Betrayal by Michele Kallio (2013)
Some books are especially painful to read, not just because they’re bad (I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t have a very high pain threshold when it comes to bad writing) but because they’re also clearly labours of love which fall desperately short of their aim. The author of this book clearly loves Anne Boleyn’s story and her time period, but the novel – which intertwines the story of Anne Boleyn’s maid and her affair with George Boleyn with the story of a modern Canadian woman who keeps having dreams and waking visions depicting scenes from the maid’s life – manages to be both very long and involved and terribly, terribly dull. One would think that dream visions of one’s ancestors, threatened death at the stake, an unfair accusation of treachery, not one but two secret illegitimate children and a long-hidden diary would add up to make a lively story, but they don’t – they’re just random elements in a long, plodding series of scenes which conclude with the least surprising revelation possible. At least Anne Boleyn herself ends up in the unusual position of being the sanest person in the story, which is something, but not nearly enough.
We open with a few scenes set in present-day Canada, in which we meet the heroine, Lydia Hamilton, and over the course of the next 250 pages or so, we learn the following things:
1) She is very, very, very sexy, slim, and has eyes of “cornflower blue”. All I could think of was P.G. Wodehouse’s Daphne Dolores Morehead whenever she was described.
2) She’s madly in love with her handsome, granite-jawed boyfriend Dan, who’s a doctor. His chief distinguishing characteristics are his “Charlie Brown smile” “Charlie Brown frown”, a fund of sad stories about his patients, and his total obsession with, and devotion to, Lydia. This is being threatened by the fact that
3) ever since the death of her father, Lydia has been having a series of horrifying dreams in which she’s a servant living deep in the past and has been unjustly imprisoned. Dan keeps telling Lydia that she needs to do something about the dreams, and thinks that if she doesn’t he’ll have to break up with her. What? Anyway, she keeps saying it’s nothing even as the dreams get worse and she’s falling into trances and experiencing waking visions while washing the dishes and so forth. So …
4) heroic, granite-jawed Dan surreptitiously records her talking in her sleep while she’s having a nightmare, and brings the tape to his equally handsome and granite-jawed friend Dr. Alan Stokes, who has a Ph.D in “psychology of dreams” (all right, then) who hems and haws a bit about how unethical this is, then listens to the tape.
5) He then persuades Dan to bring Lydia in for a hypnosis session even though she doesn’t want to try it and Dan has to lie to her to get her into his office. Don’t Canadian medical schools teach anything about ethics? Because I’m pretty sure these guys are breaking a double handful of rules here.
6) Not that it turns out to matter, because even though Lydia pouts and protests, she finally gives in and agrees to try the hypnosis. During the first session, she begins talking in a strange accent and using strange mannerisms, and the men finally deduce what we’ve already learned, thanks to intercut scenes, which is that Lydia is seeing and experiencing the life of one Elisabeth Beeton, servant to Anne Boleyn.
Intercut with these scenes are a number of sixteenth-century ones showing Elisabeth Beeton’s life, beginning in 1529 when she’s nineteen years old, living in a monastery (Bridgettine? It has monks in it, too). She’s working as a copyist and is the full-time babysitter for a redhaired moppet named Sarah who is supposed to be cute and falls far, far short of it. The moppet manages to charm Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn by nearly knocking him down while running wild, and the upshot is that she’s invited to go on his summer progress and Elisabeth goes along as her caretaker. Hever is their first stop, and after an unpleasant introduction to Lady Rochford (since she’s pulling out all the usual Evil stops, she of course sneers at Elisabeth’s clothes and sends her to kitchens), Elisabeth is rescued by Anne Boleyn and treated more kindly, and after the convenient death of Anne’s personal maid, Elisabeth takes her place since Anne can’t trust all the other court ladies, they being as much on the make as she is herself. Shortly afterwards, Elisabeth meets George Boleyn, and a few smoldering gazes later, she’s infatuated with him and he, apparently, with her.
