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The Uncommon Marriage by Peter Albery (1960)

September 15, 2012

Two marriages feature in this novel, and the one that leaves a lasting impression is not that of Henry and Anne, it’s that of George and Jane Boleyn. Typical of the time in which it was written, this book is written from multiple perspectives, but untypically it has long sections written from the perspective of George Boleyn, who is half bewitched by his betrothed, Jane Parker – described as being of a cold beauty, complete with eerily bright blue eyes, and who lives in a mouldering old wreck of a house with her grandfather Lord Morton. The latter is an alchemist who likes to try out his cures on villagers, who in their turn seem less than grateful for his ministrations. “Heal ten, let one die, they’ll not forgive you,” says Jane to George during his first visit to her, after her grandfather ambles away from the supper table to order another layer of lead put over her mother’s coffin, explaining that her ghost visited him and complained of cold. George is revolted and enthralled all at once, and by the end of the day he and Jane have acquired Biblical knowledge of each other on a pile of mouldy straw in a shed, and George’s sexual enslavement to Jane has begun.

Meanwhile, Anne Boleyn, described as intelligent, ambitious, and with a bit of the actress in her, has returned from Margaret of Austria’s court – “at Amboise and Vienna” in this book. After a brief fling with a weak-kneed Henry Percy she has been banished to Hever, where her parents and spinster Aunt Maud have her help run the house, and Mark Smeaton, a cowhand with musical gifts, moons after her. Maybe “moons” isn’t quite the right word. It’s hard to describe this Mark, so far removed from the usual wilting lily, so I’ll give you some of his short opening scene:

In the grounds of Hever Castle, twenty Kentish miles eastward of Greenwich, in a clearing from which the old keep and the gables of the new buildings were clearly visible, Mark Smeaton, aged eighteen, brown as a cob-nut, hazel-eyed, with long-eared gnome-like face, was fluting to a strange set of dancers. “Lively now! Keep moving you bastards! Bow to the left, step forward! Bob up! Bob down!” Mark viciously jerked the cord on which was strung a dozen dead moles…. It was certainly a curious performance, but then Mark was queer fellow. Who else would stroke the satin fur and the tiny pink hands of those rigid bodies and think on the girl he loved?

Mark follows Anne around at Hever and gets resentful and nasty when she corrects his pronunciations and tells him that he can’t say he loves her any longer since they’re no longer children, but if she ever gets any pull at court, she’ll have him brought there for musical training. The return to court seems unlikely enough in itself, but then Henry comes to Hever and steals a kiss (although Anne tries to put him off by asking him “What of Mary?”) and her return to court is quickly effected. At first she shares a bed with Madge Shelton from which she is frequently sexiled, for lack of a better word, but after catching the king’s eye and putting him off cleverly, back she goes to Hever where he visits once more and, dying for her consent to any kind of relationship, offers her marriage.

Her mother is skeptical (she looks over Henry’s letters to Anne and points out that she sees no mention of the word “wedding”) but Anne is thrilled and is soon moved back to court to take her place as queen-in-waiting. There follows a long, tense period wherein she’s nominally Catherine’s servant but functionally nothing of the sort – Thomas More is brought in for several scenes, in some of which he’s talking to Catherine while she’s surrounded by her maids, one of whom at least can’t help overhearing certain pointed if courteous remarks. Lady Rochford, who’s been rusticating for a bit after a wedding in which some anonymous ill-wisher tossed a black cat into hers and George’s bedroom with a note saying “For The Witch”, comes back to court after she botches an attempt at enclosure and accidentally gets a tenant burnt to death in the process. Anne’s letters are stolen, and Campeggio’s luggage is searched – she later confronts Catherine of Aragon about it, who in a nicely-done scene essentially gives her a shrug and says, truthfully, that the letters wouldn’t mean anything to her, so why on earth would she bother?

We know that she’s telling the truth because the author has been intercutting the stories of the great ones with some below-stairs action – we get a description of the servant mother and son who carefully planned the theft, and delivered them to an imperial agent. We also get a descriptions of one Doctor Strabolgius (birth name Matt Condon) who hangs out at a tavern called the Up Anchor and is supposed to be in some fuzzy profession involving alchemy but is actually an agent of Cromwell’s and source for the less reputable kinds of medicines. His mother, incidentally, was the tenant semi-accidentally killed by Lady Rochford. The usual plot boxes are ticked – marriage (twice – November and January again), pregnancy, coronation, birth – and that in a curious turnaround, Thomas More’s execution serves as Anne’s final disillusionment with Henry rather than the other way around. In most books Henry storms off after receiving the news that More is actually dead, but here Anne remembers what More said to Catherine about not compromising one’s principles, and feels that she’s become a lesser person “in the clutches of Henry”. She consoles herself with some of Meg Wyatt’s religious texts, and prays.

