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The Queen of Subtleties by Suzannah Dunn (2004)

July 21, 2012

Split narratives make this book fascinating but also very, very uneven. The conceit is a good one: alternating narratives by Anne Boleyn, who is writing down her story on her last night, in the hopes that Meg Wyatt will smuggle it to Elizabeth eventually, and by Lucy Cornwallis, the head confectioner to Henry VIII, who is the same age as Anne but holds the view more common to Henry’s subjects: that Anne was an interloper and that Queen Catherine and Princess Mary had been badly wronged. (According to the author’s note, Mrs. Cornwallis was real, and was eventually pensioned off and presented with a house by Henry VIII, but nothing else about her life is known). Lucy’s narrative begins in the spring of 1535, when a certain musician called Mark Smeaton first makes a passing visit to the kitchens and becomes fascinated by her work on subtleties – ships, flowers, people, all made of sugar, and plenty of marzipan and candied fruit and flowers as well. He wasn’t any more fascinated than I was, I have to say – I absolutely loved this part of the book, with the descriptions of what went into the making of these things and how the processes had changed during Lucy’s career. As Mark keeps up his visits, Lucy, who’s unattached and always has been, begins to think the unthinkable; perhaps he’s in love with her.

She and Mark have some arguments about Queen Anne (Mark defending or clarifying her actions, Lucy attacking them) until, one day in spring of 1536, Lucy realizes that Mark is actually in love with the Queen and that he’s been asking her for advice about whether he should tell her (the queen, I mean). Lucy swallows her pain and tells him that he should go ahead and let her know of his devotion, if that’s what he really wants. Astute readers will know exactly where this goes: “A look sufficeth me …” and farewell indeed, Mark. Lucy is the unintentional catalyst of Mark’s death.

Throughout the book, Dunn adopts a modern style of talking; she has stated that she does this deliberately to prevent the deadening effect that five hundred-year-old vocabulary can have, the sort of thing that leads to really ribald Shakespearean passages sounding musty and quaint. I can understand where she’s coming from, and in the Lucy sections of the narrative she uses a modern but not aggressively-so style to great effect. The Anne sections, however, are another story (sometimes they seem like they’re by another writer). In her attempt to make the language more relatable, the author ends up making it incredibly distracting: Anne talks about Uncle Norfolk and Auntie Liz, Mum and Dad, Billy Brereton, “cute Franky Weston” her pregnancy “bump”, Henry VIII’s sister the “ex-starlet” Mary Tudor, and swears a lot. The end result is that the knowledgeable reader is being constantly jarred by things that the real Anne couldn’t possibly have said, even if she was as one-note as this depiction of her, and the reader who’s new to Tudor history will just be lost. The intercutting of Anne’s reminiscences and Lucy’s narrative isn’t always to happy effect, since they’re working on different timelines – Anne is telling her story from the time she returns to England in 1522, whereas Lucy begins only about a year before Anne’s death. This leads to unfortunate juxtapositions like a dramatic scene of Lucy lying to Cromwell while trying to save Mark Smeaton’s life, followed by a distinctly less tension-filled scene of Anne complaining about the baby Elizabeth being taken to Hatfield.

SEX OR POLITICS? Politics, all the way, assuming you already know the story and can figure out who Tom and Billy and Ed are. Anne credits herself with having upended the old political system and rooted out all the old ways: “I got old England by the throat, and shook it till it died.” Curiously, religion doesn’t seem to engage her at all except as it relates to politics – this Anne’s kingdom is exclusively a kingdom of this world. It’s impossible to imagine this Anne spending her last night alive praying in front of the Sacrament.

WHEN BORN? Possibly very early in 1500, but probably in 1499 – Lucy Cornwallis is noted in January 1536 as being thirty-six, “the same age as the queen.”

THE EARLY LOVE: Henry Percy – James Butler isn’t mentioned, Anne goes straight from the French court to England and a love affair with Percy, who shares her interest in contraband religious books. Unfortunately the affair is kiboshed by Wolsey (entirely by him, Henry VIII isn’t lurking in the background this time) and Anne is left at a loose end, despite the fact that Tom Wyatt would be more than happy to take her on – her friends are surprised that she doesn’t go for him. His marriage would be an obvious reason, but it’s not mentioned here.

THE QUEEN’S BEES: Madge Shelton (here Meg Shelston) is her principal named support – her affair with Henry isn’t exactly endorsed by Anne, but she thinks that if he has to mess around, well, it could be worse. She’s relieved when Henry loses interest so Meg can go back to Henry Norris, whom she really loves. Lady Rochford is there, of course, but is comparatively muted (she does her usual jealous turn and is strongly implied to be the unknown witness who gave Cromwell testimony but, true to history, is not actually named – George assumes it must be her, but Anne acidly comments that thanks to his womanizing career, Jane is far from the only woman wishing him harm). Meg Wyatt – Marg in this version – turns up only at the very end, to help Anne out in the Tower (though she’s described as a childhood friend). Jane Seymour is described as puddinglike, a “dim spinster” and various other endearments, but she doesn’t actually speak. There isn’t much speaking in the Anne sections at all, comparatively, so none of the surrounding women make a very strong impression.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Anne has a maid named Annie, who doesn’t play much of a role beyond helping her dress and getting medical help for her when she miscarries. Lucy, of course, is a servant, but a head servant, and her main assistant is Richard, a street boy whom she adopted years earlier and gave employment in the kitchens, and who’s a bit on the fey side (in all senses of the word).