The modern segments proceed apace. Lydia, who was born in England but whose father abducted her to Canada when she was young, is discovered by the relatives of her late mother (Elizabeth) and they both tell her that she’s due to inherit her mother’s old house and send her a diary which they found in the attic of their ancient ancestral home and which they assume is Lydia’s mother’s even though they’ve only read the first page. When Lydia opens it, she’s puzzled first at the name being spelled with an S and then, reading on, realizes that she’s actually holding a first-person account of life at Anne Boleyn’s court; it’s Elisabeth’s diary, though when exactly she’s writing it is hard to tell, as the tenses keep shifting. Nor does Lydia have any trouble reading secretary hand, apparently. Anyway, the diary tells – and further flashback scenes reveal – that Elisabeth and George begin having an affair, and when a pregnancy predictably ensues, Elisabeth is bundled off to give birth in secret, the baby boy is given to a foster family, and she comes back to court with no-one the wiser, or so she thinks.
Lydia, back in the modern world, decides that this is so exciting that she has to go visit her newfound English relatives right now, so she books a flight on Christmas evening, to the tense-jawed disappointment of Dan. Dan, in turn, informs Alan Stokes of this development, even though he suspects that Stokes is developing a less-than-professional interest in Lydia. He’s quite right in this suspicion (even during their first appointment, Stokes was noticing her “long legs and perky breasts”) and before an hour has passed, Stokes is booking his own flight to the UK so he can follow Lydia to her relatives’ house. Good God, somebody suspend this man’s license already! Dan, hearing of this, is outraged and books his own flight, so they’re all converging on the relatives’ house at the same time.
Meanwhile, back in Lydia’s dreams: Elisabeth has been noticing the flirtatious antics of one Jane Seymour and trying to protect Anne, but she becomes distracted both by getting pregnant again and a sudden forced marriage which is pretty ridiculous even for books like these. It turns out that her grandfather, who disowned her mother and has not supported her in any way during the course of her entire life, has heard of her position as Anne’s attendant and has decided to get in on the court gravy by forcibly marrying her to a random squire named Andrew Tremayne. Apparently this decision has more weight behind it than anything the Pope does, because Anne can do absolutely nothing to help her (this is just after her miscarriage, when her popularity is at a low point) and for some reason the grandfather never bothers to come to Greenwich himself to enforce it. George, of course, is opposed to the idea, but Elisabeth isn’t sure that this is a great time to have a second secret confinement and decides she’ll just have to marry Tremayne and pawn her forthcoming baby off on him (her pregnancy is still in the very early stages, so this could work). She marries him, and he turns out to be rock-brained jerk who thinks women exist only to be tamed, though he’s nicer to her once she announces her pregnancy.
Court duties separating the two of them fairly often, she’s still able to rendezvous with George on a regular basis. While he’s supposed to be noble and romantic, this George is also unusually dim in that he seems to think there’s a realistic prospect that both of their marriages can be annulled and they can marry. For once, Anne is the practical one, because when he suggests this idea to her she tells him immediately that’s idiotic; first, Elisabeth is a servant and that sort of marriage is unlikely enough, second, there is no way on God’s earth that even one of their marriages will be annulled, let alone both. George, nobly and stupidly romantic to the last, continues squiring Elisabeth around, and their affair is discovered both by Lady Rochford (who was given the tip by Cromwell) and Andrew Tremayne (who surprises them while they’re making out in the extreme privacy of a courtyard). Tremayne, realizing that the baby is probably not his and anxious for revenge, approaches Cromwell to propose a deal: he knows that Anne is on her way out because Cromwell wants control over all the monastery spoils, so why can’t he help Cromwell by forging a handy list of lovers, supposedly written and signed by his “whore” wife, Elisabeth? Cromwell doesn’t think much of this idea but agrees because there’s nothing wrong with having a little extra ammunition. So Tremayne forges the letter, and Elisabeth is tossed into the Tower on a charge of witchcraft to render her incommunicado in case anyone thinks of questioning it. However, Cromwell ends up not having to use the because Lady Rochford, angry at George over the affair and also because he rejects her offer to bring his son into their household and let her raise him, decides to make up a story of incest with Anne so that Anne will be sent away and George will be … returned to her loving embrace. Yes, just after they’ve quarrelled horribly and she’s told him never to come to her bed again. Lady Rochford is not big on long-term planning – none of these characters are, really.
