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The Witch-Girl by Dilys Gater (1979)

March 19, 2014

A straightforward, easily-read romance novel which stars yet another of Anne’s fictional confidantes, this book is quite engaging – not least because, for once, it features a Mark Smeaton who is both fully clothed and in his right mind. Even more surprisingly, he’s also the male romantic lead.

The story is simple enough – Kate Granville, a sixteen-year-old with no parents and an unfortunate strawberry mark, has the bad luck to live in a village which has been experiencing hard times and is starting to cast about for a handy scapegoat. Kate, with her witch’s strawberry mark, proves to be perfect, and it’s when her fortunes are literally at their lowest ebb (she’s at the bottom of a pond, in a cucking-stool) that everything changes – she’s hauled out, and the local yokels are scolded into terror by a mysterious highborn lady, who tells them what idiots they are for believing in witchcraft and promptly decides to take Kate with her to Hever Castle as a maid. The highborn lady is Anne Boleyn, of course, as she tells Kate early on when explaining why she rescued her: “There, but for the grace of God, goes Anne Boleyn,” she says, displaying her extra finger, and she feels freer to confide in Kate than in most others because of their shared imperfections. As it happens, there isn’t much to confide at first – Anne is stuck at Hever for unspecified reasons which nobody knows about, not even the servants, but it isn’t long before she tells Kate that she’s been banished for falling in love with Henry Percy and that she has no idea why the match was broken up.

She discovers why not long afterwards, when her proud father announces that the king is coming to visit Anne at Hever with a view to making her his mistress, and Anne takes to her bed with a strategic fever in order to avoid him – she’s understood what happened and, for once, blames the king equally with Cardinal Wolsey. It takes a few visits, and much placating of her outraged father (Anne and her stepmother assure him that this is only a strategy to make the king want her more) but Henry finally catches her in the garden – with Kate as the unseen witness, having accidentally walked in on an extremely awkward moment. Anne is, in this incarnation, absolutely serious when she tries to rebuff Henry, but when she says that she has no interest in anyone except the man she eventually marries, Henry calls her on her bluff. “No use trying to hide behind Katherine’s skirts. In a few months, I’ll be free.” He gives her a quick rundown of his plans for the divorce, and Anne laughs it off, telling him that she’ll believe him when she has the crown placed on her head, and not before. Inside, however, she’s frantic that he’ll actually try to do it.

Kate, meanwhile, does something that I’ve never seen a fictional servant do – having found out what’s happening and realizing the deep waters Anne may be getting into, she packs her things and tries to run away. She doesn’t get out of the house before Anne catches her and asks her to stay – she doesn’t blame her for being frightened, but she would really like to have a fellow “witch” for support just now. Kate relents, because she loves Anne and she’s also just a little tempted by the prospect of going to court, as it means she’ll see a certain Mark Smeaton. How did she meet him, you ask? She didn’t exactly meet him, but until recently he was a servant at Hever, and during one of the king’s visits he was brought out to sing. The king liked him so much that he kept him, and to Kate’s distress he was taken away with the royal retinue. Her sole encounter with Smeaton so far has been to bump into him on the staircase and swoon both over his beauty and the fact that he apparently didn’t notice her strawberry mark, but she’s sixteen and at that age it doesn’t take much.

It takes a long time and a lot of shoehorned political discussions, but while Mark begins as devoted to Anne, he ends up enjoying the company of – if not quite as devoted to – Kate, just as Anne and Henry are in the process of becoming engaged – well, pregnant, at least – themselves. Contributing to this process was Kate’s encounter with one Sir Giles Ashton, whom she ran into one afternoon after her horse wandered off with her and who took her back to his manor for lunch. She stays until dinner, and apparently that’s long enough for Sir Giles to recognize his destiny, because not long afterwards he’s visiting court to seek out Kate and propose to her. Kate, not surprisingly, turns him down – she’s been obsessed with Mark for a good while now – but he makes it clear that she should call if she ever thinks of him, and also manages to score a few points by rescuing Kate and Mark when they’re set upon by an anti-Anne mob. Mark’s jealousy of this surprise suitor makes him realize that he actually does love Kate, and presto, they’re engaged! Unfortunately, since they’re both broke, they’ll have to wait until Anne is in especially good colour with Henry before setting a date and (hopefully) receiving a substantial wedding gift from their patrons. Of course, since she’s pregnant, she’ll surely have a prince soon and then they can get married.

