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The Boleyn Wife by Brandy Purdy (2007) (Also published as Vengeance Is Mine and The Tudor Wife)

August 11, 2012

Jane Parker Boleyn, Lady Rochford, will be a name familiar to anyone who’s read even one novel about Anne Boleyn. Liar, adulteress, obsessive, fool, certifiable lunatic, assassin, judicial murderer before the fact – all of these fragrant flowers of characterization have been pressed into her book of memory. These gaudy flowers of imagination had some root to them – every history available characterized Jane Boleyn as the “wicked wife”, the woman who accused George and Anne Boleyn of incest and so damned them, only to meet a William Brereton-like end for ministering wrong five years later when she was beheaded for for being the “bawd” to Queen Katherine Howard and Thomas Culpepper, whose assignations she had enabled. Once the boom in Tudor fiction began, it was inevitable that somebody would try and tell her side of the story – the unreliable, villainous narrator is a sure card for drama and, well-handled, could be a really refreshing take on a well-known story.

You can’t fault Brandy Purdy’s intentions, but the book has two major problems, the first of which isn’t remotely the author’s fault. This is the appearance, at just about the same time as The Boleyn Wife, of Julia Fox’s Jane Boleyn: The True Story of the Infamous Lady Rochford, which came out in December of 2007 and almost wholly exploded the traditional story of Lady Rochford. By going back to the sources she managed to demonstrate that while Jane Boleyn was guilty of pandering to Katherine Howard, there was no direct evidence that she had ever made any incest accusation. She had been questioned by Cromwell after the arrests, under what we may assume were rather tense circumstances, and she certainly gave him some sort of information, but what precisely that information was has not survived, nor how much of its interpretation was hers and how much was Cromwell’s. She never testified against them (nobody did) and of the maids who are named as giving evidence to Cromwell, her name does not turn up, though there is one unnamed “one maid more” who can be only tentatively identified. Her reputation as a betrayer who met a just end at the block five years later, was shown to be a product of hindsight – she was never connected with jealous charges of incest until after she was in her grave.

Unfortunate timing, to be sure, but that didn’t mean the book couldn’t be good; a well-fleshed out and plausible villain can still make for a good, juicy read even if you’re aware that that’s probably not how it really worked. Unfortunately that’s where we come to the other problem; while the author makes a valiant go of humanizing Jane Boleyn while showing her neediness and, shall we say, serious mental issues in the first half of the book, by the time of Anne’s execution the effort has started to peter out and after that it just descends into being straight porn, and not even a very good porn either. The plot, such as it is, is straightforward enough: Jane Parker, only child of the retiring and scholarly Lord Morley, develops an obsessive crush on the young and eligible bachelor George Boleyn, and begs her father to negotiate for a match between them. Her father demurs – he’s heard less than flattering things about young George – but she swears she’ll be happy forever if only she can marry George, since after they’re married he’ll surely come to love her. The marriage is negotiated and Jane, who describes herself as plain and without many talents, is from the first pushed aside by her new in-laws, and observes with chagrin that George enjoys the witty, talented Anne’s company more than hers. They marry, and have bad sex purely in pursuit of an heir, and Jane, disappointed in love, takes to sneaking around and spying on people through keyholes in her boredom (seriously, she’s looking through keyholes all the time and just happening on all sorts of important things). As Anne rises higher, so does Jane, but since George is continually kicking her around and belittling her, her glory is but dross. Around the time of Anne’s last miscarriage, Jane hooks up with Thomas Cromwell (and yes, I do mean that literally) after he catches her looking through a keyhole and watching King Henry rape Jane Seymour while she’s in an opium-induced stupor. More bad sex between Cromwell and Jane Boleyn ensues, after which he persuades her that if she can help him to get rid of Anne, she’ll be acclaimed as a national heroine and have George all to herself! This doesn’t work out quite as planned, and George is condemned for incest thanks to Jane, who is distraught and now pregnant with Cromwell’s baby, whom she bears later on that year while rusticated, fosters out, and never mentions again. She returns to court to wait on Jane Seymour, who promptly dies, and Anne of Cleves, who turns up at court having deliberately made herself disgusting so Henry will buy her off. Later on, Anne of Cleves appears at court again looking quite fetching and ends up getting some action – not from Henry, but from Katherine Howard, who later on lowers her standards enough to take up with Thomas Culpepper. Jane urges her not to do this, but by this point she’s becoming a love-starved lunatic and Katherine doesn’t pay her much attention. When the shit inevitably hits the fan, Jane starts seeing visions of Anne and George Boleyn, telling her that this is her reaping the whirlwind for her original lies about them. Off to the scaffold goes Jane, shrieking hysterically at ghosts to the end, and sure that none of this would have happened if only somebody had really loved her.