An additional difference is that after Lady Rochford is thrown in the Tower for cheering Princess Mary, she is kept there – she ends up testifying to George and Anne’s supposed incest in exchange for being released after having been in there for well over a year. It’s implied strongly that Cromwell was keeping her as an ace in the hole, though he hardly needed one after setting up an already hot-for-Anne Mark Smeaton, now a court musician. The obliging Strabolgius supplies Cromwell with a love philter which will make Smeaton lose what little self-control he possesses, and Cromwell sneaks it into Smeaton’s drink just before his scheduled music lesson with the Queen. Unbeknownst to both Queen and musician, Cromwell has also arranged for Henry to come back early from hunting that day so he can walk in on what promises to be a very lively scene. And lively it is. Smeaton begins by singing Anne a flirtatious song, confiding that he knows Henry is all about Mistress Seymour lately and offering to procure poison for her to finish off said Seymour, then finally seizing her. “You’ve wanted me to kiss you before, my proud beauty. You’d have let me kiss you before, had I been born a gentleman.” Enter Henry and a delighted Cromwell, and it all pretty much goes downhill from there. Cromwell is an especially busy man in this book, as he also arranged for Catherine of Aragon to be poisoned, thinking to solve several political problems in one nasty little vial from Strabolgius.

After Anne is arrested, the book rather surprisingly fades out – the author reprints some of the indictment, which is interesting, and gives a quick summary of everyone’s fate, but that’s it – no trial scene, nothing in the tower. As he earlier wrote a play on this subject called, simply, Anne Boleyn, I’m guessing that Anne’s arrest was when the curtain came down. (I have not been able to get hold of a copy of the play – I wish I could, as the cast list does not name Jane Boleyn and yet in this book she’s by far one of the most prominent characters).

SEX OR POLITICS? Sex, no question, albeit the real vixen (even described as “the witch” in this story is Lady Rochford, not Anne – the former left a much stronger impression. George Boleyn’s love and loathing for Jane find a strong parallel in Mark Smeaton’s similar feelings for Anne. There are plenty of scenes with Anne and Henry which could be considered similar but there was so much more charge in Jane’s and Mark’s characters that Henry VIII comes off looking rather colourless by comparison.

WHEN BORN? Anne is described as being sixteen in September of 1522, so probably 1506. George and Mary are both older, but by how much isn’t clear.

THE EARLY LOVE: Henry Percy is very briefly referenced in the first few pages, but we barely see him – just a few lines with Wolsey, who in this case is acting for a Henry already determined to have Anne, and off everyone goes. Percy turns up again to arrest Cardinal Wolsey, and is more fully described then: “spindle legs, hollow cheeks and bony hands … unaltered as to outward appearance save for the rabbit’s scut of a beard which covered his weak chin.” James Butler (here called by his father’s name, Piers) is referenced dismissively but never seen.

THE QUEEN’S BEES: Lady Rochford gets by far the most attention, but a few others play a part: Madge Shelton is described as a “fair-haired, opulent, well-upholstered creature, talkative and companionable, indeed fallaciously eager to please.” She shares a bed with Anne after arriving anachronistically early at court in the 1520s, and breaks said bed one night while cavorting with Francis Bryan, who also spends quality time with Lady Rochford. One Celia Conyers is another maid of honour with whom the young Anne frequently exchanges eye-rolling glances whenever the other women are being excessively foolish. Jane Seymour is there, described by Anne as looking like “a mildewed medlar” but barely speaks. Meg Wyatt is a simple, sweet, devout girl who introduces Anne to religious reading with her own copy of the Teachings of Dame Juliana, and Anne goes through a devout phase where she’s raiding Catherine of Aragon’s library for books, ostentatiously showing off her rosary as she walks, and talking about becoming a nun. Anne’s father is not amused. This does become a plot point later on, as Henry’s first flirtations with Anne are stopped when he tries to kiss her and she holds up the cross on her rosary for him to kiss instead, leaving him taken aback and deciding that he should proceed more carefully with this one. Honorable mention to one Sara Hogden, a park keeper’s daughter who becomes Henry’s mistress in the summer of 1534, after he meets her during a riding session in which Lady Rochford stages an accident so Henry would want to sleep with her (again, as it’s strongly implied that she had an affair with Henry before her marriage to George). Things go haywire and Henry falls for the pretty if lowborn girl who happens upon the scene and brings her to court for an enjoyable interlude.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Mark Smeaton, in a rather disturbing manifestation in which he’s reminiscent of a twisted Oliver Mellors the gamekeeper. It’s worth noting that the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover took place in the same year this book was published. I doubt there was any conscious modeling going but something of Mellors filters through nonetheless.

