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The Reluctant Mistress by Peggy Boyton (1977)

May 16, 2014

How many ways are there to write a novel about Mary Boleyn? Considering how little is known about her, it’s fascinating how writers across the decades have all hewed to the same storyline, which is “the meek shall inherit the earth.” They feature Mary as the tenderhearted hater of ambition who’s quickly overshadowed by her beautiful, intelligent but just a little cold sister, Anne. Mary’s departure from court life to the countryside is represented as the fulfillment of her true wishes, and her second marriage (and often her first as well) are presented as loving if humble contrasts to the exalted but strained situation in which Anne finds herself. After Anne’s and George’s deaths, Mary, in horror, rejects court life forever and retreats to the country to live with her husband happily, raise her children, and inherit the Boleyn properties which would would have gone to George, if he had lived. Of course, there are differences in smaller elements – William Carey’s personality can shift around considerably, and the paternity of Mary’s two Carey children also goes back and forth. Anne’s personality can run all the way from a strong-minded sister victimized by her own ambition to pitiless ice maiden victimized by her own ambition. So how did this rendition of the story stack up against the others?

On the whole, not too badly. It begins in standard fashion with the young Mary being sent to Brussels for a year, despite her mother’s trepidation (her mother isn’t so unhistorical as to want to keep young Mary at home, but she does wish that she were going to an English household). After a year, her father arranges for her and her younger sister Anne to accompany Princess Mary to her wedding – and it’s upon landing in France that Mary first meets William Stafford; he’s in a lawyer’s house in Calais in order to learn the language, and gallantly helps carry both Mary and Anne ashore so their dresses don’t get soaked. Mary has fallen for him before he even deposits her on the beach, but their father (who’s accompanied them, for once) makes a few unflattering comments about younger sons’ prospects to let Mary know not to pay attention to Stafford in the future. However, after Princess Mary has worn out Louis XII with “prancing and dancing” (as a shocked courtier accuses her), Mary Boleyn stays on at court, soon to be joined by her sister Anne. When Mary catches the eye of Francois I, he engages in some heavy flirting during which he discovers that she’s very interested in one William Stafford of Calais. What a unfortunate coincidence, he says. He had just instituted the death penalty for hunting in the king’s forests without permission, and “Your friend William Stafford, while on French soil outside the boundaries of Calais, was caught hunting … A pity that my garde-champetre did not recognize nobility in plain Mr. Stafford. You English should blazon your titles more obviously. He is dead.” Mary faints, and needs to be revived, and Francois gallantly attempts to console her. Naturally he consoles her right into bed, with the help of guards who won’t let her leave his room and a spiked drink on top of it all. This scene was really very unnerving; Mary was being so thoroughly played and was so totally incapable of handling it. It’s clear that Anne is much more competent with these situations than Mary will ever be – after ticking off the ladies-in-waiting who were giggling at Mary the next day (“I pointed out that very few of them could afford to cast a stone”) she informs Mary that “I would not so demean myself, not for any man, not even a king.”

She means it, as we’re to discover, and her entire career stems from the fact that Henry VIII, the irresistible force, has met Anne, the immovable object. Mary herself doesn’t have Anne’s willpower, and she’s miserable, especially after discovering that Stafford is, in fact, alive and never went hunting in French territory and has no idea what she’s talking about. He’s heard talk about other things, however, and when he discovers that the rumours about Mary are true, promptly drops her like a hot potato and goes off and gets engaged to someone else. Anne, meanwhile, is fending off various suitors (including Francois) by teasing them, holding them at arm’s length and telling them jokingly that she’s vowed to religious life.

Mary is eventually hauled home in disgrace by her father, sent off to the English court in the hopes that her reputation won’t have followed her and that she’ll be able to catch some respectable male specimen. She proceeds to let the side down once again by falling for William Carey (she meets him while with Fr. John Forrest, who here is the saintly, compassionate opposite of Fr. John Forrest of Norris And Anne Boleyn). Carey is extremely put off by her past but convinced that her repentance is real (which it is) and soon they marry secretly. They get along reasonably well until Henry VIII, his expectations heightened by Mary’s reputation, starts sending her gifts. Her father is of course delighted, Carey is sent off to the countryside for an indefinite period, and Mary tumbles into and out of bed with Henry in the space of a couple of pages. No children result – the two Carey children are born after it’s all over and are the undoubted genetic property of William Carey.

