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Feather Light, Diamond Bright by Judith Saxton (1974)

December 1, 2012

A book which starts off well but is ultimately disappointing, this follows the life and travails of a fairly recognizable Mary Boleyn and gives us an Anne who is a bit different – for a while, at least.

Nine-year-old Mary Boleyn is already very pretty (and much envied by her five-year-old sister Anne, who confidently awaits the day on which her hair too will turn blonde and her eyes blue), and is becoming old enough to enter the Boleyn family business, such as it is. Despite her own wish to stay at home, her father dispatches her to the court of Margaret of Austria, but just as she’s settled in (and speaking French fluently, for once) word comes from her father; she is to leave Margaret of Austria’s court forthwith and return to England in order to attend Mary Rose Tudor to France.

Mary, somewhat embarrassed at this open display of ambition on her father’s part, goes nonetheless and stays on after Mary Rose’s widowing, remarriage and departure for England. She has to be careful, however, for by the time she’s pushing fourteen, Francois I has gotten a good look at her and decided that she looks like a nice little way to pass the time, and starts sending one of his pages to summon her in the evenings for “conversation.” Mary, alarmed, plays sick and the page, Robert, goes along with it because he feels sympathetic – and, as it turns out, a bit more than that. Soon Mary and Robert are sneaking off for trysts in open fields, unoccupied rooms, and wherever they can be alone for five minutes. Inevitably, the idyll ends when they’re caught in the act and Robert is sent home forthwith, and Mary now has no choice but to sleep with Francois. Anne, lately arrived at court, sees all of this and, with the snottiness of the very young, decides that she can’t understand why Mary would act so foolishly and resolves that she herself will be much more careful. Of course, it also helps that Francois is too busy despoiling Mary to make a serious play for Anne, and also that Mary feels very motherly to Anne and tries to protect her as much as she can.

In due course Mary receives word that her father has arranged a marriage for her with William Carey, whom she doesn’t know, and she goes back to England with a stopover at the Field of Cloth of Gold, where she’s introduced to Henry VIII. Once back in England, waiting on the pious but depressing Catherine of Aragon and still thinking wistfully about Robert, Mary is summoned to Henry VIII’s rooms one evening because he wants to talk with her. Is history repeating itself? Why yes, it is, but at least Henry is much more gentlemanly than Francois and actually converses for a bit before getting down to business – apparently he’s become so infatuated with her that although he originally intended to wait until after her wedding with Carey, he must have her! Now! So he does, and she marries the adoring but rather limp Carey, who upon being told that he needs to step back a little and think of England, meekly does so. Mary doesn’t regret this as much as she might because it’s made clear that Carey isn’t up to much in bed and she’s gotten used to better. Thomas Boleyn, George Boleyn (now unhappily married to the spying Lady Rochford) and William Carey all receive appointments and manors as a result of Mary’s giving way, and Mary herself receives a baby of ambiguous paternity – this is a brilliantly redheaded Henry Carey, so while she can’t know for certain it’s pretty clear whose son this really is. William Carey, described as showing self-respect “for the first time” starts to get waspish with Mary once he sees the baby’s hair, but Anne, recently returned from France and newly disappointed in her love affair with Henry Percy, takes to the baby at once, much to Mary’s relief – at least the baby can get Anne off the subject of Wolsey. Mary also notes approvingly that Anne is the only family member who hasn’t profited, or even tried to, from Mary’s attachment to the King.

And then things go haywire – not just in real life, but in the novel. Henry VIII having stopped by Hever to get a glimpse at his not-quite son, Anne inadvertantly charms him and then, realizing what’s up, sets out to charm him some more. Before the reader can catch her breath, Henry is bidding Mary a sheepish goodbye and telling her that he likes her, but Anne is fascinating him beyond all expectation. Anne is whispering to Mary that she thinks she can get Henry to divorce Catherine and marry her – after all, he is “ripe for a change” – Mary has her second child, Katharine, and Anne has changed into someone unrecognizable from the first half of the book. It isn’t just that she’s become driven by ambition after losing Percy; lots of Annes do that. The trouble is that her ambition has apparently driven out every sympathetic aspect of her character; her love for Mary, her interest in children, and her good judgement (unlikely as it may seem, the Eleanor Carey appointment is entirely her idea – she knows that Eleanor is unsuitable, but tells an aghast Mary that she’s doing it just to show how well she’s got Henry wrapped around her finger and also to get Eleanor Carey out of Mary’s hair). Once she and Henry are married, the Anne who adored baby Henry Carey now can’t stand the idea of nursing her baby even before it turns out to be a girl, decides on the spur of the moment to cold-bloodedly fake a second pregnancy, mocks Mary for anything and everything, and is so unpleasant that some of Henry VIII’s late-developing cruelties of character are laid at her feet; Henry would never have become this way had Anne not pushed him. It’s a relief when the Sword of Calais arrives to end it all, since the reader could forgivably suspect that the real Anne has become trapped in a snowglobe somewhere around 1528, and an evil impersonator has been taking her place ever since.

