At The Mercy Of The Queen: A Novel of Anne Boleyn by Anne Clinard Barnhill (2012)
There are more than few stories out there, mostly in the SFF world, in which characters get married without their knowledge (or, in another variation, where they’re made to think that they’ve married without their knowledge). Some of these are better than others, all of them hinge on the main character’s unfamiliarity with the place in which they’ve found themselves. But this book is something unique in my experience: a story in which two characters get married unbeknownst either to them or to the story’s author. If you’re wondering how this is possible – read on, if you dare.
Madge Shelton, strangely innocent fifteen-year-old daughter of experienced Court player Lady Shelton (the one who was famously instructed to box Mary Tudor’s ears “for the cursed bastard she is”) is summoned to court early in 1533 to attend her cousin Anne Boleyn, because, as Thomas Boleyn tells Madge in his opening and only scene, Anne has great need of friends and support until she can solidify her position by giving birth to a prince, which, seeing as she’s already pregnant, will surely be happening any day now. All of this follows an opening scene in which Madge rescues a puppy destined for drowning, reminisces about her nursery days of enjoying tea and raisin cake (tea? All right, we’ll roll with it) and has her full name given as “Margaret Louise Shelton” (middle names in the sixteenth century, French ones no less? We’ll roll with that too) and generally establishes herself as the innocent and spunky type. Off she goes to Court with her faithful nurse, Cate, who’s pushing forty and is still a strong supporter of Catherine of Aragon.
Once at court, she quickly establishes herself as the favourite of Queen Anne, who feels the lack of trustworthy female company, especially as she’s already deeply concerned that her enemies will try to get Henry to put her away, a concern which is mentioned roughly once every five pages in a 430 page novel. In fact, Madge appears to be the only woman Anne really wants to talk to, and does she ever talk, mostly about her sex life and Henry’s inadequacies in that direction. She also gives Madge advice about her newly-begun love affair with Arthur Brandon, illegitimate son of the Duke of Suffolk, and Madge’s unwanted pursuit by Sir Henry Norris, groom of the stool. This isn’t really a situation where the heroine is torn between two lovers since it’s made clear right away that Sir Henry (excuse me, “Sir Norris”) is a one-dimensional dribbling lust-ridden villain who makes Snidely Whiplash look like a chiaroscuro portrait of a complex and deeply tormented personality.
Norris solicits Madge in a “slimy voice”, grabs her breast in public, attempts to rape her during a chance encounter in the woods (twice!) and talks about how much he’d enjoy dragging her into the sack. Naturally Henry VIII concludes that they’d make a perfect match and presto! Madge and the “oily-voiced” Norris are engaged. Queen Anne laments the fact that she doesn’t have enough influence to cancel the engagement, but just wait until she has a son! She’ll fix it then! Meanwhile, Jane Seymour and Lady Rochford are plotting to ensnare King Henry so he’ll put Anne away and promote the Seymour faction. How Jane Seymour is going to pull this off, given that she’s described as dough-faced, plain, sour, unpopular with everyone, constantly bitching about the King’s betrayal of the true church, and so forth, is anyone’s guess, but then this Henry VIII isn’t especially bright.
Clearly this situation cannot stand, so Anne asks Madge to become Henry’s mistress so she can influence him towards going back to Anne. Madge wrestles with the question for a few minutes and then says all right. She’s a little worried about the sinfulness of it all, but not very much. But one thing has to be taken care of beforehand; she wants Arthur Brandon to be her “first”. So, out in a scenic meadow, she suggests that they marry. They each say “I marry you” to the other, then they have sex. And, faster than you can say “per verba de praesenti”, they’re married. Congratulations to the happy couple! At least that’s a slightly different twist than most other Tudor-era romances!
