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The Favored Queen by Carolly Erickson (2011)

June 22, 2013

Shy, virtuous Jane Seymour comes to court to attend Queen Catherine of Aragon, and is horrified when it becomes apparent that the king is intent on replacing her with Queen Anne. And well she might be, since Anne is an insane shrew with a strong line in murder for hire. While I don’t usually include novels centered around one of Henry’s other wives, I couldn’t resist using this one, for two reasons (1) Anne was by far the most vivid, if also the most ridiculous, character in it (2) I will probably never have another chance to make an “Anne the defenestrated” tag.

Jane Seymour is newly attendant at court in 1522, when Queen Catherine experiences her final unsuccessful pregnancy, ending in the stillbirth of a boy. Henry VIII gives us a pretty good preview of his future behavior by striding into the bloodsoaked birthing chamber and bellowing to the convalescent Catherine that “You are useless! The one thing I ask of you, the only thing I have ever asked of you, ever since I married you – out of pity – and you have not been able to do it!” He ends by announcing that he’s done trying to get sons by her and that he plans to name Henry Fitzroy Duke of Richmond – “Higher than your daughter, madam, higher even than the pompous Norfolk! Henry Fitzroy will be the next King of England, and there’s an end to it!” Shortly afterwards, the sickly, perpetually coughing little Fitzroy is ennobled while the attendant lords and ladies all cast significant glances at each other, wondering if this one is even going to make it into double digits.

Jane has more immediate problems, though. Her betrothal to the chivalrous, handsome Will Dormer has been hanging fire for a while as his family thinks he should marry someone richer, and is finally ended when word gets out that her old goat of a father has seduced Dormer’s fourteen-year-old sister, after which the engagement is, understandably, dismissed with prejudice. As it turns out, Jane has another romantic disaster to clean up; her brother Edward has repudiated his wife (and their two sons) for adultery – with his father. The wife is confined in a convent and Jane promises to look after her boys. But wait! Yet more adulterous trouble is on the horizon, for flirtatious, conscienceless Anne Boleyn, who passes the time by trying to seduce random gentlemen and stealing others’ fiances, has managed to bag the King himself. How she managed to do this is – and remains – a mystery, since her chief attractions appears to be her willingness to stomp, smirk, and flounce. “My little puffball,” Henry fondly addresses her, and gives her “pearls the size of pigeon’s eggs and rubies larger than I had ever seen any woman wear.” Within the space of a page, Henry has discovered that his marriage is invalid and is harassing Wolsey to get Rome on the case, and Anne is smugly walking around assuming that she’s now Queen-elect.

Alas, Henry’s devotion proves less than stable when the sweat arrives. Jane, Queen Catherine and several others have holed themselves up in a castle tower, with no one to be admitted, when Anne comes pounding on the door and demanding to be let in, while shrieking for the king. When it turns out that he isn’t there:

“He ought to be with me!” Anne burst out. “He took me riding. Then he rode off on his own. He left me!” Her voice quivered, no longer the voice of a petulant woman, but an anxious child.

Henry took off because he received news of the sweat and didn’t want to take even the risk of being around Anne, so after being turned away from various places she made her way to the castle. Soon enough it turns out that she has the sweat herself, and as she collapses in fever, Catherine’s gentleman-usher Griffith Richards decides that the only thing for it is to throw her out the window before she infects them all. He’s almost stuffed her through when Catherine shouts at him that “We are Christians, not savages!” and demands that Anne be released. Nobody is willing to take care of her, so Catherine does so herself. Anne, after her recovery, is about as grateful as one might expect.

The annulment drags on and Jane is appointed one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting, at which time she meets one Galyon, a French glazier who has a way with the ladies, and soon they’re happily having a discreet affair, with romantic interludes taking place whenever Galyon has to show up and install a few more of Anne’s badges. Anne, however, is showing a yet more sinister side. After a rumour gets around that her mother had an affair with the king, the maid of honour who passed it along is found mysteriously murdered by brigands. The young Duke of Richmond, already ill, is mysteriously poisoned by his French cook at Someone’s behest and only just survives. Henry personally oversees the cook’s execution by being forced to drink poisoned soup, but never quite twigs to the fact that Anne set it up. Soon enough, Catherine is ill and banished, Anne is pregnant, and marriage and coronation follow in short order – the last a singularly unsuccessful event. After a difficult delivery with Elizabeth, Anne realizes she’s been slacking off on her murder spree and gets Henry to execute the Nun of Kent (“She has cursed me. She is evil. She is the Pope’s familiar”), as the nun has prophesied that Anne will never bear a living son and Anne is convinced that the nun used “dark magic” to turn the fetal Elizabeth from a boy to a girl. Anne is anxious to become pregnant again as soon as possible, and as Henry is now flirting with Madge Shelton and declaring to all around him that he “never liked a woman with a shrill voice” she decides to bring in some ringers. Jane learns of this when Galyon reports to her that Anne had tried to entice him into her bed; naturally, he refused, but he’s a little worried about what might result from snubbing the queen. He finds out soon afterwards, when he mysteriously is pushed to his death while on scaffolding, installing yet another badge. Jane is heartbroken, and Anne puts on a good show of annoyance at the “accident.” “It will take weeks to find a replacement for him, and meanwhile we will not be able to show off this room to the French.”