This doesn’t mean there are no unrecorded love children in the story, however. George Boleyn, who was once obsessed with the gentle, pale Jane Parker, has married her and been disillusioned on several fronts. “At that time I found her gentleness appealing. Now I know that she is not gentle, merely lifeless, except when she rouses herself to sting like a wasp or viper.” Anne, now returned from a second stay at the French court, has reason to agree with this assessment, as it was Jane who told Wolsey about her romance with Percy. Nonetheless she does take the time to point that George does have an illicit “little Boleyn”, whom George keeps entirely secret from Jane because he’s afraid she would harm him (or his mother, who’s never named) if she found out.

Anne has her own romantic troubles, as the king has now turned his attention to her and while she’s determined not to break her own vow to “give herself to no man without marriage” she’s in something of a bind as the king will lose interest if she rejects him and then she’ll be faced with the wrath of her father and, as George points out, “Goodbye to all our thoughts of advancement.” Anne eventually adopts a policy of “saying neither yes nor no,” and points out that there have been divorce rumours swirling around him for a while. “She set her little mouth. `If the king divorces, need he marry a princess?'”

That thought, and Anne’s longing to get revenge on Wolsey, are what drive most of the rest of the book. There’s a definite undercurrent of reform in this Anne, but it’s hard to tell how much is sincere and how much is pure politics; we get several long scenes with Cranmer, depicted as being the kindly Fr. Forrest’s equally kindly reforming counterpart (though his involvement in Forrest’s end isn’t exactly stressed) but also essentially weak, and knowing it.

The book marches through the story, touching on the usual high (or low) points: Anne’s conversation with Anne Gainsford about the “book of prophecies”, her growing unpopularity with the commons, her pregnancy with Elizabeth, and her marriage. Mary, unlike many narrators of these books but probably more realistically than they, has only the vaguest idea of when any of these things happened. “It may have been December or January,” she says of their marriage, and Elizabeth was conceived sometime in that timeframe also. In fact, nobody is quite sure what’s going on until “Queen Anne” is prayed for in church at Easter, and the reaction is not universally positive. Mary, widowed now for a number of years, has her own complications in life as well – during the trip to Calais in October, she reunited with William Stafford, now widowed without children and in whom the old flame still seems to linger. He follows her back to the English court and becomes a gentleman-usher there, but since he’s still extremely unacceptable as a son-in-law, they have to sneak around to see each other while Anne is crowned in state, gives birth to Elizabeth, and deals with an increasingly fractious husband. “False alerts and miscarriages” are all Anne gets as she tries for another child, and when she finds out Stafford has returned she’s less than sympathetic towards Mary. “If only she could produce a son,” Mary thinks “Her position would be assured, she would be happy, and then we might get her help and approval.” But as the son continues not to show up, Mary and Stafford get a little ahead of themselves and end up having to go very quietly off to Cranmer and get married before she begins to show.

Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford is, naturally, the one who breaks the news that Mary is pregnant; apparently, Jane has had it out for Mary ever since George decided to hide his illegitimate son in her household and Jane came sniffing around looking for him (presumably to injure or kill him) and Mary sent her away. Now Mary is the one being sent away by an enraged Anne, and once again they go to Cranmer for help getting a place to live, which he gives. They have a boy named William at about the time Anne gets pregnant one last time, June of 1535. During this last pregnancy, Anne “turned more and more to religion … She spent thousands of pounds from her privy purse sending momney to the poor in every village in England … and interceded with the King for the reformer Hugh Latimer and so saved him from martyrdom. She made him her chaplain then got Henry to name him Bishop of Worcester. Latimer stressed to her the vanity of human greatness and she and her ladies made shirts for the poor. It all reminded me of Queen Claude.”

It’s not enough to make the Almighty relent, however, and after the shock of Henry’s fall at jousting, Anne has a stillborn baby boy in January 1536. “You shall have no more boys by me,” are the last words we see Henry say to her, and from then he devotes his interest to Jane Seymour.

It’s never quite clear whether Henry gives Cromwell a specific order to find a way to get rid of Anne or if Cromwell operates based on broad hints deploring the fact that nothing will rid him of this turbulent wife, but Cromwell is clearly the major driving force behind Anne’s downfall and he finds an able assistant in Jane Boleyn, who’s only too happy to stitch up her husband on a charge of incest. Mary tries to see Anne but can’t, and has to hear the account of her last days from their unsympathetic aunt, Lady Boleyn, though Mary is able to attend her siblings’ trials.

