The Black Pearl by Laura Cassidy (1991)
This book, which was very kindly brought to my attention by Lindsey Nicholls, was published under the Harlequin Historical imprint and has a back-cover header of “A Rogue’s Reform,” so it’s clear that this isn’t exactly Orange Prize material and isn’t trying to be. What it is is a frothy, quick-moving maid’s narrative in which the maid is beautiful, humble, kind, virtuous, sought-after by gentlemen high and low, beloved by both Anne and George Boleyn, and has the mixed blessing and curse of second sight. In any other book, this would be a problem, but again, it’s a Harlequin; the heroine’s perfection is a feature, not a bug.
This story begins in early January of 1536 – the latest starting point for an Anne Boleyn book which I’ve seen, unless you want to count The King Waits (1918) which is a short story. Lady Elizabeth (Bess) de Cheyne, who has “silver-gilt hair and eyes the colour of blue skies” is on her way to court, brought by the invitation of her cousin Margaret, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Anne Boleyn. Although raised on a farm, Bess has a more elevated background than one would suspect: her father is a knight who was at court in Henry VIII’s young days, until he was crippled in an accident and had to retire to the countryside. Bess herself had a happy, if retired, childhood during which it became apparent that she had a talent for foreseeing the future, one which her mother has enjoined her never to tell anyone for fear she’ll be mistaken for a witch. This talent comes in handy almost as soon as she arrives at court, when she’s taken to greet the pregnant, ill Queen Anne (who’s reclining in her black silk nightgown in her chamber) and is asked to brush her hair. As soon as Bess touches the hair, her gift asserts itself, as it will many more times throughout the story:
The room became misty and, as thought looking into a bright circle of light, she saw in harsh relief the black-hooded man, the flashing blade – she stood stricken, the hair lying like a length of fine material over her arm …. A waking nightmare, that was all it was, she told herself. For how could a madman with sword come near enough to the Queen’s grace to harm her?
She keeps this vision to herself and instead busies herself inquiring about one Sir Harry Latimar, whom she met on her arrival at the palace gates and who was excessively charming. She learns in short order that he’s a gambler, rogue, spendthrift and breaker of ladies’ hearts, and her cousin advises her at all costs to avoid him. That will the end of that, surely! She also meets the square-jawed “unfashionably sunburnt” thrifty gentleman farmer Richard Woodville, who takes an immediately liking to her. “Woodville?” says Bess’s cousin. “I think I have heard mention of that name somewhere.” Well, yes, she probably has. Richard seems like the better suitor – honest, straightforward, and doesn’t spend all night at the gaming tables, but he just doesn’t light Bess’s fire the way Sir Harry does. Sir Harry’s charms consist largely of dropping comments about how attractive she is and saving her from a runaway horse which was given to her by Tom Spalding, a high-ranking nobleman who’s the loutish, villainous third in Bess’s company of suitors. Sir Harry is also the best friend of George Boleyn, saturnine, disillusioned brother of the queen. Remember her?
Anne does, in fact, turn up quite a lot, mostly to take on Bess as her confidante – she’s artless, innocent and has no agenda, so Anne can tell her her worries. When Anne is stressing out about Henry’s pursuit of the unattractive Jane Seymour, Bess is there to console her, and when Anne catches Jane on Henry’s knee and starts to miscarry, Bess is there to hold her up as well. It’s at Bess’s instigation that Anne begins really taking on charitable work for the poor, whom the court had previously ignored. George Boleyn follows a similar trajectory – when makes blunt, cynical remarks to Bess, he’s doing it to disguise his attraction to her, and when he tells her that it’s obvious that she and Sir Harry are meant to be together, he’s doing it at the cost of his own impossible attraction. In April, as it becomes clear that Anne’s career is on a steady downward slope, George confides in Bess about how he feels his fate to be linked to his sister’s and, having gotten an inkling of her visionary gift, asks her if she has any hints about what the future will bring (she won’t tell him). Even Jane Seymour confides in Bess about her dislike of being a pawn in her brothers’ political game, though this at least is a welcome development, as Jane Seymour is all too often a cipher in these stories. All throughout, Bess has visionary moments whenever she touches particularly important people – she sees the toddler Elizabeth as Queen, and sees Jane Seymour after childbirth, holding the King’s son.
While all of this is going on, she’s fending off the attentions of both Sir Harry and Richard Woodville, with Tom Spalding thrown in once in awhile so he can play the heavy by drunkenly trying to grope her. While she “thrills” whenever she sees Sir Harry, she takes her cousin’s word for it that he’s a vain wastrel – that is, until Anne, George and the others are arrested. Bess happens to be concealed in the palace library when the King and Sir Harry have a confrontation in which Sir Harry insists that Anne couldn’t possibly be guilty – “Sir, you spoke of my experience with women. Allow me to offer you the benefit of it. Anne is no adultress.” Henry blusters about how it has to be this way because Anne will never allow herself or Elizabeth to be put aside and tells Sir Harry to get out “until we can stand the sight of you again,” but remarkably, the only penalty Sir Harry suffers is the breaking of his engagement to a child heiress. More remarkably, Bess decides that Sir Harry must have something more to him than she had thought if he stood up for Anne – “Would a shallow man have dared defend the Queen?” – and is at last forced to admit that she’s in love with him.
