The Boleyn Bride by Brandy Purdy (2014)
Not to be confused with The Boleyn Wife (2007) which was written by the same author. In this case, the bride is from an earlier generation – she’s Elizabeth Howard, wife of Thomas Boleyn, mother of Anne, and a good subject for a really in-depth historical novel. This novel, unfortunately, is not it. The Elizabeth we’re treated to here is an unchanging personality whose chief distinguishing traits are hatred for her husband and willingness to sleep with virtually anyone whose name has ever appeared in an account of life at the court of Henry VIII. She also enjoys cultivating poisonous plants in her garden and using lots of italics. Sound intriguing? It isn’t, but read on anyway!
The prologue lets us know the sort of prose we’re in for right away. After establishing that her garden used to be a nicely-cultivated and fruitful place (we’ll learn later that she and Thomas had an “Orange Ball” every year in which they dressed in orange and showed off their rare cultivated fruits to all and sundry) Elizabeth lets us know that it’s undergone a few changes since Anne and George died.
Welcome to my private Hell. Pass through the portal, the old sagging, groaning gate, twined with stinging nettle, not quaint, picturesque ivy; walk in amidst the thorns, thistles, and grasping blackberry brambles; chance the poison, if you dare, when a prick or a graze, a carelessly plucked leaf or nibbled berry, even a beautiful yellow flower, could be your own death knell; and gaze your fill upon the ugly, foul, festering fury that is the raging, bitter as gall and green wormwood, black and red soul of Elizabeth Boleyn, Countess of Wiltshire. No calm ladylike embroidery or genteel paints for me, nor the masculine chisel or a knife or block of wood or stone to carve out my grief and anger, oh no; my pain wants life, and I’ve given it that.
Her garden has been turned into a poison pit as a last parting gift to her husband, Thomas. Elizabeth knows that she’s dying and hopes that her garden is a thorn in her husband’s side for a long time afterward, since clearing it all out and replacing it with something more conventional will be both dangerous and expensive. With luck this will also hamper his plans to remarry. And yes, this makes her cold and spiteful, she admits, but while it’s true that she and Thomas are soulless conniving monsters, the same was not true of her two younger children, Anne and George, and it’s defending them that concerns her now.
It turns out to be a curious defense. The young Elizabeth, we learn, was a proud and coldhearted beauty (beautiful in the Snow White manner – blood-red lips, black hair, pale skin) who considered herself much more intelligent than most of the men around her and was pretty much correct in this regard. She fooled around with the poet John Skelton and a toymaker named Remi Jouet (of whom we’ll hear much more anon) before being married off to Thomas Boleyn, jumped-up progeny of a shopkeeper and all-around ambitious pig who in addition to being ugly is also a skinflint and terrible in the sack. To add to his manifold charms, he has very little to live on and Hever Castle is a boring, backwater dump ruled over by Thomas’s half-insane Irish mother and her unsanitary pet monkey. She’s helped only a little by the arrival of her first two children, Mary and George – she’s pleased with their beauty and promise but isn’t terribly interested in hands-on mothering and gets bored with them quickly, leaving them to nursemaids. (How this makes her different from every other aristocratic mother of the time is never explained). Then comes her third baby – Anne, a “hideous wailing thing” who looks like a hairy little gargoyle and of whom Elizabeth immediately says “This one, if she lives to grow up, shall be a bride of Christ.”
She does live to grow up, though it’s no thanks to Elizabeth, who in a fit of rage at her ugly “changeling child” tries at one point to smother her with an embroidered cushion. Anne’s life is saved by the sudden appearance of the toddler George, who glares at his mother and causes her to come to her senses and drop the pillow. And from that day on, Anne and George are inseparable – that is, until Thomas decrees that Anne and Mary are to go to France as attendants to learn the language and culture at firsthand. Elizabeth isn’t sure about this, even though she doesn’t exactly suffer from an excess of maternal affection, but Thomas insists and in the end she agrees that it would a good opportunity for them.
