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Dear Heart, How Like You This? by Wendy J. Dunn (2002)

February 23, 2013

The back of the cover doesn’t lie on this one. “Oh Anna! My burning light. My lovely girl. Dearest of hearts. My only beloved. To know that you lie dead. Oh, how dark has become my world!” it begins, and if you like that sort of prose, you’re in luck because there are 318 pages of it to follow. While there is a plot – there has to be – the book is more about recurring themes and scenes than character development or a complex story. The plot is, in fact, very simple: Thomas Wyatt has an Arcadian childhood being raised and taught with his beloved cousins Anne and George Boleyn (Mary is as ever the non-academically inclined featherbrain, but he graciously allows her to make their trio into a quartet sometimes). During this time he falls obsessively, nay hysterically, in love with Anne because she’s bright and talkative and – as we hear repeatedly – very, very thin and small. The rest of the trio’s lives are spent being forced by cruel parents into uncongenial marital arrangements and having meetings in which they pine for the lost world of their childhoods.

George Boleyn is, of course, saddled with the “sharp-eyed”, malign Jane, and Wyatt is married to Elizabeth Brooke, who not long after their traumatic wedding night begins hitting the hay with “uneducated villeins” and expressing scorn for his poetry. When he informs the fresh-from-France Anne of this, she’s shocked. “Tom! I am truly sad for you! I would have thought that any woman worth her salt would love to have a poet for a husband,” she says, obviously not remembering such rough-hewn sons of Calliope as Francois Villon. Personally, I could see Elizabeth’s point. With her husband moping over his lost childhood beloved, writing poems about his lost childhood beloved, and (by his own admission) bad in bed but still able to put her through childbirth at the age of fourteen, a sturdy, enthusiastic villein could start looking like just the ticket for a good night out. Anne herself almost escapes marital doom by falling in love with Hal Percy – “Gentle, sensitive, full of humour and pranks” — but the King forestalls that because he’s tired of Mary Boleyn and wants to try the younger sister for a change. Off Anne is sent to Hever, but not before the Duke of Suffolk tries to rape her and Wyatt charges in to the rescue, thereby earning Anne’s gratitude and originating Suffolk’s grudge against him which will end with his arrest fourteen years later.

Anne, at Hever, simmers with rage both at Henry and Wolsey, and resolves, despite Wyatt’s urgings towards caution, to be revenged on both of them. She intends to hold out on Henry to show him what torture it is to be separated from one’s beloved, but Wyatt, fearing where this could lead, resolves on a desperately stupid gambit to try and save her by deliberately showing one of her tokens to Henry and implying that he got there ahead of the king – this story turns up in a lot of books but I can’t remember ever seeing a version wherein Wyatt sticks his neck out (so to speak) quite like this. Henry, predictably, flies into a rage and Wyatt is sent off on a convenient diplomatic mission to France, but not before he warns Anne that her scheme for revenge will end badly. “Anna! Anna! Can you not see that you are on a road where you could destroy yourself?” Her reply is that Wolsey and Henry have already destroyed everything that made life worth living, so Wyatt can just take himself off now and let her pull their wings off at leisure.

Wyatt then spends about two years journeying back and forth on diplomatic missions to France and Italy, but although a fair amount of ink is spilled on them, his diplomatic talents are entirely an informed attribute – what we mostly see are his relationships with women. There’s an Italian woman named Lucrezia whom he lives with for a while and who helps him improve his skill in bed, and later on there are two Fallen Women lent to him and Sir John Russell to keep them busy while the Pope delays meeting with them. Wyatt hears the sad story of one of the women and gallantly refuses to sleep with her, leaving her quasi-hysterical with gratitude in the morning. He’s also meeting with the Pope and the Venetian Senate at various points, but we don’t get to hear much about that. Wyatt is captured by Spanish troops just before the sack of Rome (as he was in real life) and he is rescued by Lucrezia, who is “a Spaniard’s woman now” but still has fond memories of Wyatt’s past good treatment. Off he goes to England to take a break, until the sweating sickness begins sweeping the countryside. Henry, of course, flees as soon as it becomes clear that Anne has caught it, but Wyatt flies to her side and helps Simonette nurse her through it. And once she’s recovered, she confides in him that her plans have gone awry:

