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Tarnish by Katherine Longshore (2013)

August 10, 2013

When I discovered that this book was coming out, my reaction was mixed between happy anticipation of another Gilt (which I loved) and that sinking feeling I get whenever I’m confronting a novel which co-stars Thomas Wyatt. I don’t know what it is, but something about Thomas Wyatt going through Anne-centered poetic agonies just kills a story stone dead for me. Unfortunately this Wyatt was no exception to that trend (although he wasn’t nearly as bad as some of the specimens). Fortunately, this was more than compensated for by the real standout character – Jane Parker, who before the end of the book becomes Jane Boleyn. And Anne isn’t half bad either.

We begin with the sixteen-year-old Anne Boleyn returning to court from … Hever? It turns out that she actually came back from France the previous year, but after being cast as Perseverance in the Chateau Vert, she got a little giddy after the performance when dancing with King Henry and was banished for her lack of decorum. Now her presence is requested once more, and she’s back at court, lonely, unpopular, embarrassed at having been sent away, comparing everything unfavourably to France. For company, she only has her siblings, and not very much of them – Mary is a sweet, pretty, apparently rather dim woman whose main mission in life is to be available for Henry when he wants her, and George is a hard-drinking cynic who dislikes women and whose relationship with Anne is rather strained; they have somewhat differing memories of what their early childhood was like, and of course they’re virtual strangers to each other now after such a long separation. George’s attitude towards much of court life can be summed up in his favourite observation that it’s impossible for men and women to be friends, because the men will always be wondering what the women are like naked.

Despite George’s lack of obvious charms, he’s being crushed on to excess by Jane Parker, sandy-haired, nail-biting, diffident attendant to Mary Rose Tudor, ex-French Queen and current, self-delighted Duchess of Suffolk. Anne and Jane drift together as unpopular girls do – Jane isn’t popular due to her quietness and, as she says herself, the fact that people get nervous with being constantly watched. While Jane would like nothing more than to get married to George, Anne is very unhappy with her on-again off-again engagement to James Butler, member of Wolsey’s household and complete prat (poor man, isn’t he always?) She has to marry someone in order to have an identity or any long-standing significance – “I want to be somebody” she thinks, and mourns that marriage is the only way to do it. Alas, the only man she has any sort of noticeable attraction to is Thomas Wyatt, who’s firmly and unhappily married himself but still ready to complain endlessly in verse.

It’s at this low point that she meets Henry Percy, also unhappily engaged to the “shrewish” Mary Talbot (we never see her) and while Anne is charmed by his gentleness and he’s attracted by her independence, it’s clear that what these two see in each other is not, well, each other but a way of escaping their current unhappy engagements. They talk themselves into holding a quick, secret betrothal – “I will no longer have to face James Butler,” thinks Anne. “I will no longer be held in contempt by my brother. I will no longer be nothing” – and consummate it afterwards in an unused side room in one of the most painfully awkward sexual encounters I’ve come across in these books, and I mean that as a compliment because it conveys very vividly and economically just how far these two have gotten in over their heads. “What have I done?” is Anne’s last thought that evening, and she finds out soon enough when their respective fathers get wind of what’s happened. Thomas Boleyn furiously gives her chapter and verse of the Wolsey confrontation (“It was a mistake,” says Mary, but “For Father, there are no mistakes,” George reminds her, in case she needed it) and back to Hever goes Anne.

On her return (she’s been asked back by Mary, or so she’s told) Wyatt steps into the foreground – he has a bet of some sort going with George Boleyn which isn’t made terribly clear at first, and he has another bet with Anne – that he’ll get her fully accepted at the hostile court, and furthermore that before the season is ended she’ll want to be his mistress. Anne is happy with the first part, and tells him that the second isn’t possible – “My maidenhead survived the French court intact, Wyatt. I think it can survive you.” Nonetheless, Wyatt sets to work on the first part of the deal – writing masques with starring parts for her, listening to her confidences about Percy (who didn’t even break the bad news to her himself, but sent a henchman to do it), encouraging her and applauding her when she wins at cards, and reciting various poetical bits to the mixed reaction of the various courtiers. Things become tense when the king spots them dancing together after a masque, and it gradually becomes clear that it wasn’t Mary who asked for Anne back after all – it was the king, who had his eye on her for a while and is, needless to say, very interested in another and longer round of flirtation. As is Anne, against her better judgement.

