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Reap The Storm by Sylvia Lover (1998)

January 19, 2013

“I hated her almost from the moment I saw her,” thinks Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford as she awaits her own imminent execution. “Her” is of course Anne Boleyn, fascinating and accomplished sister of Jane’s husband George, and as Jane is waiting for death she writes out her memories of a misspent life, beginning with her obsessive attachment to George Boleyn and George’s almost equally obsessive attachment to his sister.

Jane is enthralled by the handsome, courteous, well-connected George Boleyn from the moment she first sees him, but although she flirts with him constantly, he’s never more than polite to her. She can’t understand it – after all, her father is wealthy and she is – unusually for this character – a very pretty girl. “I was blessed with good looks, having a fine complexion without smallpox blemish, and my eyes were a deep blue with a depth of colour much envied by the other girls at court.” At one point, she’s horrified to see George laughing and talking with another young woman, along with a knot of gallants, but fortunately it turns out that it’s only George’s sister Anne, newly returned from France. Contrary to her earlier assertion, Jane is so relieved to learn of this relationship that she takes an immediate shine to Anne and, knowing that impressing her means impressing George, starts trying to cultivate her. However, there’s not much time for doing this as that very evening, Anne meets one Henry Percy, “good-looking enough, but soft.” Soon Jane is chasing George and Anne around, presenting them with unwanted small gifts and flatteries, while Anne and Percy are getting to the brink of a betrothal – a betrothal which is unceremoniously ended by Wolsey just after the masque in which Anne is Perseverance, Jane is Constancy, and King Henry VIII, having walked in on a dress rehearsal one day, demands to play Ardent Desire. Jane is the first to learn of the betrothal’s ending, as she just happens to walk into the gallery where the cardinal holds his audiences and, upon hearing people coming, hides herself in a corner where she peeps “through an ornate carving.” Afterwards, she joyfully bears the bad news to George and then Anne, anxious to show what a considerate and sympathetic friend she is, and is shocked at Anne’s comparatively quick submission. “Are you not going to fight for Harry? Wolsey is only a man, after all, he is not God!” Anne says that she’ll get her own back from Wolsey one day, but in the interval, she’s far too weak to fight him, and after an interview with Catherine of Aragon in which the latter expresses strong sympathy towards Anne, she heads back to France.

Not long afterwards, Jane and George head to the altar – Jane has confided in her father and he’s stumped up a handsome dowry for her, and after the wedding they move to Grimstock Manor, where George continues to be kind and considerate but not exactly worshipful. He also starts to drink. Jane is, however, convinced that if she loves and flatters him enough (not to mention drags him into the sack enough) eventually he’ll come around and realize how wonderful she really is. Alas, she’s reckoning without the return of Anne, which occurs about a year after the wedding, and even though Jane is now pregnant, Anne is once again the focus of George’s daytime hours, matching jokes and Latin epigrams and leaving Jane completely unable to keep up, although she tries by showing excessive wifely solicitude when George is about joust, which irritates him. George is not the only one charmed by Anne’s company, however – King Henry has heaved into sight and the entire court is betting on when Anne will become his mistress. Jane, foolishly thinking that this kind of preferment might be good for the entire Boleyn family, says as much to George, adding that Anne must know all about that sort of thing anyway since she spent so much time in France. George instantly becomes enraged – ‘Go away! Go away before I do something I shall regret!” and Jane, fleeing, trips on a staircase, falls, and loses the baby. After she’s out of danger, Anne comes by and apologizes for having been the unwitting bone of contention and says that most people at court with agree with Jane, but that “although I am flattered, I do have this deep conviction that a married man should cleave only to his wife.” Soon it emerges that Henry is pushing for a divorce, and Anne may just be the Queen-Elect who will follow Catherine.

George, very contrite over the baby’s loss, makes much of Jane for a while, only to stumble yet again once they’re all at Grimston Manor for a visit and are stopping in at a servants’ Valentine’s Day celebration in a barn. A fire breaks out, and George rushes to see to Anne’s safety while Jane is rescued by a servant at the last moment. George later swears up and down to Jane that he thought she had already gotten out, but she’s feeling a little skeptical of his regard at this point, a skepticism enhanced later when he sides with his sisters in a dispute over who gets an heirloom brooch. Jane, still smarting over the baby’s loss and being left out of a word game they were playing, screams at Anne, and when Anne wonders “What have I ever done to you to warrant such ill-feeling?” Jane replies

“I will tell you what you have done. You have influenced George against me. Right from the beginning you have tried to stop him loving me. You are jealous of me, you want him all to yourself. I expect that’s the real reason you keep the King out of your bed. You would rather it were George.”

