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The Dark Rose by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles (1981)

October 19, 2013

This was a borderline case – I almost listed this book as an In-Betweener, but Anne was enough of a presence that I thought it should have its own entry. This book is listed as being the second in the Morland Dynasty series – is it just me, or were brick-sized family sagas especially popular in the eighties? Anyway, this one seems to still be going strong at number thirty-four, though it looks like the Morlands may be running out of history to use at some point soon. But in the second book of the series they’re still ensconced in the very beginning of the sixteenth century, and the opening chapters make it clear that while they’re still Yorkists at heart (their seat, Morland Place, is in Yorkshire, after all) they’ve resigned themselves to living under the Tudors and trying to maintain the status and property which they presumably acquired sometime during Edward IV’s reign back in Book 1. Unfortunately, the current master of Morland Place is Paul Morland, a brooding type who seems destined never to find true love. Though perhaps it’s better that way, as his true love turns out to be his niece.

Briefly summarized, the back story depicts Paul as nobly enduring the horror of a marriage without love (his wife hates him because he doesn’t pretend she’s his intellectual equal, his son hates him because he hates his wife), nobly enduring when his mistress is accused of witchcraft (by his wife) beaten half to death, and later killed by the sweat, leaving a son behind, and nobly enduring the lurking dread that his half-brother and said half-brother’s brood of children might end up inheriting Morland Place. Not that there’s anything wrong with the half-brother, but Paul suspects that he isn’t actually related to him at all, and that his father’s second wife was having an affair with her cousin when said half-brother was conceived. (Herein the disadvantage of not having read the first book – I was never sure if this was supposed to be true or not). One of the half-brother’s children is Anne, nicknamed Nanette, who’s lively, bright, and clearly has a good mind; she’s therefore sent to live with Maud, Lady Parr, who is educating several young, well-placed girls along with her own daughter Katherine. Nanette and Katherine become fast friends, and a few years and mass deaths in the Morland family later (including both of Nanette’s parents) Paul, who thinks she’s become a disturbingly appealing young lady, sends her off to court to become maid of honour to Catherine of Aragon. There she meets Anne Boleyn once more – they’d seen each other before (the Boleyns are distantly connected with the Morlands) but not for a very long time. Anne is not beautiful, but is well-versed in sex appeal – “slender and white and cloaked in her magnificent hair … her great eyes shone like dark lamps.” Anne is lively, fashion-conscious and somewhat fluttery, but when the king notices her at a dance she’s in no hurry to give up “the only thing women have to bargain with.” He’d already been there with her sister, after all, and Anne has no intention of being an object of gossip. Rather to her surprise, Henry keeps pursuing her even after she turns him down.

Meanwhile, her closest confidante, Nanette, is having her own romantic travails. Her uncle has come to visit her at court, and every encounter between them is getting more and more charged with feelings neither of them quite know how to bring out into the open – that is, until they go for an evening walk and end up under the bushes together. Afterwards, while Paul is busy apologizing and explaining that he’s pretty sure her father wasn’t actually biologically related to him so it’s not technically incest (Paul’s timing is usually atrocious, and this is no exception) Nanette is having a quiet panic attack and ends up running back to the maids’ dormitory to run slap into Anne Boleyn, who begins regaling her with the story of how shocked Henry was when it turned out that Anne was completely sincere about turning him down. Nanette is terrified to tell Anne what just happened, but when she does it turns out Anne is very understanding, if not entirely condoning. “How can I condemn you? It might so easily have been me. I too have been tempted, you know.” After pointing out that Nanette could get a dispensation if she really wanted to, she concludes with “Little Nan, forgive me for judging you. I was wrong. Whatever you do, I am your true friend,” and they resolve that they’ll stick by each other wherever their romantic paths lead them.

