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Blood Royal by Mollie Hardwick (1988)

June 16, 2012

This one is pure enjoyment. It begins with Thomas Boleyn’s and Elizabeth Howard’s wedding circa 1500 and ends approximately one hundred and thirty years later, so while Anne Boleyn is still the center of the story, the landscape around her is much broader than usual. We see the early years of the Boleyn marriage and their years at the court of Henry VII and the young Henry VIII, and as time progresses we get first person narratives from Mary Boleyn and Thomas Wyatt, each giving their own, not necessarily identical impressions of what’s going on. After Anne’s death, we see how life gradually dwindles for her parents and Mary, then long after Mary’s death we get a look at Henry Carey, Baron Hunsdon, her son, and his entanglement with a certain Emilia Lanier. Said Emilia also enjoys the society of various young, not terribly respectable playwrights, one of whom thinks she looks pretty attractive for a dark lady.

On the whole, it works wonderfully, and gives a sense of connection between events that can be easy to overlook as it’s so easy to mentally compartmentalize people as “belonging” to one Queen’s reign or another’s, but in this we get to see Lord Edmund Howard as an obnoxious young man teasing his elder sister at her wedding (later on we remember that he’s destined to be father to Katherine Howard) Agnes, Duchess of Norfolk, both as the catty sixteen-year-old stepmother of Elizabeth Boleyn and as the dowager who ends up in the Tower when word gets about about Katherine Howard’s escapades in her household. We see Mary Boleyn as a young, enthusiastic girl who loves men and is convinced of the truth of whatever they tell her, and we see Thomas Wyatt start out young and optimistic and end up as permanently ill and embittered (his is one of the few “written from my cell in the Tower” narratives” which doesn’t end in the writer’s death). The only major problem with the book is that while Anne is the nucleus, we see very little of her directly. The only time we’re in Anne’s head (via third-person narration) is during the trial and before her execution, and even then we see very little – everything centers around her, but the real interest lies in how the other characters react to her and what their own stories are.

SEX OR POLITICS? Sex, all the way. By the time we get to Mary Boleyn’s French escapades (in this version she sleeps with five named characters — including the King — and several more unnamed before she even lands on English soil) it takes over entirely, and it is damned entertaining at that. What makes it work is that unlike a lot of more recent novels, it doesn’t turn into a giant free-for-all where random unlikelies are thrown together because everyone has to be paired off like musical comedy characters. Mary sleeps around because she enjoys it (and is brutally thrown aside by her parents because of it — she’s lost her value, even if she did sleep with the King of France). Elizabeth Boleyn is portrayed as having discreet affairs after she can no longer have children, but Anne has learned from her elder sister’s mistakes (which lowered Mary’s marriage value tremendously) and keeps herself on a very short rope, except for one post-banishment episode with a very depressive and very married Thomas Wyatt. The very beginning of the book also features what would now be called a marital rape right after the Boleyns’ wedding, but in keeping with time period, the characters involved don’t think of it that way; Elizabeth is more angry because she thinks her husband should have observed the full ceremonials beforehand (he is marrying a Howard, after all).

Even the youthful Henry VIII gets in on the act, when Elizabeth and Thomas Boleyn visit court together in 1498, and young Henry, Duke of York starts showing off to impress Elizabeth, and she’s taken aback when he “looks at her as a man looks at a woman.” He’s seven at the time, incidentally. Weirdly, it actually works really well. Later on the now-King Henry tries to rape Elizabeth when he comes across her in an empty storage room (crucially, the word “rape” is never used) and she smacks him away, but alas, someone walks in and puts the wrong interpretation on it, hence the later rumor that Elizabeth as well as Mary and Anne had been Henry’s mistress.

WHEN BORN? Unusually, both George and Anne get exact birthdays: George’s is April 23, 1503 (St. George’s Day, hence his name) and Anne is born on November 2, 1507 (All Souls, not coincidentally) after one of those classic fictional “Will you save the child or the mother?” labors in which Thomas chooses Elizabeth and Anne manages to make it out anyway. Anne’s birth renders Elizabeth sterile, to her barely-concealed relief. Poor Mary is the only one without an exact birthday, we’re just told that she’s almost exactly a year younger than George, so sometime around March or April of 1504 is indicated.

THE EARLY LOVE: Butler is mentioned, but not seen, and the Percy episode is narrated by a jealous Thomas Wyatt, who describes him in less than flattering terms and passes on Cavendish’s account of the final confrontation between him and Wolsey. Later on it’s clear that Henry engineered things from behind the scenes. And of course there’s Wyatt – after Anne’s banishment they have one episode of not-quite sex in which Anne gives Wyatt his “Dear heart, how like you this?” line. (Once again, Wyatt is the sole person arrested to be actually guilty of sleeping with Anne and almost the sole person to be released). It’s strongly implied that Anne still carries a torch for Percy after she’s married, and her extended refusal of Henry is due as much to distancing herself from Mary’s well-known behavior as anything else. She’s seen Mary get passed around and, after William Carey’s death, ending up with comparatively little, and she’s not going to end up the same way.

THE QUEEN’S BEES: Elizabeth Boleyn is lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon for a a while, Mary Boleyn is in service to Anne for a while, and Meg Wyatt is prominent, especially passing on the women’s gossip to her brother. This Meg is hard-headed and tactful; when Anne is in the Tower, she reassures Anne that everything is fine with her sister when her sister has in fact just miscarried (why trouble her when she’ll never find out differently?) doesn’t mention Thomas Boleyn’s willingness to be one of her judges, and after the execution she arranges for Anne’s coffining and secret transportation and burial at one of her family’s chapels. The inevitable Lady Rochford is her usual self (she’s the one who susses out Mary Boleyn’s hidden pregnancy and tells everyone) and is described by Mary as being literally crazy. Jane Seymour isn’t seen much and is described as plain, spinsterish, and “mousy — but clever enough to catch a King.”