Relations are, unsurprisingly, strained for a while afterwards, although George still sleeps with her because he’s hoping for an heir. Outright hostility breaks out once more when Jane discovers a copy of The Obedience Of A Christian Man in Anne’s rooms – as a good Catholic, Jane is both shocked and thrilled by this, and hastens off to Cardinal Wolsey with the book. Surely this will be the end of her career at court! Not quite, as it turns out – Anne talks her way out of it by convincing Henry that she only had it for research, and George, commendably restrained under the circumstances, tells Jane that “I have tried my best to be a good husband to you, but I cannot love a spoiled child and that is exactly what you are.” After the incident, Anne’s personality begins to shift: “she became very quick-tempered and prone to occasional bouts of hysteria,” although later on when Jane discovers the book of prophecies showing a headless queen (it’s dropped in her chamber by some ill-wisher, presumably) Anne, although upset at first, declares “I shall not allow a rubbishy old book to change my mind,” and it doesn’t. Wolsey falls, Cromwell rises, Anne and Henry take their trip to Calais planning to marry but being thwarted at the last moment when Francois I won’t receive Anne officially. Since they can’t have the wedding there, they skip straight to consummation, and in a few months it’s clear that a wedding is necessary after all – they marry early on January 25th, at a ceremony to which Jane is not invited.

Anne’s reign is brief, and so are the pages dedicated to it. Jane does a bit more keyhole spying, gloats a bit over Anne’s unpopularity and only having a daughter and gets pregnant again in the summer of 1535 (by George, who still hopes for posterity). Anne becomes pregnant a few months afterwards, and for a while both women are hoping for their fortunes to improve, but Jane miscarries in November of 1535 and George, after seeing her to her apartments and getting help, leaves town on one of his diplomatic endeavours. Two months later, when Anne gives birth to a prematurely stillborn boy, George chooses to stay around solicitously looking after her and defending her when the King snarls at her for losing his boy. It’s at this moment that Thomas Cromwell oozes into Jane’s life, offering her condolences on the loss of her child and dropping a few hints that she’s not the only one who preferred it when Queen Catherine was in the saddle. Perhaps, even now, Anne could be divorced? He asks whether she thinks Anne and George are closer than most siblings, which leads into “Unnaturally close?” Jane, startled, doesn’t really believe that incest has occurred, but she’s happy to say that they’ve spent a lot of time in each other’s company and often alone, and signs a statement to this effect under the impression that soon Anne will be back at Hever in disgrace and George will be banished as well, and learn how wrong he was to cross her. Soon enough, of course, she discovers that George and Anne are to be banished not from court but from earthly existence, and after his condemnation George confronts her with a speech that appears, in varying forms, in pretty much every account of Jane Boleyn’s life:

“Jane … You and you alone have brought me to this. You are to blame for my death, although you know, as surely as I do, that these charges are false. One day, Jane, you will be punished, believe me, for God is not mocked and today you have lied on oath. I am truly sorry for you because I believe your suffering will be greater than mine.”

Jane breaks down at his death, and is rescued by the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, who takes her to Horsham to recuperate. There, Jane is attended by the friendly, charming, fourteen-year-old Katherine Howard, whom she quickly comes to adore – “Watching Katherine indulgently, noting that she was always surrounded by admiring young men, I felt a glow of pride as if Katherine were my own child. It never occurred to me then that a similar scene of admiring young men around Anne Boleyn had provoked a very different reaction in me.” All too soon Jane surprises Katherine in flagrante with Henry Manox, but gives in to her pleas not to betray her to the Dowager Duchess. Later, a similar scene repeats itself with Dereham – Jane scolds, reproves, tells her that she shouldn’t do it again – but doesn’t tell, thereby becoming a de facto ally. She’s also comforted by the Dowager Duchess, who reminds her that Henry and Cromwell between them were determined to get rid of Anne and her faction, so contrary to George’s last words, Jane is not solely responsible for their fate. When Katherine goes to Court to attend Anne of Cleves, Jane goes with her, and before long Katherine is enamoured of Thomas Culpepper, who reminds Jane painfully of George. Anne of Cleves’s reign passes in a few paragraphs and Katherine behaves herself for a bit once married to Henry, but soon enough she and Culpepper are having secret assignations, facilitated by Jane, who knows it’s insane and risky but who sees in Culpepper and Katherine younger versions of herself and George – except that in this case, the man loves the woman as much as she loves him.