Anne herself is in for a shock shortly afterward when Henry, after explaining that he’s had his doubts about Catherine’s first marriage for a long time, tells her that as of now he considers himself unmarried and presents her with an engagement ring. Meanwhile Nanette is heartburning over the now-absent Paul, who’s gone back home with a nobly tormented conscience to try and unravel the various family messes at home; his now-grown legitimate son is snarling at him about the various improvements the son wants to make to the house, like kicking the servants to bedrooms upstairs and kicking his illegitimate half-brother out of the house (Paul agrees to this because of appeals to family pride). Pretty soon he and his son are getting into shouting matches over the king’s religious reforms as well: Paul is pro, the son is anti and very strident about it.

Anne Boleyn has meanwhile been rising high and is becoming extremely conscious of how dangerous her position is – as Nanette is her oldest friend at court, she begs her to stay until Anne is safely married to the king, although Nanette has decided that she wants nothing more than to retreat to the country, give in to her own id, and marry Paul after getting a dispensation. Thanks to Charles V’s control of Italy, Anne and Henry’s wedding day is suddenly looking a lot further off than it used to be, and Anne is starting to go a little crazy with waiting (Henry can apparently stop in the middle of a groping session without missing a beat, but Anne doesn’t handle it with quite so much aplomb). Finally, the fateful trip to Calais is finished, and Anne’s virtue along with it. By January she’s pregnant and married, and now she wants Nanette to stay until the prince is born in September.

The prince is, of course, a princess, and poor Anne is horrified (although Henry takes it well). Nanette, still longing to go back to Morland Place but cognizant that Anne isn’t exactly secure on the throne yet, says she’ll stay on (until a prince is born, at least), and Anne promptly becomes pregnant twice during the next year, neither time with happy results.

While this is going on, Cromwell is busy stripping the monasteries and outlawing practices left and right, and Paul is trying to lie low while keeping his son from complaining too loudly at getting them both arrested. After all, why shouldn’t the church be reformed and English money stay in English hands? The more conservative factions at court don’t see it that way, though, and by mid 1535 they’re starting to push the dimwitted, thirty-plus, illiterate Jane Seymour at the suddenly-vulnerable Henry VIII as a potential mistress. So what? Anne is pregnant again, and this time it’s sure to be a boy – she’s ready to laugh off Jane Seymour, especially when news comes that Catherine of Aragon is dead and Henry orders the court into yellow and sends for the baby Elizabeth in order to show her off. Anne brushes away concerns that Catherine’s death now makes Henry free to marry yet again in the eyes of at least half of Europe, but when she gives birth to a seven-month stillborn boy after Henry’s fall at jousting, even she starts to realize the position that she’s in, especially after Jane Seymour becomes pregnant. The king is desperate – Jane (or “the honey scorpion” as Nanette thinks of her) will be having his child, and he really needs that child to be legitimate. What to do?

The answer, of course, is to arrest Anne and all the powerful men in her faction and dispose of them in a nicely tied-up legal package. Nanette is allowed to wait on Anne during the days after her trial and condemnation (as a substitute for the hostile ladies in waiting who were there before) and afterwards leaves as soon as she can for Morland Place.

Reader, she marries him. Yes, he’s her uncle, but everyone seems to accept it (even the surly son) and they don’t have to wait so long for a dispensation because now they can apply to the local archbishop instead of the Pope. Sadly, their bliss is short-lived, as the Pilgrimage of Grace is kicking into gear and various bands of outraged northerners are roaming around pressing wealthy man (and their private armies) into service of one sort or another. One of those wealthy men operating under duress is Lord Latimer, and his wife and children end up taking refuge with the Morlands; the wife, of course, being the former Katherine Parr. By December, the house has been attacked and Paul killed by some marauding Pilgrims, one of whom is his illegitimate son (kicked out of the house years previously) who then proceeds to rape one of his (Paul’s) granddaughters and then get bashed over the head and killed by Nanette, but not before he’s stabbed Paul to death.