A postscript from Mary’s point of view tells of her parents’ deaths – their separate burials were deliberate, as her mother couldn’t bear to be buried with her father anymore – and of how she inherited the remainder of their estates, and a further postscript from her son describes how her descendants are flourishing and also lets the reader know of Lady Rochford’s eventual execution for helping Katherine Howard. “We all have cause to be grateful for God’s Providence,” he concludes, and it’s true that Providence has served the Careys – if few others in the story – remarkably well.

SEX OR POLITICS? If it’s a book about Mary Boleyn, it’s about sex. There is a respectable amount of religion and politics, though; enough to at least make the romantic pieces stick together. I did appreciate the fact that Mary went to confession several times that we saw, and her dismayed reaction to being given a light penance by the “fashionable young priest.” Too often religion is treated in these novels as being entirely a matter of intellect; characters talk back and forth about doctrines or church corruption, but it’s surprisingly seldom that they’re shown as needing their religion emotionally.

WHEN BORN? When the book opens in 1513, Anne is six, Mary is nine, and George is ten. Their respective birth years work out to 1507, 1504 and 1503. Though Mary must have born either very early in 1504 or late in 1503, as when she marries (February 4 1520) she says of herself “I was sixteen and a married woman.”

THE EARLY LOVE James Butler makes a fleeting appearance during his betrothal to Anne, but the only result of their meeting is that Anne declares him to be an “ignorant, arrogant Irish peasant” and James in his turn pronounces her “a thin little skin-a-ma-link and too Frenchified.” Not surprisingly, that’s the last we see of him, and less than a page later Henry Percy has come into view and Anne is “bubbling with joy” every time she sees him. However, since Mary doesn’t get much chance to see Percy, we don’t see him either, and after the jealous, still-single Jane Parker betrays them to Wolsey, Percy is sent off north, not to be seen again until he’s getting sick at Anne’s trial. For Mary, of course, Stafford qualifies as both her early and late love.

THE QUEEN’S BEES In France we see Marguerite de Navarre, the king’s sister (reformist, but also rather nasty), Francoise de Foix, and a few others – all of them busy stabbing each other in the back. In England, except for Lady Rochford, that one-woman villain committee, and Mary herself, we don’t see very many ladies-in-waiting. Anne Gainsford appears for her one scene related to the prophecy, and Jane Seymour is mentioned only in the beginning of 1536 and, as is customary, has no lines whatsoever. An ambiguity in the text makes it difficult to tell which Jane, Rochford or Seymour, is also an animal-hater: when Anne’s dog Purkoy dies from a fall, Mary tells us that “It’s my belief that Jane pushed him, or had him pushed out of spite.” Since this comes at the end of a paragraph which begins with the king’s courtship of Jane Seymour, you would think it would mean her; however, as we get no description of her personality then or later. Jane Rochford, however, has shown an obsessive eagerness to stick the knife in where her in-laws are concerned, and since she was apparently considering poisoning George’s son earlier, something like killing a lapdog would be pretty small potatoes for her.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR Mary’s housekeeper at Plashey is Dame Alicia, and Simonette is mentioned but not seen. She’s still Anne’s governess in this version, but instead of living in England, she lives with the family with whom Anne is lodged while preparing for life in Claude’s household. “She was my nurse at Briis-sous-Forges,” Anne tells Mary. “She gave me delicious friandises to eat.” Will Somers also turns up later on, asking the king to take on Wolsey’s jester Patch, and making jokes about Elizabeth as a “bastard” about an hour after her birth, which seems a bit strong even for a licensed joker. (There seem to have been jokes along that line, but later on, when Anne was less in favour – even so, the king was not pleased). Also, Leonardo da Vinci makes another guest appearance at the French court; however, unlike most of his appearances, it’s not a terrifically sympathetic one. Francois takes Mary along in tow during one of his visits to Leonardo, but when he’s introduced to Mary, “He seemed to be analysing every feature, analysing my very soul. Then he turned off his gaze. I was dismissed. I felt I was shallow.” The dismissal is emphasized by the fact that he and Francois then proceed to have their conversation in Italian, which Mary can only follow by fits and starts.

THE PROPHECY The story in which Anne and Anne Gainsford see a picture of a beheaded queen in a “book of prophecies” is recounted faithfully; Mary, not surprisingly, finds herself agreeing with Anne Gainsford that a crown isn’t much consolation if you no longer have a head to put it on.