THE PROPHECY: None that I can think of. It fits in with the very non-otherworldly Anne portrayed. Even when she thinks of Elizabeth’s future she doesn’t have any mystical visions of future queenship: “At best, you’ll be pensioned off.”

IT’S A GIRL! Anne, addressing the Elizabeth of the future, denies that her being a girl was ever considered a disaster. “We were disappointed, yes, but only because if you’d been a boy, you’d have solved a lot of our problems. Your being a girl didn’t create any.”

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? No, not mentioned at all, neither is the wen.

FAMILY AFFAIRS: Lucy has a number of half-sisters and nephews and nieces whom she hasn’t seen in a long time but reminisces about frequently. Anne has her
“Mum and Dad” (argh! So distracting!) Her father is the utilitarian type who doesn’t seen any reason to keep bothering with Mary Boleyn after she embarrasses them repeatedly. Anne is a more worldly-wise version of her father, who points out to him that ignoring embarrassing family problems won’t make them go away. Mary is sweet but dimwitted and frequently drives Anne up the wall by refusing to see what’s obvious (e.g. that being the Queen’s sister means she doesn’t get to bestow herself on whatever passing gentleman takes her fancy). George dislikes his wife heartily and screws around with other women constantly.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No. Neither does Lucy, though she’s in love with Smeaton and ends up falsely accusing herself of having an affair with him (to Cromwell) in the forlorn hope that this will lead to Smeaton’s exoneration.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: First the good. The Lucy sections have some absolutely marvelous descriptions of confectionary-making and sugar-sculpting, and I don’t mean that dismissively; I loved reading about the process and the occasional glimpses of the finished results in the “upstairs” sections (Henry flirting with Anne by presenting her with a sugar rosebud, Catherine of Aragon summoning the confectioner to show the young Princess Mary some of the smaller subtleties for a feast which Mary is too small to attend, and of course the perfect red rose Lucy tries to make throughout the book, which she gives to … well, you can guess). In one passage, after Lucy is sent to meet the King so he can show her off to his assembled guests and give a pat on the head, she reflects on Queen Anne’s strained, thin appearance.

She’s choleric, if not already melancholic. She’ll need help if she’s ever to have another child. Which she must. Debating is all very well, but that’s not what she’s for, anymore. Not the sharpness of her wit, the depth and breadth of her learning. Sugar, I thought, Cucharum. Warms the blood, brings a flush to the skin. Healthy for anyone, any time, any place: that’s what I was taught. Every other food trails an interminable list of qualities and qualifiers with which we who practice the art of cookery are supposed to be acquainted: warm in the first degree, dry in the second, good for old people with damp temperaments if eaten during spring. But sugar is unequivocal. White and dry, it runs sparkling around a body.

Unfortunately, the clarity of style and glimpse into a different world end abruptly whenever we hit an Anne Boleyn section. Despite what we’re told about her wit, charm and intelligence, this Anne has only one setting: Shrill. And when Dunn is trying to convey her temper by using modern language, it can get dire: “You fucking promised!” she shrieks at Henry, exasperated by the endless delays in getting the annulment. Catherine of Aragon is “Fat Cath” and “Her Oldbagness”, and there are the endless nicknames which aren’t in period either for the sixteenth century or even for now, if we’re talking about the names of young up-and-comers (how many hotshot under-thirties do you know called Ed and Billy?) And there are too many italics, especially when Anne is upset, which she constantly is.

ERRATA The poisoning at Bishop Fisher’s is said by Anne to have killed seven men; in fact it killed two people. Anne refers to giving “a cream tea” to some dignitaries, though I’m not sure whether this was a flat-out mistake or an attempt to modernize the setting, much as the language is modernized. Mary Boleyn is described as having been the King’s mistress before she was married when in fact she seems to have received that honor afterwards, however, this does mean that there’s no hint that her two children (yes, they are mentioned!) could be Henry’s, so here’s an honorable exception to the trend of the Carey children always being unacknowledged royal bastards.

WORTH A READ? A lot of this depends on whether you can handle the aggressively contemporary style: It’s not my thing at all, but even so I found the Lucy Cornwallis sections to be excellent. Dunn is a very good writer and really shines here. I have no idea how much of her information about subtlety-making and how Tudor kitchens were run is accurate, but it sounded solid enough and I was able to picture the places and people very easily, which isn’t usual for me. The downside to the book was, unfortunately, everything about Anne – even if the contemporary style poses no problem at all for you, this Anne can be a hard slog. Realistic as the one-note bitterness may be for a last-night-alive memoir, well, to paraphrase a certain infamous comedy routine: I’m not saying he should have beheaded her, but – I understand. The end result is that we’re left even more mystified than Lucy about Mark Smeaton’s love for Anne. What on earth was remotely appealing about her? This may be rare instance where “tell, don’t show” might have been a better idea – if the entire book had been set in the kitchens, with Lucy as sole heroine and Anne as a remote, glamourous figure, it would have worked much better. As it is, I’d say read the Lucy sections, and give this Anne a miss.

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From → Book Overviews

One Comment
  1. Great, thanks for sharing this article. Will read on…

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