This is by no means the end, but it’s about as far as I’ll go here. Many more family members are born and die, the baby which results from the rape is farmed out to a foster family and eventually adopted by Nanette as her heir (to appear in the third book, I assume), Katherine Parr marries Henry VIII and Thomas Seymour and dies in her turn, and much more. By the end, you get the distinct impression that Anne Boleyn made a wise choice in exiting the story when she did.

SEX OR POLITICS? Large, shallow helpings of both. Nanette manages to be tangentially involved in (or know someone involved in) virtually every major event of Henry VIII’s reign, but since the bad, malicious characters are inevitably on the losing side, and the good, sympathetic characters (or at least, the ones we’re supposed to find sympathetic) on the winning one, it gets dull. There are also some annoying contradictions – we’re told that “the common people” are thrilled by the greedy, materialistic Wolsey’s death and that they totally agree with Henry’s reforming of the church, then suddenly thirty thousand of them are marching in the Pilgrimage of Grace. Wait, what? It turns out that they have a lot of ne’er-do-wells in their ranks, of course, and they’re being urged on by the evil characters like Amyas for no more clearly defined reason than that he always opposes his father, and his father doesn’t support the Pilgrimage.

WHEN BORN? Anne in 1502 or early 1503 – it’s actually a little inconsistent, since she’s described as being twenty years old in the summer of 1522, but when she’s married to Henry VIII in January of 1533, she says she’s “almost thirty.” Of course, she wouldn’t be the first person to do some tactful rounding down. Mary is described as sixteen when she accompanies Mary Rose Tudor to France, so around 1498 for her. George’s age isn’t clear. Nanette has a birth year of 1508.

THE EARLY LOVE Henry Percy – this Percy is of the sickly and weak variety. “Well, he has what he deserves,” Anne tells Nanette at one point. “He could not stand up to the cardinal. He was too weak. But I – I whom he despised as a puny girl – I shall stand up to him. I mean to pay him out one day …. I truly, truly loved him. I shall never love anyone ever again as I loved him.” Thomas Wyatt wouldn’t mind if she did, but from their not-very-frequent interactions Nanette decides that Wyatt is the only one in love there. Anne herself doesn’t believe it, and cautions Nanette against taking him too seriously – “He breaks hearts as easily as a wrestler breaks heads.”

THE QUEEN’S BEES: Nanette is the principle one, of course, as well as Thomas Wyatt’s sisters Madge and Mary – a rare instance in which both names are used in one book. Madge Shelton and Mary Howard are also mentioned, albeit fleetingly. Jane Seymour is brought to court fairly late, as a sop to her family and also because Anne thinks she’ll help distract Lady Rochford. “They are two of a kind, those two Janes. Anything that will stop Lady Rochford from spying on me will be a blessing.” Jane Seymour doesn’t seem like the most obvious potential temptress for Henry, being over thirty as well as “a terrible prude, she can’t sing or play any instrument, she barely talks, and she can’t read or write.” She can get pregnant, though, as it turns out. Curiously, while Lady Rochford’s role in George’s downfall is discussed and abhorred, her role in Katherine Howard’s nocturnal adventures (and eventual execution) are never mentioned – in fact, Nanette goes so far as to deny that Katherine could have done anything because as queen “privacy does not exist.” Very true – that was why she needed Lady Rochford for cover.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR Nanette has a maid named Audrey whom she brings to court with her.

THE PROPHECY None notable except for some generic soothsayers predicting that Anne’s baby will be a boy (realistic enough) although as mentioned, Paul has an annoying tendency to know exactly how things are going to turn out and act accordingly.

IT’S A GIRL! Henry takes the news pretty well, joking about having to add an extra S to the birth announcements and telling Anne that they have plenty of time to try again. Anne, who has just had a terrible labour and was hoping this one would be a boy so she wouldn’t have to be pregnant again, ends up panicking and crying at Henry’s badly-timed levity.