By this time, Henry VIII has come to throne and married Catherine of Aragon, and the Boleyns are finally living in London where Elizabeth is happily pursuing an affair with the dollmaker she met nine years earlier. She doesn’t care that much about him, or so she insists repeatedly, but he’s good in bed (despite being very fat, which she also tells us over and over) so he’s good enough to pass the time with. Despite Elizabeth’s daughters being France, she’s happy to still see George, who’s serving as a page at the English court and growing up to be extremely handsome and personable (he has quite a way with both the men and women). Elizabeth eventually begins to expand her repertoire of lovers, though despite later rumours she never gets Henry VIII. He expresses an interest, but in a rare moment of sympathy, Elizabeth decides that she can’t do that to Catherine of Aragon, whom she’s been attending in stillbirth after stillbirth, and also that – more to the point – since Thomas would love to reap the rewards of a royal affair, she’ll spite him by refusing to have one. It becomes a moot point after Henry decides to grope her and is repulsed when he realizes that she’s having her period – he dislikes anything to do with pregnancy or menstruation – but she enjoys Thomas’s complaints about her “refusal” for a long time afterwards.
And before you know it, Anne and Mary are back! Alas, Mary has lost a lot of market value due to having slept with the French king and a number of his associates – she’s just too sweet and silly to say no to anyone – and Thomas blames Elizabeth for setting Mary a bad example, even though, as Elizabeth points out, it was Thomas’s idea to send her away. Luckily, Anne has turned out much more promisingly. She’s grown into her looks – there’s no more talk of “making her a bride of Christ” – is a wonderful dancer, and loves making costumes and staging masques.
She’s also a borderline sociopath. Or if she isn’t one before she falls in love with, and loses, Henry Percy, she certainly becomes one afterwards. Percy is a “great, big, clumsy stuttering baby in a man’s body”, “shy and gawky,” but Anne, who grew up being pushed aside because of her looks, ignores that and falls for him, hard. Elizabeth, herself having an affair with “a dear, voluptuous dumpling of a man”, can sympathize with Anne in this and is angry when Wolsey, acting at Henry’s behest, breaks up the affair. Anne doesn’t want her sympathy, however. Elizabeth spent so long ignoring her children when they were small that they now look to each other for support, not her. This frustrates Elizabeth for a couple of seconds before she shrugs and starts heading off to the toy shop again.
Henry’s romantic assault on Anne goes about as well as it did historically — probably even worse, because instead of simply trying to stay away from him, stand up for herself, or any combination of the usual reasons given for Anne’s refusal of him, in this version she’s actively messing with his head because he bores her and gaslighting him is entertaining. (This gets even weirder when it’s made clear that she doesn’t realize he was behind Wolsey’s cancellation of her marriage to Percy). She drops his gifts on the floor, tosses his letters aside, welcomes him on visits on some days and on others says she can’t stand the sight of him. Even her gifts to him are the embodiment of mixed signals. After Henry sends her a token of a gem-encrusted lady flanked by Venus and Cupid,
Anne laughed and called in the goldsmith to set this little lady in a storm-tossed boat in a wild whitecapped blue and green enameled sea and sent it back to His Majesty.
“Let him think what he will about that!” she laughed. “I hope he stays awake all night trying to figure out what it means!”
And what did it mean? I asked George, who had acted as Anne’s messenger and delivered it to the King, while Anne chose to remain at Hever, tantalizingly elusive and out of reach, to further taunt His Majesty with her absence. But George merely shrugged his shoulders and laughed. “Not a damn thing! Anne got the idea when we were out walking and saw some men scraping the bottom of their boat.”
I’ll admit I laughed at that. Anne decides to follow up this effort by ganging up with George, Weston and Norris to act out an “Egyptian” masque which features a lot of provocative dancing. Henry is so inflamed by this that he’s driven to discover the infamous passage in Leviticus about marrying a brother’s wife, and when he tells this to Anne, she briefly considers replying with the contradictory passage from Deuteronomy but – for once – holds her tongue. Instead she tells him that she “would rather remain barren than give birth to a bastard, even a royal one!” Finally, her cards are on the table: she’ll never sleep with him unless he marries her, and that’s that.