SEX OR POLITICS? Sex, all the way, and of fairly poor quality. Jane is used as George Boleyn’s human Kleenex in the hopes of getting an heir (he doesn’t), and by Cromwell presumably because he feels like it. Anne Boleyn doesn’t have much of a time with Henry VIII, whose sausage-like, pudgy fingers are described about sixty or seventy times throughout. George Boleyn conceives a careless liking for Mark Smeaton, whom he then rapes. Henry VIII rapes Jane Seymour (before their marriage) after she’s had a fall and is an opium-induced stupor. Katherine Howard and Anne of Cleves get Sapphic with a jar of honey at the Christmas celebrations of 1541, but at least neither of them is raping the other, so that’s an improvement. Thomas Culpepper also gropes Jane during his few free moments.

WHEN BORN? Jane describes herself as being forty-one just before her death, so presumably she was born around 1501. The Boleyn siblings are described in 1522 as being twenty-one (Mary), twenty (George) and nineteen (Anne), so they seem to be stairstep children born in 1501, 1502 and 1503 respectively.

THE EARLY LOVE: For Jane, it’s George Boleyn; he’s the first, the last, and the only, and it’s obvious from the beginning that she’s pretty unbalanced about him. For Anne, her proposed union with James Butler is dismissed by her with one sentence; Butler is “a drunken fool with a voice like bagpipes, he stinks like a stable, and I will not have him!” Henry Percy then makes his appearance as the man with two left feet – he’s shy, nervous, constantly stuttering and falling over his own feet, and Anne takes an immediate and rather maternal liking towards him. Sadly, this Percy is not the stuff of which heroic holdouts are made, and Wolsey steamrolls him out of their engagement in about three minutes. Thomas Wyatt has an unrequited affection for Anne which he takes out in gloomy poetry.

THE QUEEN’S BEES: Jane is the chief of these, but Madge Shelton turns up as well to have her affair with Henry betrayed by Jane, so that Anne can rush out and upbraid her furiously. Jane also makes sure to inform Anne of Henry’s other carryings-on, trying to freak her out, and her apotheosis is surely the moment when she joins forces with the Duke of Norfolk in running to break the news of Henry’s fall at jousting – they’re both hoping it will cause her to miscarry. After news comes that the King will live after all, Jane completely loses it and bites the messenger’s leg. Later she’s lady-in-waiting to Katherine Howard, whom she remembers fondly as a semi-neglected child in the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk’s household who needed love as much as Jane did herself, and who she realizes too late has changed since then and not for the better. Jane Seymour, of all people, actually gets a bit of depth in her description – she’s first seen at Wolf Hall, embodying the domestic virtues and generally coming across as “a dowdy little nobody who would live and die a spinster,” but once the ladies take to their horses to watch the gentlemen hunting, Jane turns out to be by far the best rider and impresses everyone, especially once her headdress slips and it turns out that she’s got unexpectedly beautiful blonde hair.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: George is this to Anne – always combing her hair, hugging her, trying to smooth her path for her. Of course, this could be Jane exaggerating, as she’s not the most reliable of narrators.

THE PROPHECY: “A Tudor Sun” is mentioned, when Henry discovers that …

IT’S A GIRL! Henry is furious when he finds out and makes no attempt to hide it. “You promised me a son. The soothsayer said a son, `A Tudor sun,’ they said, ‘That will shine over England in my image.'” (If this sounds familiar, it’s because the “Tudor Sun” homophone also turned up The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn.) He departs, having told Anne that she’ll do better next time, with a strong implication of “Or Else.” Anne then proceeds to have a stillborn son in 1535, right after being rebuked by Henry for being the cause of Thomas More’s death, and her January 1536 miscarriage is a malformed baby boy with two faces, right out of Warnicke.

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Yes, and the wen. “A choker of velvet, precious gems, or pearls hid an unsightly strawberry wen upon her throat. And she designed a new style of sleeve, worn full, long and flowing, over wrist-length undersleeves to conceal an even more unbecoming blemish – the start of a sixth finger, just the tip and nail, protruding from the side of the smallest finger on her left hand.”

FAMILY AFFAIRS: George Boleyn is portrayed as charming, witty, intelligent, devoted to his sister, and a complete rat bastard, though it’s clear that a lot of this is Jane’s anger at him for not loving or even really giving a damn about her. Still, the constant whoring and drinking, not to mention ordering Mark Smeaton into the sack with him just for the hell of it, doesn’t make George look so great. Mary Boleyn is her usual self; sweet, generous, a little vain (in a touch I liked, we see her bleaching her hair with lemon juice at the beginning) and finally saying to hell with court life in favour of true love, and running off with William Stafford. Jane is, naturally, extremely jealous of her. Elizabeth Boleyn isn’t much of a character; she appears in the scenes at Hever and in the birthing chamber but mostly her job is to shrink before male authority. Thomas Boleyn is the standard-issue grasping climber.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No, but Jane, under Cromwell’s influence, does her best to convince herself that Anne and George must have done something.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: If you didn’t know before reading this that Henry VIII was extremely fat and unattractive in middle age, well, you’d know it afterwards. I lost track of the number of times his piglike grunts and sausage-like fingers were described. And while the writing is generally clear enough and well paced, the sex scenes are just bad. I mean really, epically bad, with the undoubted worst being the one between Katherine Howard and Anne of Cleves, after which Katherine declares that “I have done what Henry could never do – I have ridden the Flanders Mare!” “Ja, Liebchen,” says Anne. “Und it vas de greatest ride of mein life!” Anne then goes on to narrate a very long story of how she deliberately uglied herself up in order to repulse Henry and get a good settlement out of him, starting with “Vhen mein brudder say I must make dis marriage mit Heinrich…” and going on in the same style for about a page. It is rough sledding, I can tell you.