And then things begin to come crashing down. It turns out that George and Wyatt’s bet centered around Anne – Wyatt bet that he could get her accepted at court completely, and George bet that he couldn’t. Wyatt wasn’t doing it just for Anne and her potential favours, but also to get one over on George. Anne is so furious at both of them that she has a tremendous fight with George and, wanting never to see Wyatt again, drops a hint to her father and thus the King that Wyatt would make a great ambassador for the next papal mission. She comes to regret this later, as she and Wyatt make it up – he really did love her, and thought he could win (and did), but too late for recalling his summons abroad. Anne’s influence twists back on her in another case as well – Jane Parker’s unrequited love for George Boleyn has been noticed by both sets of parents and an engagement arranged, but at the last minute it looks like her father may not be able to come up to scratch and Thomas Boleyn puts it on hold. Anne, thinking that Jane would be happier with someone else, tries to comfort her diplomatically but makes the mistake of telling the King why Jane was crying, whereupon he promptly decides to have a little talk with both fathers to ensure that the marriage goes forward – “Jane is a sweet girl, and deserves to be happy.” And they’re finally married and even appear to be making a reasonable go of it by the end, although George does disappear for a requisite pre-wedding bender beforehand.

Wyatt, recognizing that Anne has fallen for Henry despite her own judgement and a near-fight when she informed him point-blank that he used her sister and treats his courtiers abominably, steps back and heads off unwillingly on diplomatic business to Italy. Anne steps forward, into a life that she chose, destined “to be somebody” as she’s wanted from the beginning.

SEX OR POLITICS? Sex, no question; although very little is implied, the atmosphere is riddled with it.

WHEN BORN? 1507 – Anne thus returns to England after having lived in France from the age of seven. Not surprisingly, she considers herself French in all but the technicalities. Mary is seven years older, so 1500 for her. George’s age isn’t clear, but I think he was born between the two sisters.

THE EARLY LOVE Not James Butler, that’s for sure – the Butler who bestrides these pages falls firmly into the Redheaded Creep category, swaggering, gossiping, and boasting about how he’ll see to it that Anne knows her place after she marries him. He’s also endowed with a “granite face”, “meaty breath”, profound knowledge of dirty verse, and similar subtle attributes. Henry Percy is a more interesting case – unusually, he isn’t Anne’s true love or lost soulmate, but a young man a little too similar to her in that he’s betrothed to someone he dislikes and is desperate to escape. Their hasty vows and painfully awkward consummation are essentially an extreme form of protest against their fates, although they don’t realize until too late that they don’t really have much in common except a desire to get away from their own lives. Wyatt is Anne’s real early love, as it transpires, although she denies this to herself almost to the end, since it can go nowhere.

THE QUEEN’S BEES: “The French Queen”, Mary Duchess of Suffolk, is the queen who makes the strongest impression here; now resident at her brother’s court and technically second to Catherine of Aragon, she’s a queen bee to her fingertips; playing the ladies in waiting off against each other, picking scapegoats, making it clear that anything less than total obedience will get you banished from her magic circle. Anne, as the new(ish) arrival who embarrassed herself once before with the king, is a prime target and, like all of the best female bullies, Mary inflicts agonies on Anne while pretending to be friendly – giving her painful, poisonous unguents to whiten her face, for example. Several real maids are named, but the only one who stands out is Jane Parker, shy, silent, with a nervous tic of biting her nails, and with a massive crush on the undeserving George Boleyn. George is annoyed and slightly creeped out by her – she’s always staring at people – but Anne likes her, although the relationship goes through some upheavals before the end of the story.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: None. Jane Parker is about as good as it gets here.