It all comes crashing down soon enough, and Jane, distraught at being separated from her beloved Katherine, breaks down completely once more, convinced that this is the just punishment for her earlier false testimony against George. As she finishes her written account of her life, on February 12, 1542, she says that “There is just one thing which is sustaining me in the midst of this horror. That is an unshakeable belief that Katherine and I will be together in the hereafter. My love for her has been the purest thing in my life and I know that it will not end with death,” and concludes by reminding the reader that “He who sows the whirlwind must expect to reap the storm.”

SEX OR POLITICS? Sex. Politics are rather cursorily dealt with “History will tell what happened” with the Great Matter, Jane tells us, but she certainly won’t, her preoccupations are entirely personal. Relating to sex, one thing this book has in common with The Boleyn Wife is that for some reason George Boleyn becomes a real sexual athlete when drunk. Religion pokes out its head when Jane describes herself as a faithful Catholic who is truly shocked at Anne’s and George’s love of reading Lutheran literature, but unfortunately this point isn’t expanded on after they bust her for betraying them to Wolsey.

WHEN BORN? Jane is thirty-nine years old in February of 1542, and we’re told she met George Boleyn twenty years ago, at age nineteen. As her birthday is November 12, her sign is Scorpio (“passionate in love but also in hatred” as an astrologer tells her) and she meets him early in 1522, that adds up. The Boleyn siblings’ ages are unstated, but George is the eldest – older than Jane – Mary the middle child and Anne the youngest, but they all appear to be fairly close in age. Part of George’s protectiveness towards Anne stems from their mother having died when she was a baby and George’s wanting to look out for his smallest and most vulnerable sister. Katherine Howard is mentioned as having been born in 1522 and being eighteen when Henry married her.

THE EARLY LOVE: For Anne, Henry Percy, for Jane, it’s George Boleyn to a pathetic degree. For Katherine it’s Dereham, though of course that doesn’t last.

THE QUEEN’S BEES: Jane herself, of course, to Anne Boleyn, Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard – but not Jane Seymour; in this version, Jane is at Lambeth from the time of George’s execution to Anne of Cleves’ arrival, and that’s where she falls in a motherly sort of love with Katherine Howard. Her best friend in the early days is a fellow maid of honour named Margaret Bolton, who to Jane’s surprised dismay rejects her after her post-1536 return to court. She’s also friendly with one Matilda, Lady Faversham, who lives with her kindly but much older husband out in the country and passes her time spying on his political conferences with visiting dignitaries, thus introducing Jane to what will prove to be a dangerous habit of keyhole-peeping. Lady Willoughby is also frequently present during the early years, doing occasional spying missions so Catherine of Aragon can get more information about the Great Matter. Elizabeth Grey and Mary Wyatt are there but very much in the background, only turning up to pass on a bit of catty news now and again. When Jane is at court the second time around, waiting on Katherine Howard, she shares a room with a maid named Dorothy Pascal, who is depicted as a very pious girl who spends hours praying in the chapel, thereby freeing up hers and Jane’s room for Katherine and Thomas Culpepper.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Jane has a maid at Grimston named Molly who tells her about the servants’ Valentine’s Day dance, which Jane attends out of interest and boredom. Jane herself is a little too much of a faithful servitor to the romance of Katherine and Thomas Culpepper.

THE PROPHECY: Jane is the one who discovers the book of prophecies depicting a beheaded queen – its appearance is rather spooky; she leaves her room for a few moments to wash up and when she returns the book is on a table and it’s never explained how it got there. She shows the book to Anne and her reaction is as it was in Wyatt’s anecdote. Later on, Jane and Margaret Bolton visit an astrologer to find out whether Jane will ever have a living child, and while the astrologer can’t tell her that, he can tell her that he sees in the future “a death that you may have prevented. Your chart shows the destruction of someone close to you …. I saw that you would want vengeance and would have to fight with all your might to overcome that desire. You must overcome it, for, if you do not, you will regret it for the rest of your life and in the end you will pay an awful price.” He also predicts that she’ll find someone whom she’ll love as she would her own child.

IT’S A GIRL! “The King’s anger was terrible,” we’re told, especially since various astrologers had been assuring him that the child was a boy. However, he pulls himself together enough to reassure Anne that it will be a boy next time.