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Yes. “The little finger of the left hand looked wrong crooked, wrong somehow. Halfway along it was a strange horny growth, as if the bone were sticking through the skin or as if a sixth finger were beginning to grow.” Anne starts a trend of wearing long, pointed sleeves, and one of her attendants can’t remember ever having seen her hands. Later on, Nanette will comfort Anne when the latter is bemoaning her malformed finger as a possible sign of sin, but Nanette tells her that “It isn’t sin, it’s just a poor hurt thing … don’t hate your poor hand.” Anne is somewhat reconciled after that.

FAMILY AFFAIRS: True to Agnes Strickland, Anne’s mother dies in 1512 after giving birth – we don’t see her but she’s described as beautiful and lively, and the Morland family is unpleasantly surprised by Thomas Boleyn’s marrying again just a few months later (the new wife is, as usual, a country woman – later on, Anne remembers how much she loved her stepmother and wishes she and Mary could have the same sort of relationship). Thomas himself is the usual court climber, but with a surprisingly appealing portrayal – far more appealing than any of the Morlands, though we only see him briefly, chatting about Anne’s progress in France and what high hopes he has for her. Mary and George appear only briefly, but enough for us to see that Mary is boy-crazy (if more hardheaded than most fictional Marys) and George is his usual witty, poetry-loving, wife-loathing self.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: Nothing especially good or especially bad, though Paul can get very tedious. Here he is with his illegitimate son Adrian, just before the latter stabs him to death:

“Father, let me come home with you. Let me come home to Morland Place.”
“I cannot.”
“Father, don’t refuse me! Don’t!”
“Listen to me, Adrian, and try to understand – aye, in your turn, try. I have a duty to my other son. Once I beat my wife, was ready to kill her, because I had a duty to your mother. But now I have a duty to my son, and if it means I must turn you away or even kill you, I will do it. Yes, mistake me not, I will
do it … You must go, whither you will. I will help you if I can. But I cannot give you a home at Morland Place.”
…. “Father, don’t look at me like that. Don’t make me kill you. Don’t make me, Father.” Tears began to run form his eyes, and he turned his head slightly, baring his teeth, half-enraged, half-anguished. “Love me, Father, love me.”

ERRATA Not many, since so much time is spent on the fictional family. Once again, Anne had no stepmother; Elizabeth Boleyn outlived her by two years. Also, while Anne is accurately beheaded by the Sword of Calais, she’s also on the block — which wasn’t there and wasn’t necessary. Lady Rochford, though condemned for turning on George, isn’t mentioned at all when Katherine Howard falls. Jane Seymour is described as being completely illiterate, which doesn’t seem to have been the case. Some of the dates are a little wonky – Thomas More and John Fisher are apparently dead by May of 1535 and More is described as being under arrest more than a year earlier, neither of which was the case. And while exact conception dates must remain a mystery (thank goodness) the timing of Anne’s pregnancy with Elizabeth was incompatible with a normal pregnancy. Her “flux” was described as being due just after their return from Calais – around November 14th, to estimate. But she’s already pregnant by then, and her period never arrives. If she had conceived even on that day, the baby would have been due during the first week of August, not September. If she had conceived two weeks earlier, the way it usually works, she would have been due in late July. I realize this isn’t exactly the biggest howler anyone could make but physiologically impossible pregnancy dates bother me a lot. (Lozania Prole, of all people, makes a really plausible guess when she has Elizabeth conceived on Christmas. Those dates work!)

WORTH A READ? I had very hard time getting over the BUT HE MARRIES HIS NIECE factor. In fact, I didn’t really get over it. Yes, the characters themselves were all airy enough about how you can get dispensations for it (which you could if you were royalty, sure, but a small-time landowner?) and maybe they weren’t genetically related but I still felt extremely queasy about it and it didn’t help that Paul, though I think he was supposed to be a noble hero with a few tragic flaws, came across as an incredibly egomaniacal ass whose mutual affection with Nanette was as inexplicable as it was repellent. I will say that I enjoyed some of the minor touches – a Thomas Boleyn who wasn’t an arrogant slave-driver, and (my favourite) Katherine Parr’s shoe collection. Nanette teases her about it at one point, but “We all have our little weaknesses,” says Katherine, “And I do love to be well shod.” As the real Katherine did, from what I’ve read. As for Anne Boleyn, she was curiously drawn in some ways – standard enough for the era in that she really loved Henry Percy and fell back on ambition when he was taken from her, but she’s more emotional than most such. This Anne is the one who has a harder time controlling herself when she and Henry are getting to second base or so, she’s the one who waves off talk of the annulment’s progress and sends for strawberries to distract herself, and she sends the former Princess Mary gifts of clothes and makes offers of friendship which are quite sincere. Her relationship with Nanette is more reminiscent of Anne Shirley and Diana Barry’s vows to be bosom friends than an adult woman’s relationship with the representative of a rival family, but it still made for some entertaining conversations.