Astute readers will not be surprised to learn that they never do. Anne starts unravelling more and and more after Elizabeth’s birth – she’s had bad dreams for a long about her ultimate fate, and two miscarriages and a false pregnancy aren’t helping to reassure her. Kate feels that she has to stand by Anne as long as she’s needed, and when Anne finally gets pregnant again in the fall of 1535, Mark says that they’ve waited long enough and they should get married next summer, whatever the baby turns out to be. But of course, he’ll never make it there. On the last day of April, he tells Kate that he’s off to Cromwell’s house to provide some musical entertainment, but Kate soon receives word that he’s in prison and that a servant who saw him said he was in bad shape. Kate is utterly floored to hear of his “confession” but quickly assures herself that he would never have betrayed her, and while attending Anne in the tower she manages to get away long enough to attend his execution – pushing her way to the front so that he can see her at the end.

Kate isn’t the only one looking for loved ones in the Tower, though – predictably as the sun, Giles Ashton has heard of what’s going on, and decides to split the difference between gallantry and creepiness by offering Kate his hand yet again and also offering to take her away once Anne doesn’t need her any more. The fact that he’s a manufactured beta suitor who only exists so the heroine can have someone to be married to at the end is the only thing that excuses his practically proposing on top of her fiance’s bleeding corpse. But mannerly or not, Kate is an emotional basket case and, after seeing Mark’s severed head and helping Anne put on her blindfold before being beheaded, all she wants to do is let Giles take charge and bring her “home,” which, on the last page, he does.

SEX OR POLITICS? Surprisingly for a romance, politics, by a short head. Kate is one of the subset of narrators (like Frances Pierce in A Lady Raised High) who gives the very basics of the situation but excuses herself frequently on the grounds that she “does not understand politics”, but although we hear a lot more about Henry and Anne’s quarrels and Kate’s own romantic travails than about issues like the change of Popes or what the translation of a particular Greek word, Mark is often called upon to give a Cliffs Notes version of what’s been happening for the last year or so. As a result, the reader gets a pretty decent if somewhat broad-brush view of what was going on (no, Henry VIII was not about to become Lutheran, there were more sides than “Catholic” and “Lutheran”). Kate’s and Mark’s own take on religious questions is definitely of a twentieth-century kind – “My God is music,” Mark tells her, at one point.

Oh, but that’s not true. You must believe in something,” I said, shocked.

“Well, of course I believe in God, but somehow, I feel religion is a personal thing. I feel God most in music, put it like that,” he said, and I nodded.

“Yes, I can see what you mean. I think I feel like that too. I see Him in beautiful things – flowers, sunshine.”

“We’re a pair of whole-hearted heretics,” whispered Mark, in mock-horror. “Don’t tell any of the priests, for goodness’ sake!”

Despite this, Kate holds very firmly to sixteenth-century ideas about the stage at which a relationship should be consummated, so while there are lots of longing glances and loving descriptions, it never gets any further within the pages of the book (and of course, Mark never gets any further, period).

WHEN BORN? This is extremely vague – Anne seems like a fully competent woman in her twenties when Kate first meets her in 1526, but much later on she’ll say that Princess Mary – who’s almost sixteen at the time – isn’t much younger than Anne “when her father first began sniffing round my skirts.” I’m not sure if this means Anne was sixteen during the episodes at Hever or if she’d actually been banished for several years and had time to age up a bit. George and Mary Boleyn both seem to be older, but their ages aren’t clear. Kate’s age is clear, though – she’s sixteen when Anne rescues her, so she was born in 1509 or 1510.