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Sort of – Jane had heard rumours that Anne had a sixth finger but “in reality it was not big enough to be a finger. It had the appearance of an extra nail just starting to grow.” She does wear “hanging sleeves” that reach almost to the ground, and has a large mole on her neck which she covers with “beads and ribbons.”

FAMILY AFFAIRS: Anne’s stepmother appears again! Before I got this book, I was sure that her 1986 appearance would be her last, but here she is in 1998. She’s her usual self – sweet, a bit countrified, worried about forgetting “court etiquette” as she wasn’t born to the same class as the rest of them, but nonetheless beloved by all – in fact, her birthday celebration is the setting for the quarrel over the brooch. Thomas Boleyn is distinguished by his urging Anne to quit while she’s ahead (especially once she’s become a Marquess), and Mary Boleyn is her usual self, albeit we don’t see much of her. “Mary is a sweet-natured girl, but not exactly bright,” is Anne’s evaluation. We’re told that she loves William Carey, but she disappears from the narrative early on, well before her second marriage. George is … well, you get the idea of him from the summary. Handsome, charming, quick-witted, and unable to deal gracefully with anyone who isn’t all of those three.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No, she doesn’t. Jane doesn’t really believe it, either, but tries to talk herself into it. Katherine Howard, by way of contrast, certainly does it, but Jane is indulgent because it’s true love.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: Quite the opposite of purple, the dialogue tends to be overly grey, with too much flat-out exposition. Speaking of Wolsey’s giving away Hampton Court, Jane informs George that “You must acknowledge he did it for a purpose. Giving such a magnificent gift will make him rise even higher in the king’s esteem. Power is what Wolsey needs. That is far more important to him than a dozen homes.” The Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, comforting Jane after George’s death, tells her to “put the past behind [her]” and that she needs to “get on with [her] life,” slightly jarring expressions, and although Jane is not supposed to be as clever as her in-laws she too often gets reduced to asking obvious questions on behalf of the reader, as when Wolsey is arrested and she has to ask George what “praemunire” means. (It does get better sometimes, though – for example, Jane’s conversation with her father in which he teases her by saying he’s looking into matching her with various senile noblemen before telling her that of course he was looking into George Boleyn, he has eyes, after all).

Outside of flatfooted dialogue, there’s a great deal that’s good here. The narration is clear and some of the set-pieces – the masque, the Valentine’s celebration, Peto’s sermon and Anne walking out on it, Jane confronting the over-lax girls at Horsham – are very nicely done, with a real sense of time and place. It’s difficult to choose a handful of sentences to exemplify this since while few of them are remarkable in themselves, they can add up to something greater than the sum of their parts, but here’s a bit of scene-setting before the masque.

All our rehearsals had been at Greenwich with just a replica of the actual scenery, so this was our first sight of it. It was unbelievably beautiful. It had an elaborate wooden base which was painted green. There were three towers and battlements which were given a shimmering effect by covering them with hundreds of pieces of green tinfoil, which I thought was very ingenious. Tinfoil rubbed with quicksilver and used as backing for mirrors was the only use I knew about.

Tinfoil has obviously come down in the world since the sixteenth century. (And on looking it up, it does seem to have been used just as described).

ERRATA: The author’s afterword mentions a few changes deliberately made – the main one being Jane’s role in bringing The Obedience Of A Christian Man to Wolsey – she didn’t, but to have her do so helps delineate her character and also tightens the plot. Jane is also the one to find the picture of a beheaded queen in the book of prophecies, when in the original version of the story (and its retellings) it’s another maid who does so, but again it serves the plot.

Elsewhere: Jane’s brother is never mentioned, and she’s presented as an only child. She testifies at Anne and George’s trial, which she did not, and she’s also called Lady Jane, which she was not – her father was a baron, so she was Mistress Parker before eventually becoming Lady Rochford. “Protestantism” is frequently mentioned, and Jane, talking to Cardinal Wolsey, reassures him that George is a good Catholic who believes in “the infallibility of his Holiness”, but papal infallibility had not been established then and would not be until the nineteenth century. Henry VIII marries Jane Seymour on May 20, the day after Anne’s execution – in fact, they were betrothed on that day and married ten days later, though I’ll concede that this is really a distinction without a difference. Jane Boleyn spends all of her time from George’s death until the arrival of Anne of Cleves at Horsham with the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, when in fact she seems to have been back at court by the end of Jane Seymour’s tenure (she was present at the funeral).

