The Last Heiress by Bertrice Small (2005)
The Twelve Days of Christmas aren’t quite over yet, so I thought I would ease my way back into blogging with this frothy bodice-ripper which, like several others, reads like it would have been much happier in the early nineteenth century than in the sixteenth. I’ll confess that I didn’t quite know what I was getting into when I ordered this — for some reason, I had thought the author was the same one who writes all of those Amish romances, and so I was expecting one of those restrained Evangelical bonnet rippers where all the characters are casting longing but chaste glances at each other over the tops of their dog-eared illicit Bibles. That was what I was expecting. By the time I got to Anne Boleyn’s whispered admission to the heroine that she had “held the King’s manroot in my hand,” I began to suspect that I had my authors mixed up, and once the heroine had sneaked into her hapless beloved’s room to jump him after he had refused to sleep with her earlier … well, by then I just gave up and enjoyed the insanity. (The Amish romance author is Beverly Lewis, if you’re wondering). And since the heroine is a cheerfully anachronistic “farmer” who likes to tromp around her vast estates in breeches being a hands-on overseer and whose main activity at court (when not speaking truth to Boleyns) is pursuing lustily handsome illegitimate Scotsmen, she doesn’t have a lot of time for Bible study in any language.
Elizabeth (Bess) Meredith is the youngest daughter of a Cumbrian family, and heiress to a substantial farm called Friarsgate – her two older sisters have married courtiers and have their own estates (presumably they had their romances in an earlier book, since this is one of a series) – but Bess prefers to muck around at Friarsgate, overseeing lambings and harvests and generally demonstrating that she prefers the honest country life to vain court frivolities. However, now that she’s twenty-one and still unmarried, her mother is anxious that she get a move on so as to produce “an heir for Friarsgate” (a phrase which we hear about thirty-five times throughout the book) and this means enlisting Bess’s uncle Thomas, Lord Cambridge to bring her to court in the hope of nabbing some land-poor younger son who has enough blue blood to be respectable but not so much money that he’ll cause trouble. Lord Cambridge himself doesn’t have any conflict of interest here, property-wise, since he’s a childless lifelong bachelor with a strong interest in clothes and a dear gentleman friend who travels everywhere with him, so he happily scoops up the reluctant, fashion-hating Bess and carries her off to London. (If this were a Regency, Bess’s foppish, entertaining uncle would be carrying her off to Bath).
Anyway, off they go, with much comical fashion commentary on Lord Cambridge’s part and a lot of sulking on Bess’s: she doesn’t want to get dressed up, doesn’t want to get married, she just wants to be a typical independent sixteenth-century woman and ride astride and oversee her own estates. When they arrive at court and meet up with Bess’s sister, the Countess of Witton, they’ve already heard all about the scandalous Anne Boleyn, described by the shocked Countess as “a whore” and hated by everyone, except the King, of course. But as Bess soon discovers, Anne is in fact an intelligent, even-tempered woman who is holding out for a crown from the highest motives (to preserve her own virtue) and who feels her own loneliness acutely. That is, until Bess comes galumphing into court, shocks the other courtiers by showing she can swim after she’s accidentally pulled into a strong current while in a punt (did they have punts then? Beats me). Anne is impressed and amused by this, as is Flynn Stewart, a hot Scotsman who’s the illegitimate son of James IV but hangs around the English court carrying messages and picking up the odd bit of intelligence. “Stay in Mistress Boleyn’s company,” he tells Bess, when giving her hints on avoiding court lowlifes. He and Bess both like Anne, but Flynn fears that “she has dangerous relations. They will be the death of her, I fear … she really can trust none, but God’s wounds, she needs a friend!”
