slaves (Henry Norris and Dr. Butts among others start off by disliking her intensely and end up being devoted to her). Fortunately for the reader her talent for attracting people stops just short of Mary Sue levels in that her adorers are frequently people whom she’d be better off being away from and whose liking for her does her a lot more harm than good. Henry VIII is the chief of these, of course; he’s portrayed as the type who despises anyone who gives in to him (and beheads anyone who doesn’t, which makes for a nice set of options) and is disillusioned with Anne from the moment they first sleep together; after all that, she’s just another woman.

Mark Smeaton gets an extended turn in the limelight here; he’s another of the characters who has fallen in love with Anne. Granted, he does this in a lot of books but in this one he takes it to a creepily obsessive level — you get the feeling that in another era, this Mark would be storing the paperwork from his Anne Boleyn fan club next to a dog-eared copy of The Collector. He spends so much time fantasizing about rescuing her from Henry and becoming her true love that when he’s tortured into confession, Cromwell is a little shocked at just how much detail he’s putting into the story and begins to wonder if he might have discovered a real liaison by accident. After all, the reason he fastened on Smeaton in the first place is that one of his spies had overheard George Boleyn describing Smeaton as being in love with Anne, which when connected with Mary Tudor’s remark about Elizabeth resembling “her father, Mark Smeaton” suggested some interesting possibilities. At any rate, Smeaton confesses and it’s arrests all around and subsequent trials and executions, the better to enable Henry to marry Jane Seymour, who in this book has started to plot her way to Henry’s heart three years before, ever since she saw how hard Elizabeth’s birth was on Anne and began to consider certain future possibilities. We don’t see much of this Jane but she’s coldblooded enough to make Machiavelli’s heart skip a beat; if there’s a naturally political woman in this book, it’s her.

SEX OR POLITICS? Sex, mostly, but discreetly; this book is almost fifty years old and back then they had to work harder to get their effects. Enough politics to know what’s going on, and Anne is portrayed as doing her bit politically, but it’s clear that this was always the second-rate option to marrying Henry Percy.

WHEN BORN? 1507 – in the banishment scene, dated 1523, she describes herself as sixteen. Mary and George are both older, by how much it’s not clear.

THE EARLY LOVE: Henry Percy, who gets a few good scenes of his own towards the end of the book when he’s an embittered wreck who nonetheless still loves her. For this Anne, the early love is also the only love: she never for a moment loves the King, but since Percy is impossible to have and Henry VIII is being insistent there’s no reason for her not to play along for awhile. Unbeknownst to her, Henry also ordered Wolsey to scupper the Percy engagement after noticing Anne at court. James Butler is mentioned but never seen or really described, it’s implied that this was just a contrivance of Wolsey’s to string Thomas Boleyn along for a while.

THE QUEEN’S BEES: Lady Rochford, naturally, does her usual turn as a triple-distilled bitch from Hell. Meg Wyatt also appears as a sweet, rather anxious and emotional woman who ends up having a spectacular set of meltdowns during Anne’s imprisonment and after her execution – she has good intentions but so little self-possession that Anne ends up having to comfort Meg in the Tower rather than vice versa, and the burial arrangements have to be taken over by …

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Emma Arnett, hardworking, deeply embittered serving woman who ages from her late thirties to about fifty over the course of the book; she was loaned out to Anne by a minor noblewoman at the beginning of the story (to accompany her back to Hever after the post-Percy banishment of court, and they suit each so well that she ends up being taken on permanently. Unlike most of Anne’s fictional maids, who exist mostly to lay out clothes and weep, Emma was once a servant in the household of Richard Hunne, and is deeply interested in the new religion. Once she’s in London she joins up with some groups who are similarly inclined, and tries to influence Anne in that direction as well by procuring her an English Bible and talking up Luther’s good points. She thinks of Anne as a means to an end (much as Anne thinks of Henry, in fact) but unlike Anne, Emma actually does fall in love. It might sound a little ridiculous from the summary but it’s very well, and very subtly handled.

Emma is a real standout. Very often such invented characters seem to be too specifically designed to appeal to twentieth or twenty-first century readers; they’re what we like to imagine we would be if we happened to live then. Emma is not one of these. She’s older, not attractive, has no love affairs, her family is broken and scattered thanks to economic factors far beyond their control, and has no qualms about manipulating Anne as much as possible, even to the point of encouraging her to commit adultery for the greater good (God needs her to have a boy, after all). At the end she’s alone, quasi-destitute, Anne’s miscarriage of a boy has destroyed her remaining belief in God (“It seemed that God didn’t know his own business!”) and she has nothing to look forward to, since unlike most characters in these books she has no unlikely presentiments of the toddler Elizabeth’s future glory. It’s hard to imagine any reader wanting her life. But she’s memorable and comes across as very, very real.

THE PROPHECY: One of the soothsayers consulted before Elizabeth’s birth is a woman who is supposed to tell a baby’s sex by touching something its mother has worn. She accuses the messenger of giving her something two women have worn – “Why does my right hand say boy, and my left, girl?” That’s about it in the overt prophecy department – Anne does have Emma try to discern the sex by swinging a needle and thread over her stomach but Emma ends up manipulating it say the baby’s a boy.

A couple of instances which weren’t exactly prophecies but which were nicely done: after Anne has Elizabeth, she’s ill for a while and Jane Seymour wonders to herself if, considering precedent, it would all that wrong to wish for her to die. Of course, Jane herself was to die this way just over four years later. After Anne’s sentence, Thomas Cranmer reflects that execution by burning would be the worst of all deaths. Anyone want to guess what happened to him?