Valentine’s Day is described as being a festival for servants only, when by all accounts the quality celebrated just as much – although she describes it as having been a servants’ festival at Great Hallingbury during her childhood, so this could plausibly be chalked up to regional variations. Jane also drinks water while in prison – given that her food and drink as described earlier on are true to the time period, I’m not sure if this is a mistake or a demonstration of the fact that her standards are slipping along with her sanity.

WORTH A READ? This book is a curious case – it’s by no means the best Anne Boleyn book I’ve read, but it’s far from the worst, and it offers a comparatively plausible spin on the traditional version of Lady Rochford; a longstanding grievance which ebbed and flowed with time and which was finally tipped over the edge, along with a healthy dose of self-delusion. Her role in George’s downfall is ambiguous – Cromwell asks no more from her than information which, while true, is innocuous and he himself spins it into something more sinister; Jane simply does not resist this. Essentially, Jane allows herself to be a tool – telling nothing more than the truth but passively allowing it to be falsely interpreted. It’s an interesting moral conundrum in that while her testimony (in the novel, that is) lends colour to the accusation, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk is also quite right in saying that George and Anne’s downfall was predetermined. Jane is not at fault for their deaths, because they were always going to die – but she is nonetheless guilty of not resisting them strongly enough. The Jane depicted here is close to the traditional version, but more understated, and as such more convincing – she’s obviously not entirely well mentally (I’m sure it’s no coincidence that she acts most recklessly and angrily soon after her late miscarriages) but not to the point where it seems unlikely that she’d be allowed to remain at court. Julia Fox’s biography of Jane Boleyn has put up a very strong challenge to the traditional version of her, but this iteration is pathetically easy to believe.

For all that, the book has a somewhat unfinished air – I think the problem lies largely in the dialogue, which as I mentioned before is very flat in many places and full of exposition; some of the conversations feel like placeholder dialogue which was never returned to for a punching up. Altogether, reading the book was like walking through a lovely house which is skimpily furnished – good, but not quite ready for the public yet.

All the same, I think it could easily have gotten more public attention than it did – however, two factors seem to have been working against this. Firstly, it was published by the Citron Press, a print-on-demand operation which went out of business in 2000 and doesn’t seem to have been successful in obtaining sufficient publicity or circulation for its publications, and secondly, it was published in 1998, when The Other Boleyn Girl was still three years in the future and Tudor fiction, while certainly not unknown (as this blog demonstrates) wasn’t the blazing hot commodity it became afterwards. I wonder if this book might not have had better luck if it had been submitted to publishers ten years after it actually was, as The Boleyn Wife (2007) and The Boleyn Inheritance (2006), both of which feature first-person narration from Jane Boleyn, have both done very well for themselves. With a good revision, I think this book could easily hold its own with the current crop of costume-covered historical romances.

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From → Book Overviews

  1. It does not help that the book cover is as dull as ditchwater.

    • sonetka permalink

      The cover is terrible. Looking at the ad for the Citron Press in the back it looks like all of their covers were formatted in the same way, so the awful type and layout couldn’t be helped, but surely they could have found a public domain image of Anne somewhere to slap on the front and let casual readers know what it’s about. As it is, it was just luck that I even found out this book existed, let alone what the subject was.

  2. Tony Weatherby permalink

    Sylvia Lover is my maternal aunt. Sadly she now has dementia. This was her first attempt at writing a book and I agree it is not a great piece of literature but it is a good story. She thought Dan Brown and Jeffrey Archer good writers so I guess she comes from that school. I did hear her read a passage from ‘Reap the Storm’ on the radio and she read it so well. I was/am proud of her. It is easier to be a critic than an author, which I imagine most people don’t even try. Tony Weatherby

    • sonetka permalink

      Hello Mr. Weatherby — I’m sorry to have taken so long to write back, I’ve been ill for a while and a lot of things got put on the back burner. I’m very sorry to hear about your aunt’s health, and you’re quite right that it’s easier to be a critic than an author; as I said in my first entry on the blog, it’s very hard to write even a bad book (I’ve only ever managed completed short stories) but I’m very sorry if you think I was calling your aunt’s book bad; it certainly had flaws but she is, as far as I know, the first author in several centuries to make a real attempt at exploring Jane Boleyn’s character and what could have explained her (supposed) actions during the events of 1536 and 1542. Certainly she was the first to do so with any kind of real compassion towards her subject. For my money, her book was much better than anything by Dan Brown.

      Again, I’m so sorry to hear about her state of health, and I hope she’s happy and comfortable. Best wishes to both of you!

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