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In The Shadow Of Lions by Ginger Garrett (2008)

June 8, 2013

In an isolated hospice bed, attended only by a latter-day Nurse Ratched clone named Mariskka, a once-powerful editor named Bridget lies dying. She’s busy reflecting bitterly on the meaninglessness of life and writing (“There was nothing but pain. It would be better never to have written”) and wondering when Mariskka is going to steal her Rolex, when a seven-foot, black-shrouded giant enters her room. At last, Death has come to whisk her from this trough of mortal error and into oblivion! Unfortunately, he’s going to make her do some writing first, because the giant is not, in fact, Death but the Scribe, a supernatural entity who is in charge of Bridget’s life and needs her to learn, and transcribe, a few last lessons before she slips her cable. After helping her snatch Mariskka’s laptop and magically detaching Bridget’s IV, the story begins to roll, and it turns out to be a 300-page infomercial for William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible.

I don’t intend to downplay the importance of Tyndale’s Bible translations in the 1520s and 1530s (it’s called “the Hutchins Bible” here, as Hutchins was one of Tyndale’s pseudonyms), but while it would certainly have been a hot (and risky) topic for Anne Boleyn and her circle, there must have been occasions where she spent whole hours, even days, thinking about other topics such as the annulment, hunting, when exactly her last period arrived, what to do with all those ells of golden arras which Henry had thoughtfully paid for, etc. Instead, in a throwback to all the pious nineteenth-century Annes, this Anne is a very pious, somber, put-upon individual who was introduced the Bible in the vernacular in France and as a result has become the only real Christian in two courts full of hypocrites. She doesn’t even want to be at Henry’s court at all, but has been recalled from France to punish her family for Mary Boleyn’s affair and impending child with the king. Her humble service is needed to “redeem the family’s name.” Poor Anne, mocked by Catherine, ragged by the other maids about her sister, called a witch because she owns a clandestine copy of the Hutchins Bible, only wants to marry Henry Percy, flee to the rugged north, and be free of them all. “Anne had learned in France that she could never please both a royal court and God.”

Fate interferes with this plan when Anne, sick of the other maids, decides to go for a moonlit walk in the palace gardens and meets a mysterious six-foot tall man lying on the ground with bloodied knees, sobbing his heart out. He’s just returned from a pilgrimage – should Anne help this mysterious stranger or should she play it safe and retreat indoors? She comforts him and washes his wounds, and the next day she mysteriously receives the gift of a jewel and a new nightgown (no hints there). Shortly afterward she’s summoned by the deceptively kindly-looking Cardinal Wolsey. Oh no! Has he discovered her Hutchins Bible? No, but he has summarily ended her betrothal to Percy with a lame post hoc excuse about how the king should have been consulted first, then informs her that she’s the king’s mistress-elect and will now be escorted to her own apartments. She’s then locked up in said apartments for more than a week, to soften her up, presumably, and at the end of it is visited by Henry. He, of course, was the pilgrim whom she met in the courtyard, and since he had already been pondering the Levitical implications of his marriage, the signs were clear: Anne, “an angel sent to comfort me in that time of great distress” is to be his wife after Catherine has been jettisoned. Anne, who hasn’t finished reading her Hutchins Bible, demurs: “I have not read this book of Leviticus, but I know my prayers. You have a wife. I will never consent to be a mistress … I will not partner with you to ruin [my family’s] good name.” Henry, though, has an effective rejoinder to that:

“I can save your name,” Henry said, his voice soft and delicate with the words. “Your family has secrets. Your brother … he does not have a taste for the ladies, does he?”

Anne froze, cursing her sister silently for being so free with her body and words, letting this wolf through their door.

Thus is Anne blackmailed into courtship (though no further, yet. The five or six sons she will surely have need to be legitimate, after all). Meanwhile, we’re getting another but no less Bible-obsessed perspective from Rose, a former mistress of Cardinal Wolsey with a messy past which includes trying to confess her sins to Thomas More’s old parish priest, who then proceeded to rape her after she wasn’t able to come up with any money to pay for the confession. As a result, she has a baby who starts having breathing problems, but she spends her few remaining coins paying for his baptism instead of medicine. Yes, I know, bear with me. Anyway, she ends up as a servant in More’s household after a failed attempt at suicide by throwing herself under his horse and soon becomes confidante to his daughter Margaret, who teaches her to read and before you know it, they’ve procured a copy of the Hutchins Bible and are attending secret midnight meetings in the woods where women compare verses and come up with various church-undermining plots as deciding to have sausages served on a Friday and then challenging the male authority figure of the house to find the Bible verse which says you shouldn’t eat meat on Friday.