Like all good imaginary ladies-in-waiting, Bess has become disgusted by the hypocrisy and danger of the court after Anne’s arrest and trial – “I don’t understand these people!” she says – but before she can leave she’s summoned by Anne to the Tower, to bring Anne her prayer book. Once there, Anne tells Bess that she knows she “saw” several times, and one of the times was concerning her daughter. Will she please tell her what will become of Elizabeth? “I saw the Princess Elizabeth well and happy,” Bess tells her. “Older – much older than you are today – and … she wore the crown of England and it pleased her well, I think.” Anne thanks her profusely for “your gift,” and dies contented that Elizabeth will go on to future glory.
Back to the country goes Bess, where she settles back in with her parents and the various rustics who live in the region (picking up a comic proposal or two more along the way) and still being pursued by Richard Woodville, who’s so eminently suitable that it’s clear Bess will never in a million years marry him. But wait, who’s this turning up at the door? It’s Sir Harry, riding up all decked out in court finery and requesting to stay at the de Cheyne house. Her parents are polite but unenthusiastic – “Beneath that smooth surface lies a confused man. A man uncertain which path to take,” says her father, sensing that some traumatic event has occurred to him within the past couple of months but for some reason not connecting it with the Queen’s execution. It turns out that Sir Harry has, indeed, spent a lot of time re-evaluating his life after the shock of Anne’s and George’s executions, and after some comic byplay and less-than-comic swordfighting between himself and a yokel who dared to insult Bess, he produces a ring. “All my life I have chased gold, Bess. I have been prepared to gamble all I possessed for more gold. After you left I realized that the most reckless gambler at court was afraid to risk some pieces of metal for the greatest prize of all. You are that prize – that most desirable prize.”
Oh, and the black pearl? Sir Harry has an expensive black-pearl earring which he considers his good-luck piece, and in the end he sells it to buy the engagement ring, as Bess is his good luck now. It’s unclear if he has any other funds at his disposal; I hope so, though.
SEX OR POLITICS? Sex – good lord, it’s a Harlequin Historical. It’s of the chaste variety, however; lots of thrilling “electric” moments when Bess and Sir Harry see each other, make eye contact, hold hands, etc, but they never do anything on the page – at one point, Bess is ready to, but then the villainous Tom Spalding walks in on them and that’s the end of that. Later on, once he’s visiting her in the country, he in his turn tries to persuade her to, but she refuses and essentially tells him that he’s better than that now. Religion gets a few passing mentions, but this may be the only Boleyn-heavy book I’ve ever read in which the word “Pope” never turns up even once.
WHEN BORN? Anne’s age is not specified, but she refers to having been sent “as a child” to attend Mary Rose Tudor when she went to France, so I’m guessing we’re closer to the 1507 end of the scale. George’s age is also unspecified. Bess is eighteen during the first few days of 1536, so unless she was born on New Year’s Day, her birth year would be 1517.
THE EARLY LOVE: Percy isn’t mentioned, but Bess discovers a copy of “Whoso List To Hunt” on Anne’s writing desk, and Sir Harry tells her that Thomas Wyatt must have written it, but “Don’t waste your sympathy, however; I imagine he has relinquished that particular dream long ago.”
THE QUEEN’S BEES: All fictional ladies, with two exceptions. Kate Mortimer is the charming bad girl who’s engaged to a decrepit nobleman and enjoying herself with the young men of the court so she can have a few memories to live on after her marriage, Dorothy Alencon is French, sardonic, and pretends to tell fortunes from cards, Thomasina Beauchamp has a brief affair with Sir Harry, and is of course very nasty and unsympathetic (to heighten her unattractiveness, she wears arsenical face-powder and never washes). There is a Madge Baldwin and a Madge Fitzroy – I’m not sure if they’re supposed to be two separate Madges or if this was a continuity error. Margaret, last name unspecified, is Bess’s cousin – sweet, old-fashioned in religion, and very plain. All of the ladies seemed like they’d be very much at home in a Regency. The real exceptions are Lady Rochford, who is mentioned first as hating George and later as betraying him, but who is never seen directly – and Jane Seymour, who at first seems to be the usual dimwitted caricature – “that whey-faced miss” Anne calls her, but who later on shows more depth than one might have been led to expect.
THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Bess to Anne, to a surprising degree, considering that they only met about five months before Anne’s death. There’s also an entertaining peddler named Will Soames, who takes Bess to and from court and is thrilled by the news that Anne has been executed – not because he cares about her one way or the other, but because he knows that this kind of juicy story will get him a big audience (and big sales) wherever he goes.