On the positive side of the ledger, I found myself really enjoying the author’s characterization of Francis Weston, of all people (it helped that he was a minor character with no sex scenes). He’s portrayed as young, flamboyant, one-eyed (giving a different story of its loss every time he’s asked) and keeping up his nerve and sense of humor to the last: he wears his best clothes for his execution (“I am dressed for travel, for what is death but the greatest journey?”), jokes with his weeping mother that she’ll steal his scene, and tells the executioner not to worry about his spoiled cloak, since his gems will be more than enough profit for him (true enough, as the executioner did get his victims’ outer clothing as a perk; if you wanted a merciful despatch, your best bet was to wear something valuable). Totally over-the-top and probably not at all like what happened, but I got a sense of an actual character there. And considering that Francis Weston was the one who declared that he had “thought to live in abomination these twenty or thirty years yet,” and then repent on his deathbed, maybe not so untrue to his character after all.

ERRATA: Well, leaving aside the various unprovable but unlikely sexual liaisons, Jane is introduced as “Lady Jane Parker”; she wasn’t, just Mistress Jane Parker since her father was a baron. She’s also described as an only child whose mother is dead by the time Jane is in her teens – in fact, Jane had at least one surviving brother (Henry Parker) and both of her parents outlived her. In what I think must be an editing slip, she has a child who is secretly Cromwell’s whom she fosters out and then never mentions again, not even when she’s on the brink of death.

Henry Norris is described as a young man with a wife and young child, when in fact he was middle-aged and a widower (though at least Brereton’s age is right this time around – as usual he’s the spear-carrier, but he’s middle-aged, as he ought to be). Anne is described as being unusually flamboyant in insisting on wearing her hair down as Queen, even though she’s married and no longer a virgin. Actually, queens were the one exception to that rule – loose hair was a privilege of theirs, virgins or not.

WORTH A READ? On the whole, I’d have to say no, which is a shame, because the author really knows how to pace things, and her narrative style, when not being bogged down with unlikely sex scenes and the eternal keyhole spying which Jane engages in (seriously, that woman is like a ninja, she’s hiding EVERYWHERE) is clear and interesting. I also admired the fact that she was trying to write a more challenging story than the usual “Naive lady-in-waiting caught up in evil court intrigues” narrative by choosing a narrator who was – or who was thought to be – extremely unsympathetic and whose actions could use some explanation. But unfortunately she doesn’t manage to pull it off – Jane is just too over-the-top obsessive from the beginning to be believable as someone who could survive in that court with her lunacy unnoticed for the better part of twenty years. And there was something else which I found intensely distracting, namely that so much of the book seems to be derived from other novels. I don’t mean plagiarism, but that a lot of fictional plot points from other books have been woven into this one, and they’re like a lot of out-of-place patches on a piece of fabric.

Anne is described as suffering from white-leg after having Elizabeth, like in The Concubine, and her child is prophesied to be “A Tudor Sun” like in The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn. The younger Mary Tudor is forced by Anne to attend the baby’s birth and is made to clean her chamber pot, like in Doomed Queen Anne (and some of the dialogue is pretty close, as well, with Mary asking what Anne will do if the baby is a girl – of course, you can only write that scene so many ways). Mary Boleyn miscarries while attending Anne and George’s trial, like in Blood Royal, and Anne miscarries a deformed baby, like in The Other Boleyn Girl. And in one instance which was probably a total accident, it resembled E.O. Parrott’s comic “hidden history” compendium The Dogsbody Papers, which contains a “lost document” describing how Anne of Cleves, on hearing of her impending marriage, deliberately made herself unattractive, chewed a lot of garlic, and ended up repulsing Henry so much that he gladly forked over an enormous settlement to get rid of her, whereupon she retired to the country, took a more congenial lover, had several children, and lived happily ever after. If you want to read a book featuring a malevolent Jane Boleyn, there are several other novels which make her less over the top and somewhat more plausible, though she is a hard character to write. If you want to read about Anne of Cleves’ alternative happy ending, pick up a copy of The Dogsbody Papers – very entertaining and more historically sound than many a novel.

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From → Book Overviews

  1. Brown Line permalink

    Ah, “The Dogsbody Papers”! How well I remember their mock advertisement for “The Machine That Thinks!” – referring to Caxton’s printing press.

    • sonetka permalink

      I think my personal favourite was their ending to the Canterbury Tales, where one Dogsbody tries to keep them from getting into the shrine and demands a bribe to let them through. (“We came to find a saint, and found a sinner / What more to see?” And so we went to dinner.)

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