THE PROPHECY: None noticeable.

IT’S A GIRL! Anne panics and begins crying and apologizing, “sobbing out that for his sake she had incurred universal hostility and begging him for protection.” Henry decides to be the Bounteous Forgiver, “magnanimously condescending to squeeze the lemon in full before throwing it on the rubbish heap. Grandiloquently he swore that he would rather beg from door to door than desert her; and to give point to this affirmation he ordered a most impressive christening with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the whole of the nobility in compulsory attendance.”

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Yes, but not really discussed much. Surprisingly, she does not invent a sleeve to cover it.

FAMILY AFFAIRS: Her mother is shown as much more domestic than usual – usually it’s Anne’s stepmother who’s portrayed doing her accounts and worrying about the rising prices of candles and eggs, but here Lady Elizabeth is the one – like Anne’s stepmothers, she’s also concerned about propriety; upset that Mary became the king’s mistress and counseling Anne that promising marriage is a long way from going through with it. Thomas Boleyn is his usual self; ambitious, disregarding his children’s concerns, trying to get them married off at best advantage to himself – though in this case, it’s Anne who complains about George’s intended wife, not George himself. George has quite a few scenes written from his point of view and in almost all of them it’s about how fascinated and disgusted he is by Jane. Mary barely appears. There’s also a Maud Boleyn, described as Thomas’s sister and filling the slot usually occupied by Simonette the governess in other books.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No, but Henry really thinks she did, thanks to Cromwell’s frame job.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: The book is more readable than many, and there’s a lot of energy in many of the scenes – mostly the ones featuring the unholy George/Jane and Mark/Anne relationships – but even in those scenes the prose is extremely thick. In the slower scenes (Henry is sadly lacking in colour compared to George and Mark, those tormented masochists) the prose can be thicker than oatmeal and sometimes unintentionally comic. “I have a presentiment that this child will not live,” says Anne of her doomed 1536 pregnancy. “All Katherine’s still-born children haunt my womb and with tiny, midget fingers infect my blood. Feel my hands – ice-cold, yet I burn with a malignant fire.”

ERRATA: One I’ve never seen before – Anne speaks German! Albery makes the somewhat-understandable mistake of assuming that Margaret of Austria was actually located in Austria, and so Anne drops references to “apfelkuche” and “schlagsahne” (a double error, this, as I don’t believe whipped cream existed yet in the form she’s describing). Madge Shelton arrives at court at a time when, historically speaking, she would have been about five years old. Anne refers to Jane Seymour as an “ugly duckling” – an unlikely turn of phrase since the story didn’t exist yet (and even if it had, Anne might have needed to reflect on the duckling’s ultimate transformation). There were a few mentions of how much a certain sum would be worth “in today’s money” which isn’t an error, strictly speaking, but was pretty bad stylistically. Queen Anne Boleyn did that as well, and made me wonder if this book, like the other, was originally intended as nonfiction. The poisoning at Bishop Fisher’s (Cromwell-engineered here) is said to have killed seventeen people when it actually killed two. Jane Parker is described as the granddaughter of one Lord Morton, an alchemist, who’s her guardian because her parents are dead. In fact, Jane was the daughter of Henry Parker, Lord Morley, who was a classicist with no known alchemical leanings — incidentally, both of her parents outlived her.

WORTH A READ? It’s definitely an interesting piece, even if the prose can make it hard to wade through. As I’ve said before, the scenes with Lady Rochford and with Mark Smeaton are by far the most alive parts of book and in some ways I wish the author had just decided to let it rip and write some really twisted masochistic romance unhampered by the need to try and stay within shouting distance of what actually happened. The Anne is nicely realized; she’s got a bit of the Scarlett O’Hara/adventuress type which shows up strongly in Brief Gaudy Hour but her religious side, although it tends towards drama (every aspect of this Anne does) is also portrayed as genuine and deeply felt; there are very few books which show Anne praying extensively at any point before the last few weeks of her life, but this one pulls it off well. We’re also shown the theft of her letters at the aftermath of that, and Anne’s staged letter to Lady Shelton also turns up, for the first time I can remember (this is the letter in which Anne said that “I know what will happen to” Mary should she have a son). The main trouble is Henry, and his relationship with Anne. Next to the twisted delights enjoyed by the secondary characters, the scenes with Henry, which should be the heart of the book, end up as just so much dead wood.

From → Book Overviews

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