“Tom, I cannot escape from him. He will not let me escape from him. I am a deer, Tom, and the King is my hunter …. You must know that I would never have chosen the King in my heart. Indeed, Tom, when I lost Hal I was so consumed with hatred for the King and Wolsey that I imagined myself a spider that would entrap the King and hurt him as he hurt me. All I wanted was to make him feel what it was like to want something so badly, to know it is yours and then have it snatched out of your very hand … to see it destroyed forever. Now I find I am not the spider, rather the fly, and I am entangled in this web where the biggest spider of all is lurking. Tom, you told me to put aside my foolish plan to hurt the King… Tommy, you were so right and I was so completely stupid and blind.”

Then they sleep together. It is, naturally, a superlative experience: “This time I shared with Anna I knew to be my truth. The poems that I wrote suddenly breathed and sighed, shivered and trembled – the rhythm of the rhyme dictated by two young hearts beating fast, and, for once, in symmetry.” As they recover afterwards Anne apologizes for “using” him but says that Simonette told her that “your first man puts a brand upon you that you carry until the day you die. There is no way that I would have wanted my branding to be that of the King.” Simonette, as it turns out, has benevolently engineered their encounter, first by prompting Anne to proposition Wyatt and then by making sure they don’t get interrupted. All right then! This tender interlude doesn’t keep Anne from tearing down Wolsey shortly afterwards, but the shocked Wyatt can’t bring himself to blame her.

Things move on quickly until Anne is off to Calais in November of 1532. Wyatt is there, having helped with the preparations, and learns from Anne that Simonette has died, which leads them into more reminiscences about their lost childhoods. Wyatt gets back to England ahead of the weather, after having written “Whoso list to hunt”, but Anne and Henry are stopped in Calais for a few extra days, and the spider finally catches the fly. They’re married secretly in January, or so George informs Wyatt. George also carries the interesting news that both Anne and the King came back from Calais in “a foul temper” and that he thinks they might not have married after all if she hadn’t already been pregnant. Wyatt and George commiserate with each other again on their marriages, and George observes archly that “I thank God that my sister has, in her life, been blessed with one day of true love.”

It looks that’s all she’ll get, too, as her coronation, although splendid, produces little public sentiment in her favour, and Henry is ignoring her and chasing court ladies left and right. Elizabeth’s birth does nothing to make them get along better, and although she does manage to get pregnant again quickly, she miscarries a boy. After this she spends a lot of time being depressed and weeping with George, Wyatt, or both of them, and Wyatt discovers why her marriage broke down so quickly – Henry realized that she wasn’t a virgin: “You branded me well.” She doesn’t blame him, but it’s unpleasant news, nonetheless. After a few repetitions of older episodes (the book of baleful prophecies left in Anne’s room), which seem to be done primarily so Wyatt can be a firsthand witness, they’re off to Wolf Hall, where Anne temporarily manages to lure Henry away from the negligible charms of the daughter of the house and becomes pregnant again. But after Catherine of Aragon’s death (which Anne feels guilty about, despite her yellow clothing) and Henry’s fall at jousting, Anne miscarries of a monstrously deformed child “with an over-large head and a stump where there should be an arm,” and Henry is horrified.

Things now begin to spiral out of control – George has a brotherly concern for his sister and is contemptuous of Henry for not being sympathetic enough, and Anne can see the court vultures circling and takes desperate refuge in light conversation with Norris, Weston and the adoring stares of Mark Smeaton. The day comes when Smeaton disappears, and a few days later Anne and George are arrested as well. Wyatt, asking the Duke of Suffolk what on earth is going on, is rewarded with a few sneers and then the reminder that “I did not enjoy being denied my pleasure that day long ago.” Presto, Wyatt is under arrest. He’s taken to the Bell Tower, where for once he has a good reason for doing nothing but sitting and brooding painfully on days past. His father comes to visit at one point, to tell him what the charges are. They’re both shocked at the incest charge leveled by Lady Rochford, to the point where they apparently are at a loss, if not for words, then certainly for a thesaurus:

“Jane,” I said sighing. “I never realised that Jane could be so capable of such wickedness.”

“Aye, that she is, Tom. I cannot think of a better way to describe the hussy. Aye, Tom, Jane is a very wicked woman, and poor George is in the Tower because of that woman’s wickedness,” my father responded with a grimace of disgust.”