“I will be her friend,” says Bess, though she has her eye on a different kind of friendship with Flynn as well. Alas, he rebuffs her, telling her that he’s loyal to Scotland and he can’t marry any Englishwoman, no matter how enormous her tracts of land. Anne, however, is more receptive. “I have never had a friend before,” she says. “Must you return to your Friarsgate?” Bess is itching to get away from court as fast as possible, but agrees to stay for a bit when Anne says that she’ll throw her a birthday party, and they exchange confidences on what it’s like to kiss a guy and Anne admits to having gone a bit further than that with the king, introducing the word “manroot” to the story and making me snicker every time it’s used afterwards, which is often. After that, however, it’s back to her beloved estates, where she meets an emissary from one of the people who buys her wool, or something like that – I was vague on the exact nature of the buy/sell relationship here and that wasn’t the point anyway, the point is that said emissary is Baen MacColl, another handsome, illegitimate Scotsman. Since he’s not the son of the late king of Scotland and doesn’t feel any unbreakable loyalty to that country, Bess decides that she’s not letting this one get away and decides that she’s going to seduce him and make him marry her, in order to provide that “heir for Friarsgate” that her mother and uncle are always nagging her about.
And she does, after numerous proposals to him which he rejects because he’s supposed to be doing some kind of job there and he feels like it’s inappropriate to be knocking boots with the mistress of the place while technically employed by someone else. She ends up sneaking into his room at night and surprising him there, very graphically. He’s naturally a little freaked out as she continues to ambush him at various inconvenient times, and worries about what will happen if she’s pregnant, but she suggests a handfasting, which will expire after a year and if there’s no baby by then, no problem! Of course, she’s hoping there will be a baby and that he’ll decide not to leave in a month as he keeps saying he needs to do. In the end, however, they handfast as a precautionary measure and he leaves, just as he’d been telling her he planned to do all along, and Bess is enraged, even though she doesn’t yet know if she’s pregnant and besides, he had consistently been telling her that he thought this wasn’t a great idea and that he was going to have to leave, considering that he had to get back to his employers and all. Bess, for all she’s supposed to be the plucky, spunky heroine, comes across as a bit psychotically possessive at times. But ultimately, it works – she does turn out to be pregnant, word eventually gets to Baen, who’s overcome with guilt and decides he’d better make it official with a church wedding. After the wedding, Bess is cold and haughty to him because she’s heavily pregnant and also still pissed that he left her the previous summer even though that had always been the plan and she was the one who was sneaking up on him and surprising him with his pants down. Anyway! They’re reconciled after the baby boy is born and spend quite a few pages having extremely graphic sex, when thankfully Bess gets a letter from court to move the plot forward a bit. The letter is from Anne, who is now queen, and she writes:
I am his wife as I said I would be. And I am to be crowned in June. I will tell you all when I see you, and you cannot refuse my command. I am your queen now. I am surrounded by the ambitious, and those who formerly professed to despise me now toady to me in an effort gain my favor. I pretend to give it, but you know me better, my dear Elizabeth. I need your friendship now more than I have ever needed it.
Bess hates to leave her sheep, her children, and her incredibly hot Scottish husband, but an order is an order, so after a graphic farewell session with Baen she’s off to court, where she meets an Anne who is haughty and standoffish – until they’re alone, and Anne bursts into tears. She’s become queen, as she had wanted, but “they all hate me for it,” her family included. Apparently they’ll drink the champagne that she sends them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll forgive. As for Henry, while he was initially thrilled when she gave in to him the previous September, but he’s grown tired of her and now “he wants nothing of me but a son … What was my dream is becoming a nightmare.”
Bess helpfully tells her that she’s just being moody, which is common when you’re pregnant, especially under stressful circumstances, and tells Anne the story of how she “seduced [her] husband”, which Anne thinks is hilarious – “How daring of you!” Anne subsequently orders her to stay with her until Anne’s baby is born, so that she can have someone to confide in.
She’s in need of a safe confidante, because in spite of her upcoming coronation and surrounding celebrations, Henry is already beguiled by a certain Jane Seymour, which the rest of the courtiers all find highly entertaining. After the coronation – which is well and thoroughly described, as it happens, completely with Bess having to mentally note the details of the outfits to tell her uncle about later – Anne settles in for a summer of fretting about the upcoming baby’s sex while Bess tries to calm her down. To no avail, as it turns out, as of course the baby is a girl, and although Anne manages to put a good face on things (even persuading Henry not to symbolically replace his older daughter by naming the baby Mary) “it all rang hollow” and it’s clear that Anne is now on the fast track for oblivion. She’s also all the more inclined to keep Bess around for support, except that Baen gets tired of waiting for her to return and comes to court himself to ask the king if Anne would be so good as to return his wife. The king, greatly amused, tells him to go ahead and take her, which he does, but not before having a brief conversation with Flynn (still hanging around and not rumbled as a spy) in which Flynn says that Anne is “an ambitious woman who has now played her trump card and probably lost … it is better that [Bess] not be caught in what will follow.”