THE PROPHECY: Not so much prophecies as veiled call forwards – when Henry and Anne are flirting, she accuses him of wielding the “sword of fear” over all of his courtiers, and when he responds that she doesn’t seem to fear it, she shoots back that she has a little neck, and it won’t hurt much if the blow is clean. Similarly, when Jane Parker becomes furious at Anne over her (temporarily) failed engagement to George, she shouts “Is that why you’re jealous? Do you think your brother is the only one good enough for you?” She’s apologetic for it soon after, but says that she’s so crazy about George that she fears she’ll be a jealous wife nonetheless.


DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? No, but she broke the little finger of one hand after falling out of an apple tree as a child (she had told George that she could climb higher than he and was in the process of proving it). It healed crookedly and she feels very self-conscious about it.

FAMILY AFFAIRS: We don’t really see her mother – she’s off in the country visiting Howard relatives, we’re told at the beginning, and after that she vanishes – and Anne’s father is autocratic, distant, pushing the small Anne to one side when she attempts to hug him after a year’s separation. In short, the usual cold, ambitious Thomas. The siblings are more interesting – less for themselves as individuals but in their relationship. Mary is, or appears to be, the sweet-natured blonde, ready to please the king if he wants, with two children of uncertain paternity. Later on it transpires that she’s a secret cutter who refers to herself as “a whore” because she feels like that’s what she’s doing when she sleeps with the king to benefit her husband and her family. George is saturnine well before his marriage, a heavy drinker who occasionally disappears on a spree, and a misogynist – “Men and women can’t be friends,” is a saying of his which Anne repeats with growing derision several times. (If you’re wondering, it’s because no man can interact with a woman without picturing her naked). He thinks Jane Parker is dull and insipid and has no patience with her love for him. So far, so standard, and I found the siblings rather disappointing at the beginning – however, as the book went on it became clear that Anne’s understanding of them, and of her family, wasn’t necessarily the truest one. Anne is convinced that she was her father’s least favourite child, because of her looks and his willingness to be separated from her for years. She’s certain that Mary is happier than she, and that George was the favourite, being the boy. Later on she’ll discover that both Mary and George have their own ideas about that, and that George for one is far from being convinced that he was the favourite. As with Jane Parker, Anne’s initial take on the person was upended and then upended again before the end of the book.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? She has sex with Percy, once, but while Wyatt gets into bed with her once or twice they don’t do anything else – though Wyatt isn’t exactly quick to refute rumours that he has “shared her bed” which understandably sets Anne off.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: Some of the modern phrasing grates a little, but the only one that was really bad was when Wyatt tells Anne that “In our world, women have no influence, carry no interest.” Granted, he’s making the contrast with France, but seriously, who says “in our world,” any time, ever? At first I thought the language used about Henry was overdone as well – his laughter “sounds like bells”, he glitters “like the sun” and his scent and his occasional kisses are described rapturously, which seemed rather out of character for this depressed Anne. But it wasn’t long before I realized that this was actually a brilliant move – Henry was the sun, the center of their world – in one aside, Anne mentions how difficult it is for anyone to take their eyes off of him when he was in the room. Not to reverence the man who was the center of every room he was in, who held so much power in his hands – it would have been very difficult not to do that, and this book conveyed that very well.