Wyatt tells his father that he’s ready to die with the others, but his father tells him that his son, now fifteen, will need his father and he shouldn’t needlessly sacrifice himself. To this Wyatt agrees with the apparently unironic statement that “I have spent my whole life thinking of others, father … I suppose ’tis too late to change the habit of a lifetime.” His father leaves to work some behind-the-scenes magic to get him out of there, and in the meantime Wyatt sees all the beheadings from his cell window (true) writes “Farewell, My Lute,” and collapses, vomiting. In the epilogue he writes a short paean to Anne, his “Dark Lady” stating that without her, his life is now over.

SEX OR POLITICS? Sex all the way – the politics are acknowledged but swept off the table as fast as possible. It’s incredibly frustrating, since as a man who ran diplomatic missions and saw a great deal, Wyatt would be a perfect narrator for some really vivid stuff.

WHEN BORN? 1507. She’s described as two years old in 1509, while George is “nearly five, and Mary his elder by just over a year,” so say 1504 for George and 1503 for Mary. Wyatt himself was born in 1503.

THE EARLY LOVE: Wyatt falls in love with her with she’s two and he’s five. She in her turn falls in love with Henry Percy and holds on to his memory for the rest of her life, but isn’t averse to letting Wyatt break her in, since she knows he’s crazy about her and she figures he must be better than the King.

THE QUEEN’S BEES: We see very little of them – not surprising, given the perspective. We hear the story of Anne Gainsford, George Zouche and the prayer-book, and we get a few glimpses of Margaret Wyatt attending Anne, but that’s about it. We certainly do not see Wyatt’s eventual mistress Elizabeth Darrell, who attended Catherine of Aragon until her death and refused to take the Oath of Supremacy (in fairness, Wyatt’s affair with her is not supposed to have started until 1537, but presumably he at least saw her at some point before then). Madge Shelton gets a few lines, but Jane Seymour gets none. Jane is the usual sad article – dim, plain, and quite unattractive.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Simonette the governess is frequently described as the children’s effective mother, and of course she arranges that one-time tryst between Anne and Thomas as well as (by Anne’s account) supplying Mary with contraceptive/abortifacient potions when they’re in France. The Boleyn and Wyatt children are also tutored in childhood by Father Stephen, who likes to tell them stories from Homer and the Greek myths along with their theology. I did rather like him, as he was a very upbeat character, which was a marked contrast to the principals. George Boleyn also has a servant boy named Gil, but he mostly just runs messages and we don’t see much of him.

THE PROPHECY: Lots of dark warnings and swearings of revenge turn up (Wyatt keeps telling Anne that she’ll regret trying to bring down Wolsey, Suffolk swears revenge on Anne for not being raped by him, Anne swears revenge on Wolsey etc) but no prophecies per se.

IT’S A GIRL! Since Wyatt isn’t there in person, he reports merely that despite her parents’ great disappointment, Elizabeth was magnificently christened. “King Henry put on a brave face that day …. I suppose it may not have all been pretence. It had been a long time since he had held a baby of his born in wedlock. Verily, a healthy and living baby – even if only a girl.”

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? She has a mole on her neck and “a tiny growth upon her right hand’s fifth finger.” At one point during her childhood, her father informs her that the latter looks like a devil’s teat and no man would want to marry her if he saw those marks. As an adult, she wears a ribbon or a necklace to cover the mole, and sews her own sleeves “long and wide … the material, cut in a point, draped over her fingers.” Simonette helped her to design to sleeves and based the pattern off an old dress of her mother’s.