SEX OR POLITICS? Sex. It’s a seventies romance novel, with all that that implies (including Anne giggling over the possibility that Henry might rape her, except that he “would never try anything so undignified.”)

WHEN BORN? 1503 – Mary is eleven when she attends Mary Rose Tudor to France. George is two years younger than her, born in 1505, and Anne gets her old-fashioned birth year of 1507.

THE EARLY LOVE: Robert, a page of Francois I, is assigned to summon Mary to the royal bedchamber, but ends up falling for her instead and helps cover for her when she pretends to be ill so as not to have to go to Francois. After a few happy months together, they’re busted when Francois catches Robert covering Mary in another sense, and Robert is sent away, never to be heard from again except for third-hand news of his marriage. Oddly, Mary calls him “Rob,” although they’re speaking French. Anne’s early love is of course Henry Percy, “a hot blooded young man” who taken aback by the vehemence with which his and Anne’s attachment is attacked. “Your father cannot prefer that you marry a Butler, and get shipped off to Ireland, where he’ll never see you again? Besides, I’m a very good match.” Sadly, this confidence is no proof against the combined efforts of Wolsey, Henry VIII, and Thomas Boleyn (although in this instance, Henry VIII has no motive besides patching up the Ormond dispute), although when Thomas declares afterwards that “we’ll soon have her ready and willing for her Irishman” Elizabeth Boleyn defies him by instead sending Anne back to the continent for recuperation. After her return, the unhappily married Thomas Wyatt gets a look in for about a page, but while Anne enjoys his company he gets nosed out so fast by the King that he doesn’t leave much of an impression.

THE QUEEN’S BEES: Lots of promising appearances by maids of honour early in the book, and not even the best-known ones: Jane Popincourt, Elizabeth Grey, and Anne Devereaux all turn up and were lightly but nicely characterized. Unfortunately, they all disappear quite early, as the plot demands, and later on there are no real replacements – the story devolves into the depressingly familiar setup where the population of the queen’s household seems to consist entirely of Anne, Mary, Lady Rochford, Madge Shelton (deliberately put into Henry’s way by Anne, and comfortable enough to joke with her about it) Jane Seymour, and a couple of painted backdrops. Jane Seymour herself receives merciless treatment: dull, plain, faded, spinsterly, and without even her pearl of great price, since Henry gets her pregnant before their wedding and she miscarries shortly afterwards. Her appeal is summarized by Mary thus: “If Henry had searched the wide world over, he could not have found a lady more unlike his wife.”

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Mary and Anne have a childhood nurse named Mrs. Crimpling, who used to wait on their mother when she was younger. Mrs. Crimpling attends Mary on her first trip abroad, to the court of Archduchess Margaret, but drops out of the story once the sisters are a little older.

THE PROPHECY: I liked how it was done in this one – the young Mary is getting measured for new dresses before leaving for France, and the even-younger Anne is hanging around watching. After a few hours Mary asks if Anne could look at fabrics too as a treat, as she’s been so patient, and chooses a colour she thinks would be flattering.

She arranged a length of the clear crimson silk round Anne’s shoulders so that it encircled her small white neck and reflected pink beneath her chin.

Anne looked down at her scarlet robed person, then gave a little choking cry of panic. She threw the material away from her so that it fell on the table in a bright pool.l

“No, no,” said Anne desperately. “I won’t have it. It’s the colour of blood. Bright fresh blood, pouring over me. I won’t have it.”

IT’S A GIRL! Henry is so relieved and happy that the baby is alive that he doesn’t get upset, especially since by the time he finds out Anne is falling all over herself weeping and apologizing and promising a boy next time. “For the first and last time in her life, probably, she felt that she had been at fault.”