ERRATA: The author herself has a very thorough afterword in which she points out and explains the places where she’s deviated from history, or probable history (she can accept the 1501 birthdate, but used 1507 in this story since she wanted to write about a young girl being removed from the place that’s become her home, and how she adjusts). She also makes some good points regarding her changes to a few of the Wyatt-centered stories, pointing out how these stories were passed on via Wyatt’s grandson George Wyatt and may have, not unnaturally, been changed a bit in the retelling to be more favourable towards Wyatt. However, she can’t be right in saying that George Wyatt may have heard these stories from Wyatt himself, as Wyatt died in 1542 and George Wyatt wasn’t born until 1550. The stories must have received at least one additional set of permutations from Thomas Wyatt the younger. There’s also a throwaway moment when Anne and Jane are arguing, and Anne tells Jane that she should forget George and marry a young “like Francis Weston” who would think she was wonderful and treat her like gold. When this scene took place, Francis Weston would have been about twelve – he may well have been at court, but he was unlikely to be considered marriageable quite yet. Anne is also called a “prodigal daughter” – prodigal doesn’t mean absent, and she hasn’t been prodigal with anything.

WORTH A READ? This was a difficult summary to write, because the book was really much more than the sum of its plots. I’m still not reconciled to Wyatt, and his portions of the story were by far the least interesting to me – I started disliking the convoluted bets the more the characters squabbled about them — but they were still interesting to read about, at least. What I thought were really well done were the characters of Jane Parker (nervous, shy, jealous, but loyal to Anne and very human) and also of Anne’s siblings – there they are, in all their stereotypical glory (although George Boleyn the drunkard made me wonder sometimes if he’d been secretly replaced with George of Clarence to see if anyone would notice) and then in the last act of the story their characters suddenly twist, and Anne can see how much of what she assumed about them was based on nothing except her own hyperactive imagination. The very flattering portrait of Henry was, as I said in a earlier section, really well done – I’ve never quite believed in the stories which have Henry being secretly talked about and despised by everyone before he had even murdered one wife. Certainly some people must have done so, but someone whom you’d been taught from birth to consider the center of the world, the pinnacle of the mountain, God’s appointed ruler (or co-ruler, depending on how you felt about the Vatican) – it would take a real effort to think critically about him. The fact that Anne manages to do so even for the brief period it takes her to tell him off shows that she’s got an impressive nerve.

I didn’t particularly care for the repeated harping about the powerlessness of women – not that it doesn’t bear pointing out, but it sometimes approached Robin Maxwell-esque levels of sledgehammering. Fortunately, this author is a much better writer than Maxwell, so the story escapes mostly unscathed. I’m looking forward to her next novel, which I devoutly hope will center around Jane Boleyn — the small portrait of her in Gilt and in this book was so good that I’d love to see a full-length version one day.

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From → Book Overviews

  1. The author, at the back of the book, cites how she admires historians who really do their research, which she then lists. How strange that she hasn’t done hers very well. Ass instead of arse? A mention of magenta which is 19th century.

    Actually despite that, I did quite enjoy the writing but oh, those endless engineered meetings with Wyatt really dragged on.

  2. sonetka permalink

    Nice to see you again! Good catch on the magenta, I’d forgotten that that was post-artificial dyes, but “ass” is just “arse” translated into American — I doubt either one is exactly identical to the word that Tudor courtiers would have used :). Word on the perpetual meetings, and the elaborate intertwining bets. I realize that courtiers had to kill time in some way, but those bets seemed pretty unrewarding and pointless.

  3. Arse is certainly good olde English as it’s in my Book of medieval plays! Unfortunately ass means a donkey in British English which is why it jars so. Will give Gilt a go, if you say it’s good.

    Nice to have you back again , too!

    • sonetka permalink

      There’s a joke about the best verse in the Bible being the one that reads “[somebody] tied his ass to a tree and walked thirty leagues” — I’m pretty sure that verse doesn’t actually exist but it’s amusing if you’re in the US, where “ass” can still mean a donkey but it’s definitely the secondary meaning at this point. It’s too bad nobody Britpicked the book before it was published — there are so many ways to mess up, whether British-writing-American or American-writing-British, that you’d think publishing houses could drop a few dollars for someone to read the book through and point out the places where They Wouldn’t Say That. Of course, if a book is set in the sixteenth century it’s going to be “translated” to some extent no matter what.

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