It’s hard to imagine this going over well in More’s household, especially since this More is a jowly, sinister type who considers the day lost when he hasn’t thrown at least one heretic on the barbecue or at the very least whipped someone into unconsciousness on the Tree of Truth while shouting in Latin (I’m serious, that’s pretty much all he does in this book, except for a few paternal expressions of affection towards his daughter). We never get a chance to find out how it went, however, since Anne has received word of the intended Sausage Rebellion and serves sausages to Henry and Wolsey on the following Friday. Shock and horror ensues, until Anne speaks up:

Anne turned to Wolsey. “My friend, we have a custom of not eating meat on Friday, and this is from the church. Could you please remind us of the passage from Scripture that commands this practice? We would all be edified to know it, and the cooks will not make this same mistake again.

Wolsey’s eyes narrowed. She would not be safe again around him. He smiled and addressed the room. “I see you have persisted in reading Hutchins. The Church teaches –”

“Forgive me, Cardinal Wolsey! I did not ask what the church teaches, for we all know that quite well. I am but a woman, and the Church will not allow me to read the Scriptures. So you must tell us where in the Bible it says we are not to eat meat on Fridays.”

Wolsey took a sip of his wine, looking at Henry and the hungry courtiers, clearing his throat before speaking. “We honour ….,” he began.

This time Henry cut him off. “The passage?”

“I will retire to my room and find it, my king.” Wolsey excused himself from Henry with a bow, not looking at Anne again, and left.”

Anne whispered to Henry, “He will not be back. The passage does not exist. It is one more way the Church has controlled your life, your realm.”

This is typical of the book – Anne makes a challenge, and Henry and the various Catholic prelates are so baffled by her amazing wit and logic that they can’t even stammer out a coherent reply. Well, it’s not like any of them wrote treatises on theology or were fluent in Latin or anything like that. (Later on, Anne will insist that she be churched in English so that all of her ladies can understand – the priest is horrified, though he’ll nonetheless make an inspired on-the-spot translation which just so happens to be identical to the version written by Thomas Cranmer circa 1549). Meanwhile, Rose and Margaret More are going through a tedious series of scenes in which Margaret feels ambiguous about reading Hutchins, fervently wants to read Hutchins, goes back to being ambiguous, and finally confesses all to Daddy, who torches her Hutchins Bible but lets her off the hook since she’s young and foolish. He’s furious at Rose, whom he sees as having led Margaret astray, but doesn’t turn her out, just mutters in Latin a lot and on Christmas, having wassailed a little too much, he breaks into her room and tries to rape her (he’s foiled by the vision of a lion and a mysteriously clanging bell which wakes up the rest of the household). He also has a few visits with Catherine of Aragon, who blames the Hutchins Bible for Henry’s obsession with the passage from Leviticus – I have no idea of the logic behind this – and gives More some extra cash for heretic burning. “Death be on Hutchins’ home!”

Anne has at last surrendered to Henry in exchange for his promising to “call off your watchdogs” and permit the Hutchins Bible to be distributed, and warrants for More and Fisher have gone out. (There’s an extra, sealed warrant for George Boleyn’s arrest on sodomy charges in case Anne backs out of the agreement to sleep with Henry). More, knowing that he’s not going to be free much longer, gives Rose a sealed message and purse and tells her to take it to a certain address, which she does, assuming that it’s some last-minute attempt to save himself, but when she and Margaret visit him in prison later on, More pulls Rose to him and tells her …

“Hutchins is dead, Rose. You paid for his betrayal and burning. It was my last wish, for I could not leave this world to meet God if this man were still alive. Everyone knows it was you, Rose. You will never be safe among the heretics. I saved you from yourself.”

Exit More, praying in Latin to the end. Anne Boleyn’s prospects, meanwhile, are looking up as she’s pregnant again after having had a disappointing daughter, plus she’s finally finished reading the Hutchins Bible all the way through. Henry is thrilled and it looks like the English Bible will carry the day, when … she miscarries a horribly deformed fetus. Dr. Butts takes one look at it and leaves, declaring Anne to be a witch, and before you can say Warnicke Anne is in prison charged with incest and witchcraft. George Boleyn, in the hope of saving his sister, confesses to being a sodomite and thus incapable of having slept with her, or wanted to, but all this does is get another charge tacked onto his sheet. A final vision informs Anne that her work on earth is done and that the Hutchins Bible will prevail, and later on we see an elderly Rose, with her daughter (whose we don’t know – probably better that way) taking ship for America, bringing the Hutchins Bible with them.