Anne will soon be burdened with her own troubles, when her next pregnancy is delivered premature and and deformed – with a huge head, flayed spine, and shortened limbs. The ladies-in-waiting panic, and after the baby dies they get rid of the corpse, sure that this must have been produced by witchcraft. After Anne returns to Henry, sans pregnancy, Henry asks Jane what happened and she reluctantly tells him. Henry is horrified, convinced of Anne’s witchcraft, and begins the hunt for a new queen, as it’s clear that Catherine of Aragon is very ill and once she’s dead, Anne can be put away for good.

Madge Shelton is Henry’s first choice, but she conveniently discovers that she’s infertile (telling Jane later that it was a ruse to avoid him) and becomes engaged to an old man who already has five sons (not Henry Norris, though). When the royal eye lights on “Jane, who King Henry trusted,” he asks her point-blank if she thinks she’s fertile. She hasn’t any reason to suppose that she isn’t, so she tells him as much. “Do you love me a little bit? I find I have become quite fond of you,” Henry asks her, and when she responds that “I have loved only two men in my life …. I would be untruthful if I told you I could love you as a husband,” he takes it with surprising docility. Anne miscarries shortly thereafter, and when she’s arrested, Jane tries to persuade Henry not to execute her – “This is a marriage that will be made in blood,” but Henry isn’t having it. He doesn’t want any more ex-wives running around, so Anne disappears and her trial and execution are confined to a blank space between sections.

Jane soon discovers that being married to Henry can be problematic – he flirts with other women, cancels her coronation when she tries to persuade him to spare a convent, slaughters a huge percentage of the Pilgrimage of Grace, and commits similar other violations of etiquette – but mercifully, her torment – and the reader’s – doesn’t last long. Henry is much more solicitous once it’s clear that she’s pregnant, and after a long, hard labour she gives birth to Edward and dies, calling out Galyon’s name.

SEX OR POLITICS? Sex, and lots of it — Jane with Galyon, Henry with mistresses, Anne with (it’s implied) half the court, both French and English.

WHEN BORN? Roughly 1501 for Anne – the dates can be vague, but when her involvement with Henry begins, she is “still unmarried at nearly twenty-five years old. (Uncharitable critics said she was older).” Her siblings don’t appear in person and their birthdays are unknown. Jane describes herself as twenty-six in September of 1532 and she’s “nearly twenty-seven” at the time of Anne’s coronation in June of 1533, so she was presumably born sometime in the summer of 1506.

THE EARLY LOVE: Jane has Will Dormer, the chaste first love, and Galyon, the handsome lowborn stud.

Anne is coupled in rumour with almost every man she meets and it’s implied that she’s been with several in fact; after her pregnancy with Elizabeth becomes known, Catherine of Aragon speculates as to the forthcoming baby’s paternity. “Though from what I hear of her, the child could be anyone’s. That handsome young musician Mark Smeaton, for instance. They say he is in love with her. Or the rascal Weston. Or her old love Wyatt. Bridget Wingfield used to be full of stories of Anne’s seductions.” About the only name we never hear in association with Anne’s is that of Henry Percy – he’s nowhere to be found here.

THE QUEEN’S BEES: A mix of fictional and real: Anne Cavecant is a sharp-face, sharp-tongued woman who isn’t getting any younger, Lavinia Terling is friendlier but promptly dies of the sweat. Margery Horsman is mentioned, hooray! Alas, a mention is all she’ll get, even though she was real. Bridget Wingfield is a one-note cheerful, incurable gossip, who gets along well with Anne but doesn’t hesitate to be catty behind her back, as when she relays the story of how Anne tried to steal her fiance from her – even so, Bridget ultimately shrugs it off; it’s just Anne being Anne, really. Maria de Salinas and a few other Spanish ladies appear briefly but they don’t say very much except for a few pious denunciations of Anne. Jane Popincourt is briefly seen passing on the story about Henry having an affair with Anne’s mother, after which she’s sent back to France and then murdered. Madge Shelton appears as a pretty, flirtatious girl who catches Henry’s eye circa 1534 but is smart enough to lie when he starts making pointed inquiries about her possible aptitude for producing a prince.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Without a doubt, Griffith Richards, attempted defenestrator of Anne. You don’t get more devoted than that.