She isn’t, and neither are we, since the book now skips directly to June of 1536, with Flynn on his way back from conveying messages to Scotland deciding to stop by Friarsgate on the way to let Bess know the news of what happened to Anne. Bess is naturally distraught, though after a few days Baen tells her that “We must move forward with our life. You were never comfortable with the court, Elizabeth.” So Bess looks forward to the Midsummer festivities, having learned, like many another heroine before her, that virtue and safety are found only in the countryside and determined never to leave it again.
SEX OR POLITICS? Sex, definitely. Religious issues are alluded to vaguely, but no more than that, and if my plot summary for the interlude between Bess’s periods at court seems sketchy it’s because it consists of Bess and Baen screwing each other blind, fighting, having a baby, and screwing each other blind some more. I mean, that’s it, along with some raising sheep.
WHEN BORN? November 1504, or possibly 1505 – the book is vague on exact dates, especially in the first half, but Anne says that her birthday is in November and that she was nine years old when she accompanied Princess Mary Rose to France – since that was October of 1514, Anne would have been nine going on ten – that or she was eight going on nine and rounded up for convenience. The ages of her siblings aren’t stated, although Mary is said to be older. Bess is three and half years younger than Anne and has her birthday in May, so she was born in May 1507 – or possibly 1508, since the opening page of the book tells us that it’s “Winter 1530” which doesn’t quite square with the information about Anne’s age – it really sounds more like 1529, given the dates and the fact that Cardinal Wolsey, though disgraced, is said to still be alive, and … oh, never mind, let’s just stick with 1504.
THE EARLY LOVE Henry Percy, unseen but mentioned several times – as is often the case, Anne is aware that Wolsey torpedoed the match at Henry’s bidding but is only interested in killing the messenger and doesn’t particularly resent the one who sent the message. James Butler isn’t mentioned, and Wyatt appears for a few scenes but his exact feelings towards Anne are mercifully unclear.
THE QUEEN’S BEES We don’t see much of them, but they’re mostly real (except for the ones from Bess’s family) and they’re all stone-cold bitches except for Margaret Lee, whom we never see directly but whom Flynn describes as being Anne’s consolation after Bess left court. Madge Shelton, Lady Margaret Douglas, Lady Rochford and of course the “sly, simpering” Jane Seymour are all horrible to varying degrees. Jane Seymour gets an early start here – Henry is involved with her even before Anne gives birth to Elizabeth, and Bess is naturally quite sure that Jane’s air of reluctance is feigned and that she’s actually a nasty, avaricious cow. There is one fictional maid of honour who makes a fleeting appearance as Henry VIII’s mistress early on, and her fictional status is easy to spot because her name is Blaze Wyndham.
THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR Bess has a maid from home named Nancy, who at the beginning of the book is beloved of a blacksmith named Ned (the name pairing made me wonder if they went to River Heights High School together) but who ends up marrying someone else at the end. Bess herself is, of course, this to Anne Boleyn – according to Anne, she’s the only true friend among the entire crew of women who wait on her.
THE PROPHECY None notable, although Bess does show unusual prescience a number of times – deciding that Jane Seymour has unattractive hidden depths in early 1533, and saying that the sly and jealous Lady Rochford “will come to a bad end, I’m sure of it.” The young Catherine Howard also attends Anne’s coronation and announces that she too would like to be queen someday.
IT’S A GIRL! Anne whispers to herself that “I am ruined!” once the baby’s sex is announced, but by the time Henry arrives she’s recovered enough to overrule him when he declares that the baby will be named Mary (an especially harsh move here, since his older daughter is depicted as having been summoned to witness the birth). Anne tells him that “You have a daughter Mary – I have called her Elizabeth after your sainted mother … You will name the lads, my dear lord, but I will name the girls.” Henry laughs at this and his mood improves, although, as it turns out, not for long.
DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Yes – Bess’s uncle Lord Cambridge sees Anne fidgeting with her hands to try and hide it, and whispers to her that a longer sleeve would be just the ticket to avoiding embarrassment.
