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The Lady In The Tower by Jean Plaidy (1986)

July 28, 2012

Ah, Jean Plaidy – few are the historical romance lovers who haven’t encountered a few of her novels early on and been the better for it. Statistically speaking, they’re hard to avoid after a while, considering the sheer volume of her output: my copy of The Lady In The Tower has an “Other Works” page inviting the reader to try one of her SEVENTY-THREE other historical novels. Impressive, when you consider that this was only a portion of her total output – Jean Plaidy was one of the many pseudonyms employed by Eleanor Hibbert, who I doubt could have told you herself just how many books she had written. As Tom Lehrer once put it, “It’s people like that who make you realize how little you’ve accomplished.” Anyway, Plaidy took several cracks at the Anne Boleyn story (how could she not?) and this is the first one I found, so it’ll be the first one up here.

It’s one of her later efforts and I think she was probably running out of steam at that point, but it’s still a good, solid book and more believable than 90% of the efforts out there. It does have a curious air of being much older than it is – if I’d had to guess, I would have put in the 1950s, not the 1980s, and I think much of this is due to Plaidy’s use of older sources (this may the last novel where Agnes Strickland’s mistakes re: Anne’s stepmother and Simonette the French governess found their way into print). With its depiction of Anne as haughty and too late repentant, as well as being sexually reserved to the point of being almost cold (following the Percy disappointment), it also follows the pattern of the earlier novels – the big difference is that it’s narrated in Anne’s voice, not told in the third person with changes in viewpoint, and this does limit it somewhat, because Anne is reduced to doing a lot of second-hand summarizing of what was happening elsewhere which she wasn’t around to see – all of this being punctuated with expressions of regret, as this book is framed as being her recollections on her last night in the Tower, when she’s trying to decide where it all went wrong and ends up concluding that she should have refused Henry due to her lack of love for him.

One aspect that distinguishes this book is the amount of time it spends on Anne’s early years in France – a lot of books have a tendency to rush through them, or to skip them completely and start the book with the Percy affair, but The Lady In The Tower gives that time a fair amount of attention and shows the Anne/Marguerite d’Alencon friendship to which Anne would refer later on. Marguerite floats some reformist ideas to Anne and also tells Francois I not to pursue her after it becomes clear that Anne is alarmed at the idea (albeit Marguerite can’t see anything wrong with it, but we must allow the foreign girl her little fancies). Anne’s relationship with Henry is brought about mostly by her lack of other options – once it’s known that he’s pursuing her, who else is going to express any interest in her? Also, she can’t help thinking, all of those jewels look awfully nice, and hey, wouldn’t it be nice to have her son become the next king? Not true love, but not bad.

SEX OR POLITICS? Oddly enough, considering the genre, I’d have to say politics. It isn’t exactly a revolutionary dissertation on the Tudor political system, but there’s at least a fair amount of discussion of what the underlying issues are, and smaller incidents (like Cardinal Campeggio’s luggage being searched) make it in. Really, it’s the story of Anne’s being led astray by the glitter of the crown after being disappointed in love, so let’s say it’s about disappointed romance with a political subplot.

WHEN BORN? 1507, very straightforward.

THE EARLY LOVE: James Butler actually gets a few pages in this one, and although he’s nice enough he does suffer from the handicap of being Irish and intending to take her to Ireland – Anne, who has just spent seven years being finishing-schooled in the court of Francois I and his sister, isn’t too keen on that prospect. The Butler match is mysteriously called off by Wolsey. After this she meets Henry Percy, whom she loves because he’s a plain-spoken northerner who doesn’t care for all this Court frippery and only wants to marry her and take her back to his castle of Alnewick. The Percy match is also mysteriously called off, with a relayed scene between Wolsey and Percy which is straight out of Cavendish. Later on it turns out that Henry was behind both matches being called off – he was taken with Anne after she had a little session of courtly flirtation with him and thought that after cooling her heels at Hever for awhile she’d be more receptive to his advances. I have to say I found it hard to believe that Henry would wait through not one but two suitors in addition to a rustication.