Elizabeth is horrified, both because she rather likes Catherine and because that simply isn’t the way the world works. “I was certain that it was but a tempest that would soon blow past.” Despite Remi telling her that he sees “a frightened little girl” when he looks at Anne – a girl used to being considered ugly, who’s determined to distinguish herself by being different from the rest, no matter how dangerous it is – Anne seems supremely confident and is becoming more so by the day. She simply doesn’t give a damn and her cohort of obliging sidekicks are always there, ready to back her up and act in various provocative masques with her – a masque of fire, a water masque, and of course the famous masque of “Cardinal Wolsey Goes To Hell”, performed after Wolsey’s arrest (at the hands of Henry Percy, sent specially by Anne) and subsequent death. Even Henry VIII is a little shocked by this, but Anne doesn’t care and there’s always another sexy masque waiting in the wings to get him back. Finally, at Calais, she and George perform a masque of Adam and Eve which so inspires the king that by January, Anne realizes that she’s pregnant and a wedding is needed posthaste. Elizabeth is shocked both that Anne gave up her virginity before marriage and also that she doesn’t seem to be bothered by it, considering what a song and dance she made about it earlier. “We were bored, and there was nothing to do,” is Anne’s explanation. Soon Elizabeth is acting as her official attendant, she’s been proclaimed as queen, and plans for the coronation are being made.
Henry’s affection has not survived even to Anne’s crowning, though. Unlike most versions of the story, in which her giving in to him makes him lose interest, it’s not the sex that does it, it’s the pregnancy.
True to form, as pregnancy transfigured my daughter’s sleek and slender body, and raised her already hot temper, King Henry turned away from her in disgust. I knew he would. Everyone knew, except my bold and confident daughter; Anne thought she could succeed where all other women had failed and hold him even when the changes Mother Nature wrought dampened his desire. For once, she overestimated her powers. But she could not concede defeat gracefully and just sit and wait and hope for the best once she regained her figure …. Their love affair was over. It had survived seven years of wooing but hadn’t even withstood a single year of wedlock.
It isn’t just the pregnancy; Henry had expected the fiery mistress to transform into a sweet, obedient wife once they were married – “Suddenly, he had had enough of spice and wanted blandness.” He finds it soon enough after the disappointing birth of Elizabeth, and two equally disappointing false pregnancies which follow. Jane Seymour, whose “bland custard nature”, promises her to be ideal wife material, is temporarily vanquished by yet another Anne-staged masque in which a dozen masquers are given Jane masks and dowdy clothing. They dance awkwardly, until Anne shimmers in in a peacock costume – “so energetic and vital, performing bold moves, feline leaps, sudden spins and high kicks, swirling her skirts and shaking her feathers to lure her mate.”
It works, though Henry gets enraged immediately after the act – “YOU CAST A SPELL ON ME!” and beats her up, leaving her to be rescued by George, who spends the night in her room. This is the last straw for an already-jealous Jane Boleyn, who runs off to Cromwell with a story that Anne and George are committing incest. This isn’t the only trouble on the horizon for Anne – Elizabeth herself has been trying out some of George’s cast-off (male) lovers, including the talented but whiny Mark Smeaton, and was almost caught once or twice when leaving his room. Later on, she’ll realize that with her black hair and family resemblance, she may have been taken for Anne.
Anne becomes pregnant and seems to be reprieved for the moment, and her highest moment comes when Catherine of Aragon dies and she, Elizabeth and Henry all make an appearance at a Yellow Ball, rather like the Orange Balls her parents used to have at Hever. The ensuing miscarriage, however, means that she falls fast and hard. Thomas, of course, is quick to figure out what’s happening and starts hinting to Elizabeth that perhaps she should start paying visits to Mistress Seymour with an eye to becoming one of her attendants, and when Anne and her cohorts, including George, are arrested, Thomas is happy to sit on the jury and condemn them to death. A few days later, he attends Henry’s wedding to Jane Seymour.