IT’S A GIRL! Although Henry is “disappointed”, Anne manages to save the situation with the frequently-appearing speech about virgins. Since she was in the Chamber of Virgins (named for a tapestry of the Wise and Foolish Virgins), she tells him that “they may with reason call this room the Chamber of Virgins, for a virgin is now born in it on the vigil of that auspicious day when the Church commemorates the nativity of our Blessed Lady the Virgin Mary.” Lady Rochford is, naturally, not impressed. “Your sister can always cover a fiasco with fine words,” she says, but Henry is impressed even if she isn’t.

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Anne’s little finger on her left hand is “marred by a little bit of extra nail which would grow out on the side. Her enemies made much of that later,” we’re told, though we never see them doing it later on – in fact, that’s the last we hear of the finger.

FAMILY AFFAIRS We have a rare appearance by Anne’s grandmother! Margaret Butler, Thomas Boleyn’s mother, outlived Anne, George and possibly Thomas, but she tends to get left out of novels, though she did make a few appearances in The Other Boleyn Girl. Here her personality is rather similar – intelligent, waspish, and as hardheaded as her son when it comes to family matters. When Mary returns from France in disgrace, “The sooner you get her off your hands, the better” is her advice regarding Mary, and Thomas sends her court in hopes of saving something from the wreck by palming her off on some likely oldest son. She’s ambitious for her son to become Earl of Ormond and sometimes sticks the knife in about how much he’s worked for the title without any tangible result.

Thomas is about what you would expect, except that, rather unusually, he’s described as being “dark and handsome” in the 1510s, when his children are still young. He flirts with his wife a bit by implying that while, yes, he married her for her connections, her personal charms certainly didn’t hurt. Nevertheless, she’s described as being frightened of him – Mary later holds out on telling her mother about her own secret marriage because she’s afraid that if her father knew, he’d beat his wife. And Mary’s return in disgrace means that her mother ends up having to save any affectionate expressions for times when her husband and mother-in-law are out of earshot. George Boleyn is a poetry-loving, musical young man who, very unusually, is “besotted” with Jane Parker and frustrated at the stalled dowry negotiations which prevent them from marrying for a few years. Mary and Anne think Jane is a “a pale, shifty creature” and that her placidness is only a front for some nasty personality traits, and in this they are proven entirely right, as Jane proceeds to tell Wolsey about Anne and Percy’s romance, tell the king about Mary’s pregnancy and second marriage, possibly kill Anne’s pet dog, invent the incest accusation unprompted to dispose of her husband, contemplate killing the illegitimate son whom George acquires from someone unnamed after realizing what a bad bargain Jane is – really, the list goes on. Jane’s malevolence is explained by her supposed jealousy of the attention George pays to Anne, but since we don’t see much of this actually happening it comes across as a rather unlikely excuse.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE The writing is clear and enjoyable, though sometimes the author tries to make the characters speak in slang which sounds closer to Edward VII than Edward VI. “I fell into a rose bush and swore heartily, then I shinned up to your window,” the Duke of Suffolk tells the newly-widowed Mary Tudor. “I did jolly well to find the right one, don’t you think?” And there are the occasional passages which attempt to be ornate and end up being bizarrely amusing instead. After Mary’s first meeting with Fr. Forrest, she says:

That was the first time I saw this good Friar who, unlike many churchmen, was alight with true holiness. Alas, when I saw him for the last time, he was alight in a literal sense, being roasted in chains over a slow fire. And Anne, though she was then dead, poor soul, was the cause of it and of the deaths of many good Christians, both Catholic and Protestant.

That’s carrying the fire metaphor a little too far, I think. It also seems a little unfair to put the majority of the blame on Anne when Cranmer is a character as well, since he had a lot more to do with Forrest’s burning than any dead woman could have. However, there are some really nice moments as well. We get a few glimpses of the Ormond Horn, an ivory horn which (supposedly) belonged to St. Thomas Becket and was passed down from father to son; Thomas Boleyn shows it to his children when they’re young and it becomes a tangible symbol of his ambitions. At a low moment, we’re told, “Sir Thomas picked up Becket’s ivory horn. “Tenax propositi”, he said. “I’ll hold on till I win.” And while there were lots of nicely-turned conversations, I especially enjoyed Henry VIII picking Mary’s brains to assure himself that he was every bit the equal of the French King.

“… And my clothes, Mary, how do they compare?”
“I think yours are richer and more jewelled.”
“And my shirts? I have been complimented on my transparent silk shirts.”
“Since the queen makes them they are fit for a king.” He roared with laughter. “‘Tis true, the queen makes an excellent fit. But surely you ladies share in the work?”
“Oh yes, your grace, we do our share of the seams and hems.”
“So you help to clothe me and French skill goes into my English shirts.”
“There’s a Russian scent to Francois’ shirts.”
“Russian, how so?”
“His shirts are kept, sire, in boxes made of Russian leather. Very fragrant.”
“I must order some. I’ll tell the queen I want no more of her Mitcham lavender. We must have Russian leather.”