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Not mentioned; the five-year-old Anne is shown as dark-haired, dark-eyed, still possessed of baby fat, and hoping that once she grows older she’ll turn blonde and blue-eyed, just like Mary.

FAMILY AFFAIRS: Thomas Boleyn is the usual slave to ambition, and he and George both profit greatly by Mary’s affair with the king. Elizabeth Boleyn is a bit more interesting: she’s as ambitious as her husband but has a soft spot for Anne as the baby of the family. After the Percy affair, when Thomas is ready to twist Anne’s arm until she agrees to go ahead with marrying James Butler, Elizabeth tells him that when Anne marries, it will be to a husband she wants, and arranges for Anne to go back to the continent for a bit. Later on her favoritism of Anne reaches ridiculous levels. Elizabeth is also mentioned as having been flirted with by Henry VIII in his young days – the extent of the relationship is unclear, but one thing we know for certain is that Thomas Boleyn had no problem with it whatsoever and may even have pushed Elizabeth into Henry’s way. George Boleyn has less of a part to play than usual; he turns up just enough for us to establish that he’s completely on Anne’s side – not surprising – and that his wife likes to look through keyholes and spread gossip. Mary is given her usual first two children, albeit in the wrong order, and her baby with William Stafford is a son named Robert to commemorate her first love.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No. It’s one of the few vices she’s not guilty of, at the end.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: There’s something so immutably 1970s about this book – it’s impossible to imagine it having been written even ten years earlier, and a lot of that is due to the way Mary is portrayed; she’s the earth-mother who sings the virtues of breastfeeding, values true love above all, nicknames her daughter Kathy, and when Anne throws a fit at her badly timed pregnancy by Stafford, says things like “I’m telling myself that you’re under great strain, Anne. I’m trying to convince myself that if you weren’t so worried about your own non-existent pregnancy, you wouldn’t speak to me like this.”

ERRATA: Mary’s daughter was born before her son, whatever their paternity, and Anne is highly unlikely to have returned to the continent after the Percy romance (though this isn’t the only book where she does it: The Uncommon Marriage, 1960, also features this). James Butler is said to be Earl of Ormond, which he wasn’t yet, and Thomas More is executed for “disapproving of the divorce”, full stop. While that was certainly an element of it, and I realize that a romance novel isn’t going to start getting into the nuts and bolts of the religious debates of the day, it was a little frustrating that this was about the only mention of the subject at all. I mean, the oath wasn’t mentioned at all. The book’s last chapter is an epilogue which states both that William Stafford died six years after Anne and that Mary lived long enough to see Elizabeth come to the throne, which is quite wrong on both counts — though as I’ve seen that date for Stafford’s death in at least one other novel, I think a faulty history book is the real culprit here.

WORTH A READ? It’s a pretty standard-issue romance, but I found it disappointing because during the first half it seemed like it was gearing up to be a very good one. Mary herself wasn’t especially fascinating – like most fictional Marys, she was the sweet, domestically inclined loving mother and not much more. But the characterization of Anne stood out at first; she wants to be like Mary and loves her even while looking carefully on what’s happened to her in France, she’s an acquisitive child (telling Mary placidly that she prefers getting gifts to giving and always will) and yet when slightly older doesn’t try to exploit Mary’s situation, unsure about children but enjoying Mary’s baby son. It felt like the table was being set for a somewhat subtler Anne than usual – not necessarily a very pleasant one, but still an interesting one. Then as soon as she meets the King, she turned straight into a monochromatic harpy who’s responsible for all the executions, the misery of Henry’s daughter (she seriously threatens to poison her) and virtually every other negative event of the late 1520s and early 1530s. “But as for [Henry’s] growing unpleasantness, his cruelties, his selfishness – who has taught him these things if not my sister?” asks Mary. I could venture a few guesses, but the book doesn’t invite that. Too bad, because it could have been much better.

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From → Book Overviews

  1. Susan Higginbotham permalink

    This is one I’ve never heard of! I might have to break down and find a copy.

    • sonetka permalink

      I hadn’t either, until Lindsey Nicholls kindly mentioned it my comments — between this and The Tudor Sisters / Court Cadenza the 1970s seem to have been the fictional Mary’s first experience of the big time. Considering how little we know about her in real life, her fictional character is remarkably consistent, if not always very realistic for the time period :).

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