Elizabeth doesn’t go with him. She’s already ill with a cough and can’t bear to be near him any longer, so she goes back to Hever and gets to work planting her poisonous garden, hoping to thoroughly destroy Hever’s grounds by the time she dies. She does get one last visit from Remi Jouet the toymaker, however – he follows her there and presents her with three dolls; models of her children when they were young. He saw them once when she took them to his shop as children and now, he tells her “No one can ever take your children away from you again.”
SEX OR POLITICS? Like you had to ask. Sex – Elizabeth has more notches on her bedpost than most professional athletes and she regrets exactly one of them (or two, if you count her husband).
WHEN BORN? Mary is the eldest, born in midsummer a few months after Prince Arthur’s death, so sometime in June or July of 1502. George is born sometime in 1503, and Anne in 1504, making a dramatic entrance: “She tore through me like a lightning bolt as a storm raged outside.”
THE EARLY LOVE “Love” might be stretching things, but Elizabeth does have a very graphic almost-affair with John Skelton while in her early teens. Anne, of course, has Henry Percy and her enthusiasm for him seems sincere enough.
THE QUEEN’S BEES Not a whole lot of them. We get a look at Bessie Blount, blonde and silly and only to happy to take up with King Henry once Elizabeth is no longer available, and of course we see both Mary and Jane Boleyn, but not really in their honour attendant capacities. Jane Seymour is seen but, as usual, is silent. She’s still given the inevitable “whey-faced” descriptor, but Elizabeth also tries to dig a little deeper in her character analysis.
Some women go through life never knowing who they truly are; they only know who and what their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons want and expect them to be. Such was Jane Seymour. When she replaced Anne in the King’s affections, some people tried to imbue her soulless blank blandness with an air of mystery, depicting her as some sort of living feminine cipher too deep to fathom, when the truth was, rather sadly, that not even Jane Seymour herself knew who Jane Seymour truly was; she had never dared delve that deep and probe for her own opinions, thoughts and feelings.
THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR Remi Jouet to Elizabeth, at least from her perspective. She first meets him at the age of fifteen, when she’s in London to see the arrival of Princess Catherine, and ducks into his toy shop out of curiosity. She takes an instant fancy to the round little man who runs the place and wouldn’t mind getting down to business with him in the back room, but she’s interrupted by her maid and doesn’t have a chance to get an affair going until nine years later or so. The maid who interrupts her is named Matilda, and doesn’t have much function except to be annoying and disappear early on in the book. Later on she has a maid named Marie, who’s more to her liking.
THE PROPHECY None notable.
IT’S A GIRL! Anne decides to brazen it out by dressing herself and the baby up as royally as possible and telling Henry the news himself once he arrives to visit. “She had borne him a daughter and named her Elizabeth, to honor his mother as well as her own – luckily we both had the same name – and that she would give her little girl a brother, hopefully as loyal and loving as her own.” You have to hand it to an Anne bold enough to tell Henry VIII what their new child’s name is. Henry makes at a grudging attempt to save face – he “glowered but chose to restrain his temper and not make a scene that would be reported, with great relish, by the gloating naysayers, to the foreign ambassadors.” He gives Anne an obligatory kiss and then exits as fast as is politely possible.
DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Yes, and the wen, as Elizabeth notes with revulsion just after Anne is born. “Another daughter, and such an ugly and useless one too! Yet it was so much worse than mere ugliness; she was disfigured, deformed – a nascent nub of a sixth finger protruded from the littlest finger of her left hand and growth like an ugly brown strawberry erupted from the base of her throat, right in front where her hair or a headdress with lappets or a veil could not hide it.” Anne later invents a sleeve to hide the finger and wears tight necklaces to cover the wen.