We don’t see quite enough of her to really know what’s in her head, though. What we do see is the leading family, which unfortunately has an unappealing patriarch in Paul and a lot of hard-to-distinguish minor family members (besides Nanette, that is) who all seem to be graced with one defining trait – meekness, sweetness, intelligence, combativeness, etc – but no more than one each. At the end I was exhausted and didn’t want to read any more about these people, and the Anne was already beginning to fade.

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4 Comments
  1. What an odd book.

    What I don’t get is why the whole ‘uncle’ thing was even necessary. If you want an older hero/younger heroine connection fraught with peril in a historical setting, make her the daughter of his adopted brother. Or his best friend. Or maybe the daughter of a brother-in-law by a former marriage that *wasn’t* blood-related. That way you can have her angst about not feeling like part of the family and wanting a closer connection, yet facing the fact that that closer connection would mean she was macking on her uncle. Why push the squick factor with a blood connection, even a possibly tenuous one?

    Sorry, that one just boggled me. The rest of the book actually sounds like it’d be something I’d enjoy; I love the little touches, like the shoe business you cited, and the idea of an Anne who occasionally just doesn’t want to deal with the crazy that her life has become. (Though that may be just me projecting. I know if I wound up in a life like Anne Boleyn’s, I’d want to screw off and go bowling.)

  2. sonetka permalink

    It may be significant that Flowers In The Attic came out two years before this book. Uncle/niece marriages did happen, but they most definitely required dispensations and usually involved members of royalty whose pool of acceptable candidates could be plausibly said to be smaller than the average landowner’s. (Catherine of Aragon’s brother-in-law the King of Portugal ended up marrying one of his nieces-by-marriage, and a few hundred years later Carlos II of Spain was born to parents who were an uncle and a niece — though of course that was only the tip of the iceberg with his genetic problems). Even with royalty, though, it wasn’t necessarily regarded favourably — witness the reaction to the rumours about Richard III and Elizabeth of York forty years earlier; you don’t issue official denials of rumours which are benign. Since, as you said, there are so many ways to get the Older Man/Younger Woman storyline working without having them be presumed blood relatives, I can’t see what that added here except for squick.

  3. There are some good graphic descriptions in the novel, such as when the sweating sickness comes and everyone is thrown into disarray and also when Paul’s lands are flooded and the mill collapses, throwing him into the river. I think the novel is quite good at depicting how precarious life was in the sixteenth century, with floods, battles and illness all taking their toll.

    Must dust off my old copy!

    • sonetka permalink

      I did like the background quite a bit — unlike a lot of books, farming isn’t portrayed as a slice of paradise, and the description of the mill accident was really good. And there certainly wasn’t any family immunity; one of the better parts in the Anyone Can Die stakes was when Paul’s daughter becomes engaged to Sir Nicholas Carew and then she and half the family die of the sweat while the wedding preparations are going on. Things like that could and did happen all too frequently. The real trouble with that scene was that I knew all the dead family members so little that the horror of it didn’t come across the way it should have, it just seemed a little too conveniently clearing the stage of excess family (and parents) so Paul and Nanette can fall into angsty love later on. Plus, he’s her uncle. Cousins are fine by me, but when you start mixing generations it’s too much.

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