THE EARLY LOVE Henry Percy is much-discussed but not seen – the story begins after Anne has been sent home from court in disgrace, but she’s not keen to discuss what caused this humiliation, although the servants speculate quite a bit. When she finally tells Kate, she makes her promise to keep it to herself. “I did that most unpolitical of things – I forgot I was just a pawn for kings and princes to manipulate. I feel in love – oh, so deeply in love – it’s like the ocean, love like that, bearing you away on the tide, something beyond your power to control … ” Percy’s future title was attractive, it’s clear, but it wasn’t the attraction. She doesn’t know for a long time why they were separated, but her hatred of Wolsey and the king is strong regardless. (George Boleyn suggests that it was to promote the match with James Butler, but as Anne rejects the idea out of hand, and nobody else has mentioned it, the match is stillborn). Curiously, although Percy doesn’t die in this telling of the story, as he does in Anne Of The Thousand Days he’s treated almost as if he actually is dead; Anne tells Kate that he “would have become Earl of Northumberland”, though since he’s still alive he’s clearly still in line to do so, and later on, Anne will accuse Henry of killing him. When Henry points out, rightly enough, that it’s impossible for him to have killed “Northumberland’s whelp” since he’s still among the living, Anne says that he killed Percy in spirit, and killed her love for him by forcing him to give her up.

Kate’s early love is, of course, Mark Smeaton – he is, by twenty-first century standards, rather shockingly callous in his initial treatment of her (he’s clear that he doesn’t love her right then, but if she waits around long enough, who knows – he might come around) but by the standards of most Smeatons, he’s a parfait gentil knyghte. Once it’s clear that Anne really is seriously involved with the king, Mark cuts his losses and becomes engaged to Kate, who’s still swooning over his good looks and musical skill. And to his credit, he’s a standup guy to her from then on.

THE QUEEN’S BEES Margaret Wyatt is the most notable one, described as being more loyal than ambitious, and therefore a rarity at court. Jane Seymour appears only towards the end, and barely speaks. Her lack of speech is matched only by her lack of charm – she’s “a colourless, plain, dumpy little woman”. Nan Cobham is there largely for background purposes, and Lady Rochford drops in for a few sneers.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR Kate, with a close second in Mark Smeaton – who, unlike most of his other incarnations, realizes comparatively early that Anne is out of his league and turns to Kate as a romantic backup. Anne also has a maid named Jane Dipper at Hever, who shows Kate the ropes when she first turns up.

THE PROPHECY Anne has dreams of beheading or some equally unpleasant fate, and as her arrest is imminent she tells Kate “I’ve dreamed of this so many times – the block, the axe.”

IT’S A GIRL! “What use is another girl to me?” snarls Henry, and although he comes around after awhile, being unable to resist children, Anne isn’t exactly sanguine about her prospects should she fail to deliver a boy in the near future.

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Yes, as well as the wen – she shows them to Kate after rescuing her, to explain why she took such an interest in a girl with a “witch’s mark.”

On her little finger, growing out of it, was a tiny sixth finger that deformed the otherwise lovely hand. I looked from her hand back to her eyes, and she nodded with grim amusement.

“Yes, I carry the devil’s mark too, Kate. And another, also, on my neck, a mole that my detractors have called a witch’s mark, a devil’s teat.”

Branching out from dressmaking, Anne invents a hairstyle for Kate which covers her strawberry mark.

FAMILY AFFAIRS Anne has a stepmother called Lady Alice – as usual, she’s a kindly countrywoman whom Thomas married after the early death of his first wife. She and Anne aren’t overly close – Alice is fairly timid, a character trait which doesn’t agree with her stepdaughter – however, she does take Anne’s part when she refuses to see Henry at first, and tells Thomas that it’s actually a strategy to make the king more interested in her long-term. It isn’t, but Anne is grateful for Alice’s inspired storytelling, since it will let her get both Thomas and the king off her back for a while. Thomas himself isn’t especially different from his usual, less pleasant incarnations – eaten up by ambition, desperate for Anne to become Henry’s mistress, treating his children like recalcitrant employees. We never actually see Mary Boleyn, only hear about her – both of her children are said to be the king’s, and she was pregnant with the first when she married William Carey. After the baby’s birth, she and the king resumed their affair, “with poor old Will Carey turning a blind eye,” as George tells Anne. “She gets a kick out of it, I suppose.”