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Elizabeth Boleyn starts married life with three maids who get some amusing conversations about the differences between her old home and her new one. None of the others have servants who play much of a part in anything besides carrying the occasional message.

THE PROPHECY: Only one straight prophecy, which doesn’t lead much of anywhere: Anne is born “in the chime hours” on All Souls Day, and the midwife says this means she’ll be able to see spirits. Except for one childhood fright on a dark staircase, this isn’t really followed up. Mistress Orchard predicts that Anne’s baby will be a girl by the way she carries, but very much in a “I hope I’m wrong, but …” sort of way. This book doesn’t really have a lot of prophecies, but what it does have are curses, and those are done very nicely. At Elizabeth’s wedding, the maids try to take all of her pins from her clothes to prevent bad luck, but the hard-headed Elizabeth, who has to travel the next day, says she’ll risk the bad luck, just leave the pins. Towards the end of the book, an elderly Elizabeth curses Henry and hopes that his line ends in barrenness, then panics when she realizes she’s just cursed her own granddaughter.

IT’S A GIRL! Elizabeth’s birth is narrated by Mary Boleyn, who doesn’t give us a direct reaction. We hear only that Henry is fine with naming the baby Elizabeth – “it mattered very little, as she was only a girl.”

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Yes, and the wen as well. Mary Boleyn, after her first trip abroad, brings Anne a necklace with a specially shortened chain so that it will hide the wen.

FAMILY AFFAIRS: This is another one where Thomas Boleyn considers sending Anne to a convent due to her plainness (as a child) and deformities; ever with an eye to the main chance, he points out that with her brains she’d make a good abbess and that kind of connection never hurts. Elizabeth refuses, though, as she thinks of Anne as being most like her and seriously doubts that she has a vocation. All of the children are educated at first by a French governess called Simonette (Anne, naturally, is much better at French than Mary).

Mary starts off in her usual form as a woman who is amiable, not as bright as she could be, and happy to sleep with anyone charming enough. Unusually for her fictional depictions, she sobers up as she gets older and while she says she’s happy to have chosen “the better part” there’s still a strong streak of wondering what might have happen if she had played Henry the way Anne did, and by the time she gets to her forties (she never reached her fifties) she’s clucking over the goings-on at Henry’s court and is sure that nobody behaved like that when she was a girl. She’s also portrayed as the one Boleyn family member to attend the trial (she didn’t, but it’s consistent with her character here). George is cleverer than Mary, but he’s not one of the focuses of the story; he spends a lot of time chatting up religious reform with Mary, travelling as an emissary to various places, and avoiding Lady Rochford. He’s also given an illegitimate daughter who’s fostered out with a London family and plays a minor part in the epilogue. We also see Elizabeth Boleyn as an old woman, after Anne’s and George’s deaths, having a final quarrel with Thomas and saying that if they hadn’t treated each other as, essentially, ruthless business partners, Anne might have had a better matrimonial example to follow and never consented to getting tangled up with Henry.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: Hardwick is very good at this; the speech sounds old without sounding flat or flowery, and also takes the precaution of introducing the Italian-born Bassano musicians at court (three or four years early, but who’s counting) so character can have throwaway conversations like this (which takes place after a besotted Mark Smeaton has sung a song comparing Anne to some of the more delicate flowers and everyone in the room has burst out laughing):

“However dazzling my sister’s charms,” spluttered George, “It would be a skent pair of eyes that saw her as a daisy or a violet.”

Young Bassano looked puzzled. “What is skent?”

“Squinting,” George explained. “Crossed, like this.” He illustrated. “Looking both ways for Sunday.”

ERRATA: There’s an editing slip with George and Jane Boleyn’s child – they have a baby son born sometime in the late 1520s who’s never referred to afterwards. If I had to guess I’d say Hardwick decided to eliminate the character to concentrate on the illegitimate-daughter plotline but didn’t manage to cut out all the references. Also, Mary Boleyn’s narrative is stated to have been written in 1548, when Mary died in 1543 (though since her first-person narrative ends with Anne sending her financial help after her and Stafford’s banishment, nothing anachronistic turns up). The Bassanos appear to have actually come to Court about two years after Anne’s death, instead of beforehand, but again, close enough, and they serve a good purpose. “Princess of Wales” and “Protestant” both turn up when of course, they wouldn’t have been used (at least in the first half of the story; by the time Henry Carey is closing in on seventy years old it would be possible).

WORTH A READ? Without a doubt. It’s easy to read and smoothly written, but what I really liked was the sense of a larger court, and a larger world beyond it. Thomas Wyatt’s “Whoso list to hunt” turns up, of course, but so do quite a few bits from other poems of his, and he’s not the only poet we hear from: During the opening scene, John Skelton recites a poem in honour of Elizabeth Howard at her wedding (Lord Edmund Howard, of course, grumbling and wondering when it will be over). At Court, we don’t just hear about Mark Smeaton (who in so many books appears to be shouldering every musical obligation for the entire place, poor man) but we also get the Bassanos and the hint of others in the background. The only real weakness, I think, was the epilogue with Emilia Lanier, who really was Henry Carey’s mistress and who at a stretch may have known William Shakespeare. Anne Boleyn may be hard to write, but Shakespeare really is impossible.

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