Interspersed with these stories are brief passages of commentary from the dying Bridget, mostly along the lines of there being too many Anne Boleyn stories already (hard to fault her there) and hinting vaguely at her own past misdeeds. “The most powerful editor in New York City” apparently had quite the penchant for screwing people over (no!) but after realizing that she is actually Rose’s descendant, she repents of her having taken the English Bible for granted and so dies happy. Amen.

SEX OR POLITICS? Religion, albeit not very accurately rendered. Sex and politics are mentioned when they absolutely must be but it’s so sketchily done that if this book were your only reference, you’d probably come away with a confused impression that Henry VIII got divorced because of the Hutchins Bible and killed Anne because he hadn’t read it.

WHEN BORN? Not stated, neither are George’s or Mary’s ages given.

THE EARLY LOVE: Lord Percy, presumably, although we never see him. He and Anne are officially betrothed, with the dowry paid up and everything, when she returns from France, and she’s constantly pining to leave the harsh, worldly court and marry him. Wolsey, however, ends it summarily when Henry sends word that Anne will be his next mistress. As for Rose, she’s been Wolsey’s mistress (one of a harem, though she never sees the others) and has gotten pregnant by the evil priest Grimbald, but she tells More that no man has ever loved her, which is as fine a bit of papistical equivocation as you’ll find anywhere.

THE QUEEN’S BEES: Jane Seymour is the only notable one at court; a sweet, awkward kid-sister type who gets teased by the other women (forced to sing solo to amuse Catherine of Aragon, though they know she’s got terrible pitch) and inspires protective feelings in Anne. Said protectiveness is repaid by the revelation, just after Elizabeth’s birth, that Henry has been seeking comfort with Jane during Anne’s pregnancy. Soon enough, Jane has her own apartments and servants and a very short memory for any past favours Anne may have done her.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: The Yeoman, handsome, sturdy, silent, and always in attendance on Anne. He doesn’t speak until the very end, but casts her an occasional meaningful look. In the Tower, she discovers that he was her guardian angel and nobody else was able to see him. In the parallel story, Rose is this to Margaret More, although the latter can never quite figure out if she wants her around or wants to throw her out. Margaret’s characterization changed with every episode.

THE PROPHECY: The Nun of Kent appears randomly after Anne’s bout of sweating sickness. She’s the only remotely good Catholic character, and I got the impression that she wasn’t all that Catholic, more of a generic herb-gathering creepy Wise Woman. “Merlin prophesied of a mouldwarp, a ruler who would lead England to a bitter break, rending the kingdom, tearing mother from child,” she tells Anne, but declines to elaborate when Anne asks if the ruler is Henry.

IT’S A GIRL! Henry tries to be gracious but quickly begins melting down. “I have done all this for you! I dismantled the Church …. Where is my son?” and when Anne retorts that she doesn’t know, since she obeyed God in everything, Henry screams back that according to Jane, Anne has never even read the Hutchins Bible right through. “You do not even know Him.”

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? No.

FAMILY AFFAIRS: We barely see any of her family – we see her father for about a page, but that’s it. Apparently, Mary’s affair with the king has brought disgrace on all of them and Anne is their last chance for redeeming their good name. Mary is pregnant with the king’s child at the beginning, but we never hear any more about her, and George is said several times to be gay, and his secret is held over Anne’s head as a way of making her do what Henry wants. That’s about it.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? Read the Hutchins Bible, you mean? Why yes, yes, she does. If you’re thinking of adultery, no.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: I think we’ve seen enough already.

ERRATA: The author says in her afterword that she deliberately condensed the timeline to have everything take place in a single year, though really it’s more like two and a half. Even so, this compression leads to some really strange results – Elizabeth is born in February, and More is chancellor even after Anne is crowned, for starters. One inexplicable mixup – Hutchins/Tyndale dies before More. He didn’t – he didn’t even die before Anne. He appears to have died sometime in August or September of 1536, but the author cites Brian Moynahan’s God’s Bestseller as backup for the hypothesis that More was responsible for Tyndale’s death. Unless he meant it in the sense of More setting the machinery in motion that would eventually catch Tyndale, I don’t see how someone who left office in 1532 and left this world in 1535 could have had someone executed in 1536. Most egregiously, despite the book’s reverence for Tyndale, the author doesn’t seem to know which language he translated from. “A man named Hutchins has translated the Holy Scriptures into the English language,” says More at one point. “This is his New Book, the words of Christ torn from their beautiful perch of Latin and discarded at your feet in a base language.” Hutchins didn’t translate from the Vulgate, he translated from the Greek, as well as Hebrew. If the author had bothered to include even the usual token arguments about translation (elder vs. priest, church vs. congregation) which most Tyndale-containing books manage to squeeze in, that would have become very clear. Unmentioned is that fact that Tyndale, while undoubtedly in Anne’s corner religiously, was not there when it came to the divorce. In fact, his position was that the King was sinning and should return to his “true wife”, Catherine. Say what you want about Tyndale, the man was apparently incapable of flattery.