Except that the happy couple themselves don’t seem to realize it. Shortly afterwards, we find Madge reflecting that “though they were not married by a priest, she felt as though God himself has married them” despite the fact that others would think their sleeping together was a sin. “She agreed with the queen that between herself and God, there need be no priest.” Hang on, Madge. You live in the early sixteenth century. THERE DIDN’T NEED TO BE A PRIEST. You know those precontracts everyone is always harping about? THIS IS A PRECONTRACT. YOU VOWED TO BE HUSBAND AND WIFE AND THEN YOU SLEPT TOGETHER. YOU ARE MARRIED. You’d think she’d welcome this way out of the Norris engagement, but she goes on fretting about how she’ll be forced to marry him, and in the meantime she gives in to Henry, solely for Anne’s benefit of course, and starts having assignations with him, which feature several hilarious scenes – whether they’re intentionally so, I’m not sure – where Madge keeps trying to introduce the subject of the Queen’s policies while Henry is busy trying to get to third base. Despite this, Madge gets Henry interested enough in the queen to get her pregnant for the last time, she and Arthur Brandon forgo the linen condoms he’s been using just the once, and she gets pregnant right about the time Anne is arrested.
The trial and arrests go by fast, so fast that it’s not in fact made clear that Thomas Wyatt wasn’t executed along the other five men, though the author manages to get in another kick at Norris by having him falsely confess to sleeping with Anne (though he does recant on the scaffold, at least). Never mind, Madge’s pregnancy is what concerns us now, because she’s being bundled away from Court and Arthur has disappeared. Oh no, she’ll be having an illegitimate child! Only not really, seeing as they were married. She confides in her mother, who decides that she needs to find some tame local to marry her off to before the pregnancy becomes obvious. But Madge insists, she must marry Arthur! (MADGE. YOU ARE ALREADY MARRIED. BOTH OF YOU SHOULD KNOW THAT). “We are promised to each other!” she cries. NO! YOU ARE NOT PROMISED! YOU ARE MARRIED! AS LONG AS YOU BOTH SHALL LIVE! Anyway, Lady Shelton finds a pliable neighbor, bribes him to marry Madge, and he does so, but considerately agrees not to actually have sex with her until the baby is born (it’s my opinion that she told him what had happened and he realized that they cannot, in fact, be validly married because she is already married to someone else). Anyway, at the end Arthur reappears, having been held captive by the Duke of Suffolk for a while since the Duke doesn’t want him to marry a connection of the disgraced Queen Anne, but he got out eventually and now wants to marry Madge (TWIT. YOU ARE ALREADY MARRIED. IF YOU ARE REMOTELY SENTIENT, YOU SHOULD KNOW THIS). Madge explains to him that her marriage is thus far unconsummated. Aha, says Arthur, non-consummation is grounds for an annulment! (AS IS BEING LEGALLY MARRIED TO SOMEBODY ELSE). Finally, a brilliant thought crosses his mind. “Can we not say we were precontracted to each other?” he asks. Madge holds her breath. Will such a wild, unlikely tale actually convince her parents?
It does, after Arthur brandishes a few convenient documents showing how much cash and land his father intends to leave him. Now, at last, they can be married! Again! And thank goodness, because these two nitwits deserve each other. It takes a special kind of idiocy to contract a marriage in a way that both of you should be eminently familiar with and yet completely not realize it.
SEX OR POLITICS? Sex. Oh, so much of it, down to the last excruciating licking and nibbling detail. Between Henry Norris and Arthur Brandon, the idea of physical contact with anyone becomes fairly repellent by the time the book is over. Mark Smeaton, in a pairing I don’t believe I’ve seen before, has a massive crush on King Henry. The Ives hypothesis is floated, with a few scenes of Anne decrying Cromwell’s wholesale seizure of the monastic properties, but the politics are definitely the B side of this record.
WHEN BORN? Anne describes herself as being thirty years old at the time of her coronation, so 1502 or 1503. Madge is fifteen when she goes to Court in the spring of 1533, so 1517 or 1518 for her. Mary and George Boleyn don’t get exact ages.
THE EARLY LOVE: Arthur is this for Madge. Since the book starts in 1533, we only get to hear the Percy story in retrospect (Anne is mildly sentimental about him, moreso about the fact that she managed to topple Cardinal Wolsey in revenge). Butler and Wyatt aren’t mentioned. (Wyatt is part of the story, but mostly he exists to talk about and exchange poetry with Madge).