FAMILY AFFAIRS: “Elizabeth Boleyn was a shallow woman – a woman who appeared to be happy only when she was at the center of attention.” She’s hardly the center of attention here, though; we see very little of her. We see slightly more of Thomas Boleyn – he’s the usual cold, ambitious climber, and his hiring of Simonette is “one of the few kind acts” of his life. Oddly, he’s described as accusing his wife of fathering bastards on him, with the implication that George and Anne are the bastards – but this is never followed up on and I can’t see why it was there to begin with. Naturally he beats his children black and blue when they disobey him. Mary Boleyn is, as usual, a lively girl who’s more interested in men than books – at a dance in 1532, she has a nice scene where she dances with Wyatt and teases him about being seen to flirt with her, declaring that now that she’s a widow, she’ll be able to choose a man for herself. She’s a nice contrast to the eternal moping of Anne and George, both of whom have been sufficiently described – talented, beautiful, prone to weeping over their hard lots and then consoling themselves by playing the lute. Lady Rochford is sharp-faced and jealous, and her betrayal of George is not really explained except by the oft-repeated statement that she is indeed a “wicked wife.” It’s implied that she was jealous of Anne’s closeness to George. This Lady Rochford is not, however, adulterous like so many of her earlier incarnations – at one point Wyatt asks George if Jane is like his, Wyatt’s, wife, and George tells him that if he thought Jane was playing around, he’d dump her in a second. George, described as “sensitive, artistic, gentle, brave,” is not averse to sowing his oats, as there are glancing references to brothel visits in George’s company (Wyatt professes a distaste for these) and once it’s mentioned that George’s mistress has recently delivered a son. We never meet George’s mistress or hear anything of either character afterwards, so perhaps that was a dropped plotline.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No. The one time she slept with Wyatt before marriage was her only non-royal experience, although it eventually contributes to her doom as Henry figures out that she wasn’t a virgin.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: The writing is both florid and clumsy, and it leans on the word “verily” to the point of distraction – I kept losing track of what was happening because I was tensing up for the next “verily.” Wyatt seems to use it whenever he isn’t sure how to begin a sentence. I ended up taking a sample of pages – my husband considerately wrote a short program which generated forty random numbers between 1 and 318, and I counted the instances of “verily” on the randomly selected pages. Out of all the words on forty pages (including four blank ones) there were eleven instances of “verily.” This works out to a “verily” on roughly 27.5% of the pages, or (rounding) 87 “verilys” total. “Verily” is not the kind of word that can stand up to that kind of usage. Eighty-seven uses of it is roughly eighty-six over the limit.

There were other distractions, including several places where the author could have used Mark Twain’s reminder to “use the right word, not its second cousin.” Characters “clamour up” a wall when you would expect them to clamber, Wyatt “takes the reigns” of a conversation, describes himself as “laying in bed,” and learns why court poets are perpetually “bemoaning about love.” It’s jarring, especially since we’re supposed to be reading the account of someone who was exceptionally literate. There’s also a distracting italics problem – I don’t know if this was the author’s choice or the printer’s, but whenever a foreign name or title came up in the text, it was italicized – appropriate for the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and their retellings of fair Anna’s tryalls at King Henry’s hands, but if it was an attempt to evoke the past it didn’t work. For example, here’s how one passage begins: “I have also seen many images representing this great Duc. If these images were true depictions of Charles, Duc de Bourbon, then I could not help thinking him far handsomer than his cousin Francois, King of France.” Additionally, foreign characters show a tiresome tendency to speak fluent English except when saying their native words for Yes and No, as well as a few randomly incorrectly pluralized words: an Italian woman remembers “when I was a bambini” and another introduces “the Signoras.” When someone whose Italian vocabulary consists entirely of words printed on musical scores can spot mistakes, that’s not good.

ERRATA: The author states in her afterword that this was inspired by history but not intended to be read as history – as nobody knows what the true relationship was between Anne and Wyatt, she felt free to conjecture, which is fair enough. There are some demonstrable errors, however. Wyatt’s (putative) daughter with Elizabeth Brooke is named Bess, when she was actually named Anne – an odd mistake to make considering the tenor of the book. Anne Boleyn’s miscarriage is stated to be of a deformed fetus, when there’s no indication that such was the case. And on the topic of pregnancy, Anne is said to have become pregnant the first time she slept with Henry, which in this telling is the second week of November, 1532. Elizabeth was born on September 7 1533, which would make for something like a forty-five week pregnancy. Well, it’s not totally impossible, but it’s still pushing things. Lady Rochford is said to have written a letter to Cromwell accusing George and Anne of incest, and Cromwell produces the letter in court – there’s no evidence that there was ever such a letter. Elizabeth of York is described as the daughter of “the fifth Edward” instead of the fourth, and titles are abused mercilessly: “Sir Russell” greets “Sir Wyatt,” George Boleyn is both Lord Boleyn and Lord George when in fact he was neither, Jane Seymour is Lady Jane, and there are several similar mistakes, as well as references to Anne’s “Protestant” faith and Father Stephen’s cloak and cap being in the Jesuit style, when there would be no Jesuits in existence until after Anne’s death.