Elisabeth is in the Tower for more than a month, during which the arrests, trials and executions take place, and then, with the help of the now-older redheaded moppet, is released into the not-very-loving arms of her husband, who promptly dumps her on some friends and abandons her. She gives birth to a baby girl named Sarah, and eighteen months later, after the death of Jane Seymour, her husband returns to reclaim her because … I couldn’t figure out why. For some reason it was now to his advantage to be with her, but I could never figure out what made that so. Cromwell, presumably his patron, was still alive after all. Anyway, Elisabeth lives a horrible life with him for the next twenty years, during which she bears him three sons and he beats her up on a regular basis and finally abandons her again. At last, in her old age, she sits down to write a letter to her daughter Sarah – Lydia’s distant ancestor – telling her of her true parentage and insisting that she had nothing to do with betraying Anne Boleyn – that the statement giving a list of lovers’ names was forged by her husband.
This letter, along with the statement itself, is found by Lydia and her family in their attic during her visit, and after eyeballing it they decide that the handwriting on the documents was done by two different people, so what she tells her daughter is true – she had nothing to do with Anne’s betrayal. Lydia’s uncle says that that clears up a vague family legend that there was a traitor among their ancestors, though the legend was so vague that he always thought it referred to someone who had lived during the time of the Civil War. Lydia realizes that she has to choose between the two men, and ends up choosing the disturbingly unethical and obsessed doctor. (Yes, I’m making you guess which one). And now that Elisabeth’s life has been vindicated, the dreams go away forever.
But I have to ask – why were they there in the first place? The forged testimony was never used in Anne’s trial. Nobody even seems to have known it existed except for Elisabeth, her husband, and Cromwell. How did the rumour of treachery even get started? Why on earth did Elisabeth need to clear her name when there wasn’t any black mark on it to begin with? You won’t find the answers here. The whole story is a giant hamster wheel: lots of running around just to end up in pretty much the same place you were before.
SEX OR POLITICS? Sex – the modern-day characters can’t let ten minutes go by without thinking about how much each would like to be jumping the other one’s bones right now, and after Elisabeth lets George Boleyn overcome her scruples, most of their interaction involves either sex or trying to figure out a safe location for sex. George is described as being fairly rough, and Elisabeth just deals with it because … it’s hard to tell, since his personality is fairly diminished here and he’s known her for all of five minutes before he starts trying to look down her dress. His diplomatic jobs and religious opinions receive virtually no attention at all.
WHEN BORN? Anne’s age is never stated explicitly, but Elisabeth is nineteen in the summer of 1529, so presumably she was born in late 1509 or early 1510. Oddly, Wolsey describes her to Henry before their first meeting as an “older child”, which even these days would be a real stretch.
THE EARLY LOVE: Anne mentions Percy a few times, affectionately enough, but she clearly loves Henry. For Elisabeth, of course, it’s George Boleyn. For Lydia it’s Dan, handsome, possessed of blue eyes and chiseled features, and frankly indistinguishable from her other suitor Alan Stokes, except for being somewhat less creepy seeing as she isn’t his patient whom he’s stalking all the way across an ocean in violation of possibly every ethical code known to doctors.