THE QUEEN’S BEES: Lady Rochford and Jane Seymour are the two main ones, besides Madge, and a sorry pair they are: “two sad grey turtledoves” sitting around grousing and complaining. Jane Seymour makes unkind remarks about Mark Smeaton, thus proving her essential villainy, and also starts embroidering a satin nightgown “for her wedding night” sometime in 1534, while she is somehow managing to enthrall the king. I can’t think of another book in which Jane Seymour has caught it harder; there’s not one redeeming thing about her except that she’s good at needlework, as the real Jane apparently was. Other than that the ladies in waiting are a very vague crew whose main occupation is to be dismissed so Anne can talk to Madge privately. Meg Wyatt, usually a mainstay of these books, doesn’t turn up until Anne is in the tower and Meg is one of her other ladies in waiting – she has to introduce herself to Madge, who apparently has never seen her before.
THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Anne has Madge, of course, and Madge has her old nurse, Cate, who is all for Catherine of Aragon but equally in favour of Madge’s family staying in power. She’s the comic servant, basically. She calls her mistress “Maddie-girl” when she’s feeling affectionate and shouts a lot, and also comes close to being seduced by the Duke of Suffolk.
THE PROPHECY: Anne is constantly prophesying her own abandonment, if that counts. Also, at one point when Henry Norris has been foiled in yet another rape attempt by the heroic Arthur Brandon, he scuttles away from Arthur’s challenge (of course Norris is the worse swordsman) while rebuking him for his interference by shrieking “Heads have rolled for less!”
IT’S A GIRL! Anne panics at the news and begins screaming “He’ll put me away!” After Henry comes in and she begins apologizing, Henry actually takes it pretty well by telling her that they’re young and sons will follow. So far, so good, then Anne blows it by being shocked that she won’t nurse Elizabeth herself, and Henry starts shouting at her that queens never nurse their own children, and that her “mission from God” is to bear sons. (Yes, I heard that in a Blues Brothers voice as well). Madge is sent running off in search of a wet nurse, who has unaccountably not been retained beforehand.
DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Never mentioned, so presumably not.
FAMILY AFFAIRS: Thomas Boleyn appears in the opening scene (apparently still as a knight and not an earl, though it’s 1533) and comes across as pretty much the generic autocrat: he has eyes which are “small and cold” and mostly barks orders to Madge about how she’s supposed to support Anne until the latter cements her position by having a son. George appears in a few scenes teaching Madge to play various instruments, and Madge has a mild crush on him. Mary appears only once that I can remember – to announce her pregnancy and be kicked out. Madge brings her the message of Anne’s forgiveness and financial gifts. Madge is also the one who visits the erstwhile Princess Mary on the visit to Hatfield and gets snubbed on Anne’s behalf. Madge is essentially the substitute sister for Anne here.
DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No. She does encourage Madge to (and asks forgiveness right before the end) but she herself is mostly engaged in leaving English Bibles around for the maids and fretting about how Henry will probably put her away.
WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: “Unhand me!” becomes a familiar phrase. Norris promises to “shower [her] with jewels and other meaty tidbits”, but his wooing has no effect, as Madge tells her nurse, “I like it not, either. If I must marry Norris, I wouldst as soon die.” The whole book sounds like this, except for the few sentences which Anne speaks in French. I’ve never taken a French class and my sole experience of French is trying to decipher which word meant what in my mother’s Asterix collection, but I’m pretty sure that Anne calling Purkoy “mon chienne” contains some gender confusion.
ERRATA: I believe I’ve mentioned once or twice that the two central characters GET MARRIED UNAWARES. Aside from this, title abuse runs rampant, and titles appear on virtually every page. Every knighted character gets Sir Lastname on a routine basis, and the women are constantly metamorphosing: Jane Seymour has no less than four: Miss Seymour, Mistress Seymour, Lady Jane Seymour, and Lady Seymour. Madge herself is constantly switching back and forth. Like I’ve said before, wrong titles are annoying but not the end of the world, but titles which are constantly changing give me seasickness. Make up your minds, ladies! Are you a knight’s wife? An earl’s daughter? Neither? Both? It makes a difference!