George Boleyn himself is more of a presence, and is in his usual character; snarky, supportive, and unhappily married to Jane, Lady Rochford. Jane herself is more low-key than usual – she’s nasty, of course – she makes “several cutting references to my face, and [her] wit, though sharp – which appealed to Anne – was always hurtful. I suspected it was because Jane was a very discontented and unfulfilled woman. Her marriage to George had been an arranged one, and he made no secret of the fact that he did not love her.” However, she has no involvement in Anne’s and George’s downfall – she isn’t mentioned once, and the incest accusation’s sourcing is vague, but considering the way Cromwell is characterized (very negatively) most readers would probably end up blaming him.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE There’s some weird use of slang – George Boleyn refers to the “chaps” at court, and Mary “getting a kick” out of being the king’s mistress, for the most part it isn’t bad. The initial conversation between Henry and Anne is excellent, more like a duel than a conversation, and if the end is a bit melodramatic – “Battle is joined, then? To the death?” says Henry, when they both understand that neither will give way – it’s a romance, it’s supposed to be that way.

ERRATA Well, it’s a romance, and if romances have anything in common it’s that timelines are screwed up. While the story takes us from 1526 to 1536, a period of ten years, but few of the characters seem to age or develop much in that time, with the exception of Anne, Kate (who keeps dropping hints to Mark about how she’s not getting any younger) and Mark. Mark himself is another issue – he’s presented as a member of the Boleyn household whose singing at an entertainment impresses the king so much that he’s taken off to court to be trained. Furthermore, he’s eventually made a member of Anne’s household. Smeaton’s history wasn’t like this, though – he was (if you believe Cavendish) a member of Cardinal Wolsey’s chapel choir, and eventually was attached to the king’s household. He had nothing to do with the Boleyn family except for sometimes playing music for their daughter after she became queen. And the usual religious simplifications abound — the two forms which exist seem to be Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism, meaning that Henry VIII, ends up somehow carrying the Lutheran banner — something which would have surprised and displeased him very much.

WORTH A READ? If you like both Anne Boleyn and romance novels, this is one of the more interesting ones. Anne is described as a victim of circumstances, but she gets to show a good bit of personality along the way – intelligent, mercurial, moody, headstrong and sometimes frightening. “Here, take this. I’m tired of it,” she tells Kate when offering her a valuable necklace. She enjoys Lady Rochford’s company even while disliking her on principle, and generally acts much more like an inconsistent, interesting person than most women in romances. The portrayal of Mark Smeaton is notable as well – not that he’s a plaster hero (far from it – the job is reserved for the boring beta suitor Giles Ashton) but for all his less appealing qualities, he has a lot of good ones as well. Chief among these is that he’s an actual, reasonable adult with a life outside of either swooning over or creeping on Anne. It’s a bit sad that any portrayal of Smeaton as a reasonable adult human should be so noteworthy, but it’s true nonetheless.

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2 Comments
  1. Annalucia permalink

    I may have to read this one, if only to see Mark Smeaton treated like an intelligent and likeable young man. It makes his execution more of a heart-wringer, don’t you think?

    Does Kate have anything going for her except her strawberry birthmark? I’m trying to imagine why Sir Giles (or Sir Anybody) would want to marry a girl of no family, no fortune and in danger from the witch-finders. If she had a notable skill (dairying, embroidering, pastry-making) I could see him saying, “Come work for me and you’ll have a hundred pounds a year and Sundays off!”
    and she could be set up for life. Not a happy ending, of course (not if she loses Mark) but it would work better than the Suitor Ex Machina.

    • sonetka permalink

      She could set herself up as a minor noblewoman on that kind of money! (Very minor — though Jane Boleyn had to make do with under a hundred p.a. for a while after George’s death). I think Kate’ s main attraction is the one that these girls usually have; she isn’t susceptible to the frivolities of court, plus she’s close to the queen, which has its own advantages.

      There’s so little surviving information about Mark Smeaton — of course, most of what does survive is somewhat dismissive, but it’s so hard to figure out how much of it was due to its being written after his “confession” and death, how much due to snobbery (hello, Thomas Wyatt!), and how much was him being any more of an ass than the average twenty-one-year old who’s been raised above his station in life. You could plausibly portray him in any number of ways in a novel, but sympathetic portrayals which don’t paint him as a complete idiot are thin on the ground — I really wish I knew why.

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