THE QUEEN’S BEES Lady Rochford is there, and in fine old-fashioned form; described repeatedly as shrew-faced and barren (the first time in 1529, when she was approximately TWENTY-FOUR years old), it’s clear that we’re not supposed to waste sympathy on her, although near the end we’re given a brief excursion into her head in which we’re shown that she hopes getting rid of Elisabeth will bring George back to her (though since she ostentatiously banished him from her bed in the preceding scene, it’s not clear just what she’s basing this hope on). Jane Seymour also appears as a seemingly-sweet but really nasty and calculating little piece of work. Except for a few quick-vanishing mentions of other names, these are the only female courtiers we see.
THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR At the beginning of the story, Anne has a maid named Marie-Louise who dies of the sweat so Elisabeth can take her place. George Cavendish also turns up in some early scenes (he’s the one who discovers Elisabeth and brings her to Wolsey’s household), where he comes across as rather arrogant but all right at bottom.
THE PROPHECY Elisabeth shows an annoying tendency to suss out the villains well before they do anything villainous. More blatantly, while staying a backwater manor for the night, Anne and Elisabeth encounter a gypsy queen called Anya Marya – a “hag” who wears embroidered clothes and big silver earrings, and who reads Elisabeth’s palm. “See here, this is her life line. And this is her love line, much unhappiness there, yet she will find her true love in this lifetime, more than most can hope for … then separation, prosperity, and an utter fall from grace … But this sweep up at the end of the line speaks honor restored, yet not in this life I think.”
IT’S A GIRL! Just after Elizabeth is born, we’re told that “Anne wailed, pushing the child away with her hands. She beat her breasts and tore her hair.” We don’t see Henry’s reaction firsthand, but Elisabeth writes in her diary that while Henry took the infant to the Great Hall to show her off, “Proud though he was, his face could not hide his disappointment.”
DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? No.
FAMILY AFFAIRS: We don’t see a lot of Anne’s parents – I was left with a vague impression that they were cold, calculating and climbers (as usual) but that could just be runoff from all the other books where they’re portrayed this way. Mary Boleyn gets a couple of brief appearances but doesn’t make much of an impression. George, of course, is front and center, especially after he and Elisabeth begin their affair (though I’m not sure I’d call it that – she’s crazy about him, but she is a servant and he doesn’t seem to mind hurting her, though it seems like this is supposed to make him dangerously sexy and romantic). He is unhappily married to the shrewish, nasty, incurably barren Jane Boleyn – again, I feel compelled to point out that Jane was in her twenties for the vast majority of this time. In a peculiar inconsistency, Jane is described as barren any number of times early on, but when Elisabeth becomes pregnant for the first time, George is overcome with awed gratitude, saying “I thought it was my fault” that he didn’t have children. Of course, he may well have had lingering doubts, but after the very strong emphasis on how much this was Jane’s fault, presumably because of her innate evil, it was a weird reversal. In addition to being crazy and jealously possessive of George, Jane is also nasty in ways designed to appall twenty-first century readers – she’s mean to the servants, nasty to the redheaded moppet Sarah (she hates children!), mean to the gypsies, wants to abandon Anne’s maid when she’s dying of the sweat, and scolds Anne for risking her health by going in to nurse her maid herself. I’m not sure when the edict was issued that historical heroes and villains can be distinguished entirely on the basis of who was nice to the waiter, but it’s a lousy device for this time period and I am getting rather tired of it.
DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No, and her enemies go to great lengths to get her maid out of the way so she can’t testify to that effect.
WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE The editing isn’t terrible but it isn’t great, either – I think you could have counted to number of commas on one hand. The exposition is clunky (characters’ backgrounds are described in language right out of Who’s Who) and the dialogue is awful. “I love you more than I thought any man could ever love a woman,” is one of Dan’s more fluid endearments, and when Stokes is trying to reassure Lydia of his bona fides during their first appointment, he kicks off with this speech: “My name is Alan Stokes. I am a graduate of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland with a Masters in Abnormal Psychology and my Doctorate is in The Psychology of Dreams. I have written articles for journals like The New England Journal Of Medicine and The Harvard Journal Of Medicine, to name a few. I have been published in several trade magazines and beside my classes here I teach workshops in stress reduction. There now. Tell me a little about yourself.” The sixteenth-century characters are no more accomplished in charm.