ERRATA William Stafford is usually too old in these books and this is no exception; he’s the same age as Mary or possibly a little older when all the evidence suggests that he was about a decade younger, with all the social complications that entailed. Lady Rochford, we’re told by Henry Carey, “died with shocking cowardice, raving like a maniac,” and while he may be an unreliable narrator, Lady Rochford’s portrayal invites us to believe that he’s serious. She certainly was raving after she was arrested (and who wouldn’t, in her circumstances?) but the only surviving eyewitness account of her death makes it clear that she died while on her best behavior and gave a perfectly conventional speech beforehand. Anne is said to have gone back to France after the end of her affair with Percy, which she doesn’t seem to have done, and Fr. Forrest dies around 1533 instead of outliving Anne and dying in 1538. William Stafford becomes Sir William soon after Thomas Boleyn’s death and Mary’s coming into his property, but in fact he wasn’t knighted until after Mary’s death – his second wife was Lady Stafford, but not his first wife. Some of the titles are off-kilter – probably the most jarring is the repeated use of “Lord Cranmer,” which he wasn’t, although in fairness he would have been “my lord” or “my Lord Archbishop” once he was archbishop of Canterbury.

WORTH A READ? Certainly, if you can find a copy (and be careful to narrow it down by author, because there are a lot of books with “Reluctant Mistress” somewhere in the title). Really, my main critique of it is that as a mistress, Mary wasn’t all that reluctant in general except for Francois initial treatment of her; rape isn’t too strong a word, but true to the spirit of the time it’s one that never crosses her mind. Otherwise, while Mary herself is the same person who appears in virtually all novels about her, there was something extra about this book which made it especially enjoyable to read – there are a lot of little details drawn from accounts about various feasts and clothing items (although not the much-used black satin nightgown,) and Mary’s narrative voice had a way of juxtaposing the important and less-important things which sounded downright realistic. After talking to a weeping Cranmer about how he’s convinced that Anne was indeed guilty, despite his owing her his position, Mary reflects that
“He did indeed owe his whole position to her, but he dared not support her. He even owed her a great deal of money.” The money Cranmer owes her probably isn’t tenth or even one hundredth on the list of Anne’s concerns at the moment, but Mary still thinks of it indignantly, as the cherry on the cowardly cake. I also liked the fact that it handled confession with a reasonable degree of seriousness – in fact, that it handled confession at all. Part of Mary’s misery after becoming Francois’ mistress (though after the first time, it’s voluntary) is that even when she tries to go to confession, the “fashionable young priests” who are jaded by (and possibly participating in) court life will fob her off with a couple of prayers and a reassurance that this sort of thing is really no big deal. But for Mary, it is, and she’s much happier when she’s finally able to make a confession to Father Forrest, who not only gives her a somewhat more substantial penance, but advice on how to keep herself from sinning again – not that it’s entirely effective, but it’s what Mary wants nonetheless. Its take on Anne is also somewhat traditional and very well done; although she seems much freer before marrying Henry, it’s clear that although she has a quick tongue and seems to be running Henry’s life completely, she’s really almost as trapped as she will be post-marriage. Henry doesn’t want to let her go, her father will be extremely angry if she lets him go, and it would be a brave suitor who would be willing to pursue her once she’d made the king angry by rejecting him. She handles it gracefully (for the most part — it helps that we barely see Catherine of Aragon) but we can see how hemmed in she is by wanting to please her father, the king, and herself all at once.

It’s not up there with the classic mid-century novels, but it’s a nicely-detailed, very readable romance on a character which, while extremely familiar to us now, had earned less attention when the book was written.

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2 Comments
  1. Ooh, I don’t know this one – I suspect it’s one of those glorious Robert Hale novels from the Seventies that was only obtainable from our local library. I hope it’s got a suitably lurid cover!

    • sonetka permalink

      Surprisingly, it doesn’t! The woman on the cover is actually in dark, somewhat period-appropriate dress (though the sleeves and the neckline of her dress seem wrong, neither is very revealing) and she’s wearing a veil behind her French hood. The expression on her face is exactly like one you’d see on a tintype, so she looks very staid. I’m guessing the cover designer was trying to emphasize the “Reluctant” part of the title. (It is a Robert Hale novel, though!)

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