THE PROPHECY: Lots of them, all turning up in Bess’s visions. She sees Anne’s execution, Elizabeth’s crown, Jane’s son, several deaths of minor characters, and one case of twins.
IT’S A GIRL! The story starts too late in time to show us Henry’s initial reaction, but although he loves showing Elizabeth off (much to the boredom of many of the ladies-in-waiting) it’s clear that he reeeeeally wants that boy as well.
DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? It’s never stated directly whether she does or not. However, Anne does have the hanging sleeve and also wears a black velvet ribbon around her neck, so I’ll put this down as a tentative yes.
FAMILY AFFAIRS: The only Boleyn whom we meet, besides Anne, is her brother George, described as a disappointed dandy now staying afloat by working for his sister, whom he greatly resembles. “His face, cast in the same mould as his sister’s, was more sharply defined, each feature chiseled and distinct, and his beautifully shaped, sensitive mouth was drawn down in a perpetually sardonic expression ….” George is also a skilled poet and lute-player, and like most of the male characters has a mild crush on Bess, but instead of pleading his own hopeless cause he tells her that she and Sir Harry were made for each other and she should take her chance at him while she’s got it.
DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No.
WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: The writing can be … less than subtle, especially where villainous characters are concerned. Tom Spalding can hardly utter a boorish sentence without a narrative comment instructing us that it is, indeed, boorish. Here he is talking with Bess about the soon-to-be-ennobled Jane Seymour:
“Lady Jane is a likely lass and more amiable than her former mistress, I’d swear.”
“Amiability being most important in a wife, of course.”
“It is not a quality you are showing tonight, certainly.” He made a clumsy attempt at wit.
However, there are plenty of good moments – ones I especially liked were the ladies in waiting griping about having to spend all morning exclaiming over Elizabeth’s various perfections, and Bess, on her last evening at court, overhearing songs sung “in the husky voice of Mark Smeaton’s successor.” I also liked that Jane Seymour actually got a speaking part, in which it’s made clear that she’s not made of 100% pure evil.
“But I am not naturally combative. I conform to the wishes of those most forceful around me. And of course, there is the problem of being so in love …”
“Oh yes! Why are you surprised? Is he so unlovable?”
… [Jane] sighed. “Truly I am ill cast in my present role of temptress. I would that Henry were a modest country gentleman, unmarried and free, so I could most gladly accept him.”
Granted, it isn’t quite up to the standard of some Janes – the quiet, foresighted Janes of The Concubine (1963) and Brief Gaudy Hour (1949) come to mind, not to mention the genuinely terrifying Jane of Anne Boleyn (1957) – but it’s much better than most of the Janes of the last fifty years or so, which is pretty sad. The sole exception to this would be the Jane of Bring Up The Bodies (2012), who’s so deadpan that she tends to be underestimated by her opponents.
ERRATA: Title abuse runs rampant and nobody is safe. Bess is Lady Bess despite her father being only a knight, Jane Seymour is Lady Jane despite her father being only a knight, the men are called Sir and Lord indiscriminately (Tom Spalding and George Boleyn get a lot of this treatment), engraved christening cups are mentioned 300 years before they came into existence, women unbutton their dresses to nurse their babies in public, and Catherine of Aragon’s death at the time of Anne’s miscarriage goes unreferenced – her death is mentioned once, but it’s implied that it happened long ago. Richard Woodville’s parents invite Bess’s parents for a stay which sounds closer to something that Jane Austen gentry would have done, and all in all it’s a cheerful farrago of several centuries all rolled into one year. This isn’t to say that the author did no reading; besides the black satin nightgown which so many authors have used, I noticed that Anne’s tawny nightgown – ordered during the last months of her life – made an appearance, and the descriptions of the masques at least gave a nod to what real Tudor masques were like, although as in many other books, the author cannot resist giving speaking parts to the quality and depicting the sympathetic characters as born actors/actresses.
WORTH A READ? It was entertaining enough, but I wouldn’t seek it out unless Harlequin Historicals are something you enjoy independently – in that case, I would say yes, it’s one of the better examples out there. The depiction of Anne herself is fairly one-note — she’s gentle, hospitable, affectionate to her daughter, charitable (at Bess’s prompting) and only loses her temper on occasions like seeing her husband dandling another woman on her knee. As for Bess — it would be silly to complain that she’s a Mary Sue who exists as an idealized reader avatar; that’s the point of her existence. But I think that it was a mistake to start the story so late in dramatic time – Bess’s transformation into the much-admired confidante of the Queen is even less believable when it takes place in the space of less than a month. Also, while the obligatory rival suitors bit was competently done, I thought Sir Harry was too one-note even for the Gentleman Rake he was supposed to be. Also, there was the fact that at the end he still had no solid financial prospects – not even an ailing, wealthy, offstage great-uncle – and it wasn’t remotely clear they were going to live on. A note of realism, perhaps, but an unwelcome one in this case, and anyone who enjoys reading romances is unlikely to enjoy contemplating that particular loose end.