THE QUEEN’S BEES: Mary Wyatt, sister to Thomas Wyatt, and Meg Wyatt Lee are both featured – oddly, Meg Lee is not mentioned as being Thomas Wyatt’s sister, Mary has that role. I’m not sure if there was a Mary Wyatt or not; I’ve never seen her mentioned but that doesn’t necessarily mean there wasn’t one out there. Anne Savile and Madge Shelton are there as well, and Anne urges the latter to flirt with the King when it becomes clear that Anne is out of favour. This Madge doesn’t have any tremendous moral qualms – you get the impression that she rather enjoys the intrigue of it all. Jane Seymour is mentioned, always dismissively – “dull, colourless” “a mouse” “a fool” – but doesn’t get any lines. Lady Rochford is the usual bad seed, albeit done in a much more low-key way; she’s described as being stupid, and her problems all stem from that; she can’t keep up with the conversation, she wants to impress George intellectually and can’t manage it. Her attempt at picking a fight with the mysterious mistress of 1534 which ended in Lady Rochford’s own temporary banishment leaves Anne unsurprised: “Being Jane, I was sure it had been provoked in the most heavy-handed manner.” She also enjoys breaking the news that Jane Seymour is the new favourite and “commiserating” with Anne over her miscarriages.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Madge Shelton comes the closest – she and Anne are shown as being really friendly.

THE PROPHECY: The episode with the “Book of Prophecies” depicting a beheaded Queen makes an appearance (Plaidy has the picture as appearing as part of a printed book, though I’ve seen it described elsewhere as a poison-pen drawing). And just as in the source material, Anne Savile says that if she thought it were true “I would not have him, even though he were an emperor,” to which our Anne replies that “Whatever happens, I shall become Queen of England,” dismissing the book as “a bauble.” This is one of those scenes which works entirely because something like it seems to have actually happened (thus confirming the saw about how truth being greater than fiction because fiction has to stick to possibilities and truth doesn’t).

IT’S A GIRL! Henry sulks a bit, but then comforts Anne by blaming God. “He does this to test us, I know.” I loved that line – Henry’s immediate invocation of the Almighty when something didn’t go as he wanted sounded extremely believable.

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? She has an extra nail which isn’t quite a sixth finger, and she designs the hanging “Boleyn sleeve” once again to hide it.

FAMILY AFFAIRS: Thomas Boleyn appears in his usual character; ambitious, capable, having climbed high and expecting to climb higher. Anne’s stepmother makes another appearance – she’s never given a name but is in her usual character of a country gentlewoman who comes from comfortable circumstances but is more at home supervising the pickling and preserving than hosting the King when he visits (though she manages well enough when he comes). Simonette the governess also makes another appearance. George Boleyn is her confidant and also something of an exposition fairy when Anne first returns from France, but it’s pretty smoothly handled. Otherwise he’s in his usual character of the wit who’s too good for the woman he married. Mary Boleyn “has a great capacity for happiness” wherever she is; first with Henry, then William Carey, then with the unsuitable William Stafford, and Anne is envious.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No, she enjoyed flirtation but not more. “I had never had great sexual desires, and at this point they were nonexistent.” After her last miscarriage, with Henry hostile and distant, she takes comfort in the compliments of the others, and believes Henry Norris is half in love with her (Mark Smeaton is obviously wholly in love with her).

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: Plaidy’s actually got the opposite problem – while the writing is clear and serviceable for the most part, it can get a little flat, and Anne slides into a lot of telling – we see a lot of sentences like “I was relieved when the dance was over.” “I was happy.” “My uneasiness was increasing.” Towards the end of book (which feels a bit rushed in general) Anne gets through two miscarriages in the space of one page – the second one narrated thus: “Still, I was once more pregnant, and that softened Henry towards me. Then again I lost the child. This was frightening. I began to suspect it was Henry who could not get healthy children.” Okay. That was … kind of fast.

ERRATA: Well, besides the Strickland-authored ones, she says that Mark Smeaton was hanged, which he wasn’t. Lady Rochford is depicted as giving evidence at the trial, which she didn’t, and Thomas Wyatt has been given an extra sister in Mary Wyatt. “Protestant” makes another anachronistic appearance. Otherwise, nothing too bad. The titles are all correctly used, thank goodness.

WORTH A READ? It’s not her best, but I’d say yes. I mean, it’s Jean Plaidy, you know what you’re going to get – well-researched albeit not flawless information, characterization which if not always entirely three-dimensional (Henry VIII is on the flat side, as are quite a few of the minor female characters) is still plausible and the action moves along nicely and doesn’t butcher the original timeline. I know this sounds like rather vanilla praise, but it’s a vanilla book in the best sense; nice, subtly flavoured, not deviating too much from the familiar, but still very pleasing when you’re in the mood for it, not to mention extraordinarily restful after having overindulged in too many exotic flavors. If you just want to read a traditional take on Anne Boleyn and avoid being waylaid by random ideologies, ahistorical orgies, or invented people, this is the book for you.

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