THE PROPHECY: The Nun of Kent makes quite a few about plagues of frogs, lice etc descending upon Anne and Henry should they continue in their affair. As a result, Anne panics at the first sight of boiled frogs at a feast thrown by the French in Calais. (Interestingly, after Anne’s death, Jane takes one of her maids to visit the Nun’s tomb and the maid is miraculously cured of a painful lump in her side). During Anne’s tenure as queen, a visionary priest named Robins visits the court, and when Henry jokingly asks him to read Jane’s hand and tell them her future, Robins does so and begins to stutter that his gift has failed him on this occasion. “Spare us your feeble gifts!” says Henry, while the priest scuttles off, grateful that he wasn’t forced to tell.

IT’S A GIRL! Anne has a terrible birth, during which all the attendant ladies think she’s going to die because the lice are jumping off of her to get away. When at last the baby comes, Henry dismisses the midwives and summons the astrologers. “Kill the whoreson villains, every last one of them! I’ll have them racked! I’ll have them thrown in the Tower and whipped!” However, the astrologers have prudently removed themselves from the scene in advance, so Henry is forced to eventually vent his spleen on some hapless Carthusians instead.

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? She has the nub of a sixth finger on the tip of her fifth, which so horrifies the general populace – including the midwife who’s hastily summoned when she goes into premature labour with her second pregnancy – that they turn tail and run if they get too close to her. Jane notices that while Henry never says anything about the extra finger, he takes care never to hold that particular hand. She also has “a swarthy complexion marred by moles.” No projecting tooth, though, and no special collars or hanging sleeves.

FAMILY AFFAIRS: We don’t see any of them except Anne, and hear very little about them otherwise, perhaps one sentence apiece; Anne’s father is mean and ambitious and happy to climb at court by standing on his daughters’ backs. George is described by another character as “do[ing] anything she asks – he has been that way since they were children.” We hear of Mary in her early days in France, joining Anne as they dressed in their lowest-cut gowns and sauntered around at feasts “displaying themselves more suggestively, walking among the men and bending down so that the youngest and most handsome of the diners could feed them morsels of sweet cakes and lumps of sugar.” Mary, being the blonde and pretty one, was usually the one to get picked up first.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? There’s a ton of innuendo, albeit no direct authorial statement that she did — however, there is Galyon’s story of attempted seduction, and his subsequent fate. We’ll call it a qualified yes.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: There’s nothing that right or that wrong with the prose, but the characters are so flat and undeveloped that it seems worse than it is. You can only read about Anne “shrieking” or “spitting” something so many times.

ERRATA: Quite a lot, even for a novel that’s overt fluff. First, and most basic; there’s zero evidence that Anne ever poisoned or murdered anybody, real or fictional. Jane Popincourt left the English court in 1516 and never had anything to do with Anne. Henry Fitzroy’s cook was never executed, that was John Fisher’s cook, for a similar incident. It’s highly unlikely that Griffith Richards ever tried to toss Anne out a window (or that he would have survived longer than a week if he had). Tower Bridge is referenced a number of times, although it didn’t exist yet, and Madge Shelton becomes engaged to one Sir John Everthorpe, who appears to be yet another fictional fiance for her, instead of her actual intended, Sir Henry Norris. Catherine of Aragon’s last delivery – of a stillborn daughter – took place in November of 1518, not 1522. Henry VIII did employ a glazier named Galyon (Hone) but he probably wasn’t French, is unlikely to have slept with Jane Seymour, and certainly didn’t get pushed off a scaffold by Anne; quite the contrary, he lived to make and install the badges of her four successors. Sir John Seymour was only said to have slept with his daughter-in-law a century after his death; whether the story is true or not is impossible to verify now, but there’s no contemporary record of it and it must be treated with extreme caution. (Neither is there any record of his attitude towards fourteen-year-old neighbour girls). Jane’s nephew John dies of the sweat as a child in 1528, when in fact he outlived her, dying in 1551. And while it’s impossible to prove that Anne and her sister didn’t pick up random men every evening while in France … it didn’t sound likely. At all. Add that with her penchant for poisoning, and the story veers so far off track that it would be easier to list the number of verifiably accurate statements than inaccurate ones.

WORTH A READ? The book is “a historical entertainment, in which the authentic past and imaginative intervention entwine,” the author cautions us, but in response I’ll use a quote from the novel The Lyre Of Orpheus – “Imagination is not uncontrolled fantasy.” Unlike The Other Boleyn Girl, which veers off-course from history in service of a tight and dramatic if shamelessly soapy plot, this book just lurches from bizarre episode to even more bizarre episode, in which all the characters remain static and the only thing we learn is that Anne is a murdering slut and Jane is infinitely and colourlessly patient. It’s not even good melodrama, it’s too slow and rambling. Leave it on the library shelves.

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