ERRATA Not too many specific ones, since the whole thing is so firmly out in fantasyland to begin with. I’m not sure what sort of monastery Elisabeth is supposed to be living in (she’s given a nun’s habit to blend in, though she’s not a nun) but they don’t sound like Bridgettines and they wouldn’t mingle very much regardless. The sweat decimates the court in 1529 instead of 1528, and the court appears to have roughly ten people living in it. There’s no consistency – in one breath, Henry VIII says he’s moving Anne into the Queen’s apartments and that Catherine isn’t complaining because she’s a dutiful wife (perhaps not the best choice of words when your whole case is built on her being your sister-in-law) and then in the next breath he’s complaining about Campeggio moving the trial to Rome. Hey Henry, do you remember WHY he did that? I’ll give you a hint: it’s because Catherine was NOT being compliant, not at all. If she had been compliant, the annulment would never have become the five-ring circus that it did. Saints’ days and church feasts jump around the calendar regardless – Elisabeth arrives at court in September and is told that they’re holding a masque that night to celebrate St. Cecilia’s Day. Which is in NOVEMBER. There are other inconsistencies, like a weird truncated scene where it seems like the first time Elisabeth and George sleep together – they certainly talk and act like it – but then we find out that they’ve actually been having their affair for months. And as I mentioned earlier, the mistake in which a sixteenth-century diary is taken for a twentieth-century one simply could not happen, especially when the book has been mouldering in an attic for God knows how many centuries. The paper, the binding, and most importantly, the ORTHOGRAPHY would be so, so different. Secretary hand is just not something an untrained reader can leap into. It can certainly be learned, but there’s no way in hell that you could think that was handwriting from the 1970s. As for comparing two documents in secretary hand and trying to figure out if they were written by the same person – there are people who can do that, but it’s not the kind of thing an untrained reader can do at a glance. It just isn’t. Saying that someone who can read modern handwriting can do that is like saying that someone who knows how to type will automatically know how to program in C++ because both activities involve using keyboards.
WORTH A READ? You’ve probably noticed that I’ve barely quoted from the book at all. This isn’t because I skimmed it; I read it, quite thoroughly, three times through. It’s not even gothically awful and overdone like some of the other things I’ve read, where you can get a bit of the book’s flavour from quotes. It’s just bland, bad, and goes on forever. The modern sections are a combination of Mary Sue romance and your aunt’s travel blog where she hemorrhages out every single detail of what she saw in the airport, the weird guy who sat next to her on the plane, the funny thing she bought in the duty-free shop, and what she ate when she had breakfast with your second cousin (whom you haven’t seen for fifteen years and haven’t heard from in ten) and gives you the lowdown on said second cousin’s recent divorce and new hairstyle. And you read it, because you love your aunt. But there’s no pacing, no tension, and ultimately no point. The historical sections do have a point – to wrest Elisabeth into a position where she looks like she’s betrayed Anne. But it doesn’t work, because the book lacks the courage to go all the way and make the supposed betrayal actually matter. The characters don’t make up for it; they’re dull, one-dimensional, and very forgettable. George Boleyn is supposed to be heroic and comes across as something of a sleaze, and Anne at least gets a moment where she’s allowed to be somewhat sixteenth-century (telling George that he’s crazy to imagine a double annulment and marriage with a servant) but it’s not nearly enough to save the story. The big revelation at the end, that George is Lydia’s distant ancestor, was obvious as soon as he caught Elisabeth’s eye. The book was plainly written by a Boleyn devotee, but it doesn’t work as a historical or a paranormal romance. Spare yourself.
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