WORTH A READ? There are some interesting bits in the book, mostly involving the minor characters who don’t have to be noble and sorrowful all the time – there’s a very interesting scene (told to Wyatt by a witness) in which Mary Rose quarrels with her brother over the divorce – her dislike of it is not due to dislike of Anne in particular, but because of her childhood love of Catherine of Aragon and memories of how the older girl befriended her when their mother died. She also points out to Henry how similar his daughter is to him, and urges him to oversee her education closely and make sure she marries someone noble but comparatively powerless so that she can be a good Queen regnant when the time comes. The scene isn’t perfect – Henry’s response is just to bellow about needing to father sons instead of pointing out the extremely messy succession issues in recent history – but it was interesting and I wished it had been followed up on. There was also a brief snatch of conversation between Anne and Wyatt in which he counters her reforming idealism by telling her that on his travels he’s met people who’ve spoken with Martin Luther and other reformers personally and the issues aren’t as black and white as they might look from a distance.

Unfortunately this ties in directly with the great frustration with the book, even when you discount the over-writing and clumsy language: We don’t get to SEE him do this. He goes on his diplomatic journeys because the real person who was Thomas Wyatt did so, but he spends about a paragraph on his entire trip to Venice and three pages on his ultra-chivalrous treatment of various Italian working girls and their gushing adoration for him. He goes to Cambridge because his real alter ego did so, but he’s only there for about a page. He recounts scenes from Anne’s life in detail which he only knows because someone else told him, but doesn’t give us any of the scenes from his life which didn’t involve either Anne or himself being gallant.

Unfortunately, his gallantry has a distinct overtone of creepiness about it. I’m not saying that the protagonist of a novel can’t be a creepy, well-done character, but this Wyatt is creepy in the sense that he never quite seems to get over being a socially inept sixteen-year-old who thinks that if he obsesses about his crush long enough, eventually she’ll have to obsess back (which in fairness, Anne certainly encourages with that whole “branding” business, which made the back of my neck prickle and not in a sensual way). He also seems to think that being a capital-P Poet means having to live in a state of elevated sentiment and depressed spirits for his entire life, as poets are supposed to be inherently noble and sensitive creatures. But he’s not noble and sensitive, he’s just wet. I was hoping for Wyatt in this book, but instead I got a Bunthorne. As wildly unattractive as the real Wyatt could be, I’d much rather have read about him.

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From → Book Overviews

  1. Brown Line permalink

    As I recall, Elspeth Flashman was also quite fond of italics (or rather, of underlining words, which customarily is printed as italics). Perhaps your author is related?

    • sonetka permalink

      There are plenty of italic-happy authors (Robin Maxwell beats the reader senseless with them), but here it was just the foreign names and titles italicized, like they had been plugged in by someone else or were following eighteenth-century convention. It wasn’t like it was done to show emotion — in fact, I couldn’t figure out what it was done for, which is what made it so distracting.

  2. Suzannah Dunn is fond of using italics, too. Interesting how Wyatt has become stereotyped in every novel ie he’s handsome, a brilliant poet ( a debatable point!) and deeply in love with Anne.

    Verily, though, I found it a very irritating novel. Check out P Wiatt’s trilogy on Wyatt where Elizabeth the First was fathered by Wyatt, according to the author. I can only imagine authors use the character of Wyatt to emphasise the constancy of his love for Anne in contrast to Henry and his fickle nature.

    • sonetka permalink

      I have The Heir of Allington — I didn’t realize there were more! I may give those a pass, since the first one ends with Anne’s death. I like what poetry of Wyatt’s I’ve read, but can’t say I ever found his portrait especially taking. Not that he looks awful, just an average, rather pugnacious face with a highly unflattering beard. It’s the insistence that Anne was his one and only love forever and ever that gets irritating; he wrote lots of poems about lots of ladies, and after her death he took up with Elizabeth Darrell and wrote poems comparing “Brunet” unfavourably to her. It would be interesting to see that, but the story always ends in 1536, rather like with Mary Boleyn.

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