FAMILY AFFAIRS Strained, even for the Boleyns; this is one of the most isolated Annes who isn’t living in a religious novel. Even as she’s on the verge of being crowned, Anne is mournfully telling Bess that “My father will not speak to me any longer. By replacing old Queen Katherine he says I have disgraced the family. In his eyes a mistress was a more honorable position. My mother will treat with me only in secret, for my father has forbidden her to speak with me … My sister is jealous of me, for I have done what she could not. As for my brother, George, he cares for nothing but himself, not even his wife, though I do not blame him there.” Why they’re so anxious to antagonize a relative who’s just become the most powerful woman in the land is hard to understand, especially as none of them have been portrayed earlier as strong adherents to Catherine of Aragon. George Boleyn gets a bit more fleshing-out in other parts of the book; he likes to flirt with Bess and numerous other women, and his wife is jealous for good reason. But whatever his faults, he redeems himself completely by his conduct during his trial. Mary Boleyn doesn’t get much more than what I’ve quoted, except for a few passages in which Anne calls her a hypocrite for living it up at the French court and then coming over all prim and proper once she was married. Her older child is stated to be Henry’s and it’s implied that the younger one is as well.
DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? We only hear about her trial after the fact, but it’s pretty clear that she was innocent and only the terminally idiotic or malicious could think otherwise.
WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE I think I’ve quoted enough for now – I’d quote some of the steamier bits but I don’t want the site to get flagged.
ERRATA: Well, come on now. It’s a bodice-ripper with some historical dressing; it’s easier to list what was right than what was wrong, and what was primarily right was the coronation scene – obviously a good bit of reading went into that, though I doubt the population were quite as hostile as they’re portrayed here – they may have been sullen, but openly insulting Anne in front of numerous authorities a one-way ticket to a fine or a jail cell, if not worse; people did do it, but it’s worth remembering that the reason we know of such inspired coinages as “the King’s goggle-eyed whore” was that the people saying them were later questioned very thoroughly on the matter and the proceedings written down. (“I was drunk” seems to have been the usual excuse). The titles were all out of whack, as well – Anne is “Mistress Anne Boleyn” long after her father should have been ennobled, but Jane Seymour and Jane Boleyn are both unhistorically ennobled as Lady Jane Seymour and Lady Jane Rochford.
Bess is repeatedly described as being an “old maid” at twenty-one, and character after character expresses their astonishment that she isn’t married yet. Apart from the fact that “old maid” wasn’t the term used then, that age in no way meant you were past your sell-by date (has it ever been that way? Even in the Regency period, twenty-one wasn’t a bad age to be). Speaking of linguistic oddities, Bess refers repeatedly to the “snobs” at court, and said snobs in their turn denigrate the “nouveau riche” more than once. While there was certainly tension between the self-made men and the old aristocracy, they would have had to express their disgust with each other in different terms, because those ones didn’t get going until the nineteenth century. And while the late middle ages and Renaissance turned up their share of odd given names, I refuse to believe in a Tudor woman named Blaze. I can put up with a lot, but not with that.
WORTH A READ? If you like bodice-ripping and over-the-top sex scenes, this will fit the bill. If you’re interested in the Tudors, it won’t. Anne doesn’t appear enough and when she does, she’s a bizarre throwback (considering the kind of book it is) to the early, religious-martyr Annes who were pure victims with no support whatsoever, not even from their families, and whose misdeeds are explained away as being natural considering that she has no choice but to marry the king and no family to help her. There is some attempt to give her a strong personality – she’s described as having a catlike smile, which I presume is meant to imply spirit and some slyness, and she loses her temper with Henry on occasion – but it doesn’t really come off. She’s never angry until she’s been tried to the utmost, and her portrayal as someone who’s alone and friendless even when she’s queen in waiting is just strange. Even though she says people are toadying to her, we never actually see it – it’s just Anne and brave Bess being her friend while everyone else treats her viciously despite the fact that she had become the most powerful woman in the land and could break a courtier’s career with a few words. The fact that this Anne puts up with it is enough to cast doubt on her supposed intelligence, and the fact that the best confidante she can find is Bess makes it worse. Only for the longest and dullest plane flights.
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