Taking tea is mentioned several times, but tea would have been unknown to these people – similarly, some of the ladies of the court crochet baby booties against the arrival of Anne’s second baby. Crochet didn’t arrive in Europe until the late eighteenth century. Madge’s full name is given as Margaret Louise Shelton, a highly unlikely sixteenth-century moniker. Middle names were rare to the point of being nonexistent, and being highborn didn’t make them more likely – the day of Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David was far in the future. Mary Boleyn’s daughter is named as Mary Carey, not Catherine Carey, as she actually was. Dr. Thomas Linacre, who features as the doctor deliberately kept away from the birthing room in favor of midwives (men will just screw it up, after all) and who also thoughtfully supplies linen condoms to courtiers for keeping the pox at bay, was certainly one of Henry VIII’s physicians, but he died nine years before Anne’s coronation. Why on earth couldn’t Dr. Chamberlain or our old standby, the “second-best” Dr. Butts, be put here instead? Henry Norris is described as being a young man, in his early thirties at the most (in contrast to the king, who’s in his mid-forties). Norris’s exact age is uncertain but at best he was the same age as King Henry and may have been several years older. He was also a widower with several young children when he became attached to the real Mistress Shelton, but this fact is cut out, probably because it would make him too sympathetic.
WORTH A READ? Only if you need a cure for low blood pressure. I can think of many other books which play fast and loose with the story (hello, Philippa Gregory!) but this is the only one I’ve read that actually made me angry, and this is due to two things; the first, as the subtle reader will have guessed, was the utter lack of understanding of what constituted a marriage in the early sixteenth century, and which these two people would absolutely have had to know. It’s not as if marriages with no witnesses present (except for the couple, obviously) were encouraged, and certainly two people entering into one would expect to have an uphill climb when it came both to insisting on its existence and enduring the penalties that may have resulted. All of these things could make for a good and comparatively original storyline in a romance novel, and all of these hurdles would be a huge improvement on the risk of having an illegitimate child. But Madge, who by rights should know these facts as well as she knows her name, is completely unaware of them.
The second thing was the shameless and disgusting cartoon which the author has made out of Henry Norris. He’s hardly the first person whose fictional incarnation takes a real beating – Lady Rochford takes win, place and show in that category, and the real Mark Smeaton would probably be surprised at just how gormless many of his novelistic alter egos are. But at least there were plenty of histories in existence describing Lady Rochford as someone who had deliberately betrayed her husband (however inflated those stories may have turned out to be) and novelists had to make of that what they could and try and build some sort of characterization around that fact. Mark Smeaton’s creepier characterizations (as in The Concubine, which the author mentions favorably in her introduction) at least have some subtlety and real characterization in them; you may not admire him, but he seems real and some ways sympathetic. If Norris absolutely had to be turned into a villain, would it be too much to ask that it be done with some degree of talent? As it is, he’s a ten-cent villain who would be a disgrace to The Perils of Pauline.
It’s hard to shake the feeling that this was done as a cheap and shabby device to divert sympathy. The real Norris had what was apparently a well-earned reputation for kindness (among other things, he gave the disgraced Wolsey his own rooms to stay in when Wolsey would otherwise have been stranded with no accommodation, thanks to Henry VIII’s pettiness). Norris really was engaged to – or at least heavily involved with – the real Mistress Shelton. Instead of marrying her, he ended up being arrested on no evidence whatsoever, charged with a treasonable offense which had no basis in fact, and was beheaded entirely so his death could serve as window-dressing to Henry’s and Cromwell’s jettisoning of an inconvenient wife. His end was brutal. But since our fictional Madge is the heroine of a romantic novel, she can’t be allowed to suffer deeply or permanently, so presto! Norris becomes a disposable caricature, so his death doesn’t have to bother her at all. If you really want a light Tudoresque romance with a leering, rape-minded villain, read To Die For – much less embarrassing sex and the villain has the courtesy to be completely fictional. Better yet, read The Concubine instead.
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