IT’S A GIRL! Henry is disappointed but takes it gamely; he praises Elizabeth’s Tudor hair and her good health, and adds “I pray God send her a brother in the same good shape.” He’s more annoyed with Anne because she keeps apologizing and complaining about having had a daughter – why can’t she be more like Catherine, who suffered in silence?

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Yes, she designs a hanging sleeve to hide it. That hanging sleeve turns up in a lot of books; I have no idea if there were any such thing in real life, but as it’s a handy way to work in a plot point and establish Anne’s ability to set fashions at Court, it’s hard to blame authors for doing this.

FAMILY AFFAIRS: Thomas Boleyn is the usual skinflint political climber who in this version encourages Anne to hold out for a crown pretty early in the game. His wife is shocked. His wife is also not Elizabeth Boleyn, because in this story, Elizabeth Boleyn died when Anne was eleven and this is his second wife, who comes from a humble background and is never given a full name. (Her stepchildren nickname her Lady Bo). She’s presented as warm, earthy, more at home in a pantry than a castle, and altogether an unlikely sort of person to attract Thomas Boleyn, as he acknowledges himself. She, if anyone, is the reader stand-in the book; shocked by Mary Boleyn’s goings-on but liking her anyway, worried about Anne when Henry starts pursuing her, disappointed at Anne’s covert wedding when two months pregnant, and at the last enraged at Thomas for not defending his children when they’re accused of adultery and incest.

Mary Boleyn, by way of contrast to Anne, loved and still loves Henry VIII but is also afraid of him and tries to warn her off of him when it becomes clear that Henry is taken with Anne, saying that he only loves people whom he considers to be too good for him, and once they’ve slept together Anne will no longer fall into that category. After her widowhood and resulting impoverishment she becomes progressively whinier and sharper-tongued until her secret second marriage, when her banishment is effected not by Anne but by Henry, who at this point loathes Anne and kicks Mary out to make a point.

George is his usual self; proud, womanizing, intelligent, miserably married, and in this version he enjoys contriving masques with Brereton, Weston, Norris and Smeaton, the last of whom is obsessively in love with Anne and jealous as hell of the other four, who can talk to her on near-equal terms.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? Ah, here’s one where the answer is different. It’s “She did, but not like that.” Having miscarried a pregnancy early and knowing that Henry isn’t going to be getting near her again, she throws a series of masked balls and contrives to re-impregnate herself by sneaking off to a stairwell or someplace and having it off with various anonymous gentlemen, none of whom know it’s her. The result is the baby that miscarries in January 1536.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: Nothing terribly purple in itself, and Lofts takes the very sensible precaution of confining the direct quotes to the chapter headings and not trying to shove them right into the dialogue. In general it’s very well and clearly written. There was one minor irritant; for some reason, whenever she’s quoting the voice of the generic Englishman, he always talks in a sort of half-baked Cockney. I think it’s meant to come across as earthy and unpretentious, but instead it results in being vaguely comic (especially as Emma Arnett, who’s not supposed to be at all well-born, talks grammatically and doesn’t drop any aitches). For example, in one passage describing Cromwell’s orders to work up some sort of charge to get rid of her:

He’d got his orders. Run away, little errand boy, and do your master’s will. Handle filth, outwit the law, forestall any fair-minded Londoner who might stand up and say in the voice which, off and on, had rung through England for a thousand years, “Look ‘ere, this ain’t fair!”

ERRATA: Anne’s stepmother is the obvious one – she never had a stepmother, and in fact her real mother outlived her by two years. Lofts can’t be blamed for this entirely, though, as she almost certainly got the story about Anne’s mother dying in 1518 from Agnes Strickland’s history. Strickland is probably also the source for the story of Jane Seymour’s having been a maid of honor in France, which she wasn’t. The subplot with the 1536 baby being someone else’s runs into trouble with the fact that it hinges on the baby’s supposedly being due in April and the timeline being off (because Anne has concealed a 1535 miscarriage by getting herself pregnant once more by some anonymous masquers). But according to Chapuys, who had no problem at all passing on scandalous stories, Anne was about three and a half months pregnant at the end of January. That doesn’t translate to the April due date which the novel-Chapuys gossips about. Additionally, the tying together of Mary Tudor’s supposed remark about Mark Smeaton and Cromwell’s charge is very cleverly done and ties loose ends together really well, but unfortunately it’s virtually impossible that it could have happened like that. Mary may or may not have said that Elizabeth was Smeaton’s daughter — the story has been around long enough that it seems like legitimate fodder for a novel — but I find it impossible to believe that she would have said such a thing while her father was still alive, much less while he was still married to Elizabeth’s mother and she remained in favor. Mary had enough problems with her father at that point (described in the book vividly) that such a statement seems like it would have been virtual suicide.

Anne is not buried in St. Peter ad Vincula in this version — her body is put in the arrow-chest and smuggled to Hever on a cart by Emma and the ladies-in-waiting. This came from Lofts’ own biography of Anne, where it was reported as folklore, and apparently she found it attractive enough to put into the story. Poetically, it works, but the nineteenth-century disinterment and reburial of Anne’s body (both taking place St. Peter ad Vincula) makes it seem highly unlikely, unless you want to argue that Victorian forensics were hardly exact and that the chapel was hardly lacking for skeletons.

WORTH A READ? Without a doubt — worth re-reading as well. Lofts has tightened some screws and frankly romanticized in some instances in the cause of making a good, well-structured novel, and in this case the sacrifices were well worth it.

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From → Book Overviews

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