Anne miscarries a deformed fetus – once again, no evidence of anything like that. Additionally, Anne dislikes the doctrine of transubstantiation and refuses to subscribe to it – odd behavior from someone who asked to pray before the Host when she was in prison (and this episode isn’t mentioned). She’s beheaded on a block instead of with a sword. There’s no evidence that she converted Henry to eating meat on Fridays or liturgies in English or anything overtly evangelical, or that she even wanted to. He did eventually authorize an English Bible, but that was largely Cromwell’s handiwork. You won’t find Cromwell in here, though – it’s one of the very few books after the nineteenth century to feature a downtrodden, sweet, religious Anne who lives in a court with no Cromwell in it. There are other weird omissions – More’s wife Alice is acknowledged but described vaguely as always running around being frivollous, with the implication that she’s gone from the house for months at a time. Somewhere, William Roper is wishing that had been true, but he’s gone from this story as well. Margaret is kept at home, solitary, unhappy and unkissed, as she complains. Of course, this particular family structure makes it easier for More to have a free run at the servants, something for which is zero evidence (just about as much as there is for George Boleyn being gay, for that matter). Also, while I don’t want to imply that I’m defending wholesale heretic-burning, the number of people burned under More’s chancellorship was six, which is about two per year. While I’m not throwing any parades for him for that, the book has him turning people off roughly once a week. And finally, I do need to point out that while selling of sacraments and church offices – simony – certainly went on (witness the number of penalties on the books for it at the time) it was also not technically sanctioned. If all you had to go by was this book you would think that Tyndale was heroically fighting the practice of forcing infants’ mothers to pay up or prostitute themselves in order to obtain baptism for their children, when in fact it was the kind of thing the evil lash-wielding Thomas More would have been down on like a ton of bricks.

WORTH A READ? I would have to say no. In her afterword, the author says that she regards Anne Boleyn as a Protestant saint and set out to refute the common perception of her. “Today, we still teach history by casting her as a villain.” People have been refuting that perception for about three hundred and fifty years, and this is surely one of the least convincing efforts in that direction. The sheer number of inaccuracies, distortions and omissions is not balanced by any compensatory qualities – the storylines drag, characters remain static (except Margaret, who’s just inconsistent from first to last), and everyone is constantly obsessing over the Hutchins Bible. A newcomer to Anne Boleyn would honestly learn more from reading Anne Boleyn and Me, Doomed Queen Anne or, God help us all, At The Mercy Of The Queen – all they’ll learn here is that Anne Boleyn wanted the Bible to be translated into English, that she married Henry VIII, that she was beheaded, and that Thomas More burned a lot of people and groped a few more. They’ll also learn that Tyndale’s big accomplishment was translating the Bible from the Vulgate, so chalk that one up on the negative side. The frame story, with the dying editor, is so sparsely told that it’s just confusing, and she’s such a caricature that it’s impossible to care about her. Furthermore, it’s impossible to believe in her. What’s a woman who’s supposedly flush with cash and power doing in a “hospice” where visitors aren’t allowed and the one nurse is robbing patients blind? That doesn’t sound like any hospice I’ve ever heard of – not to mention that someone that powerful would have about twenty-five hangers-on if not more clamouring to be at her bedside so they could steal her Rolex, if nothing else. It sounded like the sort of plot device a clever fourteen-year-old might come up with – a good try, but it fails because she’s utterly ignorant of how the system she’s describing actually operates. The other settings are similar – poorly furnished, barely populated, and as thin as paper. Every reformist argument Anne or Rose puts out is met with spluttering and then silence by Wolsey and More, as if two of the cleverest minds of their era really couldn’t put together an extemporary argument for meatless Fridays, infant baptism or any number of other things. (Actually, what it reminded me of was a fourteen-year-old, newly-atheist teenager who dreams of stumping his religious parents by asking them if they ever wear mixed fabrics). An unconvincing, tediously axe-grinding production.

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2 Comments
  1. Didn’t Wycliffe get there first? Aside from that, the cove of the book is really nice so it’s a shame the contents were a bit disappointing!

    • sonetka permalink

      Wycliffe translated from the Vulgate, so I don’t think Tyndale and his followers paid much attention to him (or to his works, rather, Wycliffe himself being long dead by then). Tyndale was the new radical hotness in the 1520s.

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