FAMILY AFFAIRS She despises Thomas, a feeling that never changes throughout the thirty-five years or so that they’re married – to the point where she declines to have an affair with Henry VIII largely because giving up the opportunity to be his mistress, along with all the perquisites she’d get, makes Thomas absolutely furious. (Though she’s still slightly peeved that when Henry did make a pass, he was disgusted by the fact that she was having her period and didn’t try again after that. Elizabeth will do all the rejecting around here, thank you very much). And while it might be hard for her to hate a Boleyn more than she does Thomas, she manages when it comes to his mother Margaret, who in addition to being weirdly over-Irish and trying to make Elizabeth use snuff, is also suffering from some sort of mental problem and has a pet monkey named Prince Piddle Pants who follows her everywhere while fully living down to his name.
George is clearly Elizabeth’s favourite by the end, especially after Mary proves to be a disappointment – “dark George”, handsome, lively, married to the borderline insane Jane and a secret bisexual. This bothers Elizabeth a lot at first until she decides that if she’s going to “love George as he is” she’ll simply need to deal with the fact and does so by trying not to think about it (though she doesn’t mind taking a few of George’s discarded lovers for her own). Mary is Elizabeth’s initial favourite; golden, beautiful, a little dim, promising to make a good marriage but proving to be a disappointment after she sleeps with the French king and sundry friends of his. The marriage to William Carey is a letdown but it’s only after Mary marries William Stafford that Elizabeth really gives up on her. She can’t stand the fact that her daughter, now into her thirties, persists in being “such a fool.”
After the surviving three children are TWELVE consecutive babies who are either stillborn or die as infants. “Thomas, Henry, Geoffrey, Margaret, Amata, Alice, John, Edward, James, Eleanor, William, and Catherine, a dozen dead babies, all lost without grief, but not without regret.” They’re lost without grief because Elizabeth is glad that her body has finally gotten the message that she hates Thomas and doesn’t want to raise any more of his children; the regret is entirely for the stretch marks and weight gain brought about by these non-surviving babies.
DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? Elizabeth certainly did (with both Smeaton and Norris, among others) but Anne didn’t. “She had made her bed – a royal bed – and was well content to lie in it alone or with her wedded husband, bullish, insufferable boor though he was with a temper to match his Tudor red hair. His infidelities kindled her ire, but not recklessness and a desire to pay him back in kind.” For Elizabeth herself, Smeaton is the only lover she regrets having taken – not because he turned out to be an emotionally-invested clinger but because she thinks someone might have seen her with him. “Did someone spy me, a slender, black-haired woman in the shadows indulging in some quick and indiscreet intimacy with Mark Smeaton, and mistake me for Anne because the light was dim or because there was already malice in their mind? Did I unwittingly, with my own indiscretions, help condemn my daughter? I will never know.”
WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE The entire thing. There’s never one adjective used where three will do, and a lot of the descriptions (especially of Elizabeth’s garden, which keeps popping up at slower points in the narrative) consist of long, overwritten lists of things. Here’s Henry VIII at the yellow ball held when Catherine of Aragon dies (and at which both a glowing Anne and Elizabeth are decked out in yellow as well).
And Henry beside her, a bloated golden sun of a man, robust and pompous, with a feathered cap encrusted with pearls and golden beads that he kept on to hide his balding pate, thus making it fashionable for men to keep their splendid hats on indoors, and his yellow doublet and surcoat tricked out with a blinding dazzle of gold braid, beads, golden topazes, yellow diamonds, and pearls creamy and gold, and artful puffings and slashings of cloth-of-gold designed to distract the beholder’s eye from his ever-expanding girth, only slightly restrained by the boiled leather stays he now wore beneath his gaudy garb, which poor Henry Norris had the unenviable task of lacing him into each morning.
Yes, that is one sentence, and it’s typical of the whole – it doesn’t start badly but it just keeps going on and on and on until the verbal pudding is thoroughly over-egged.
ERRATA This is one of those books where I just have to raise the white flag of surrender and start listing things that the book got right instead of the things that are either unknowable or vanishingly unlikely. Elizabeth Boleyn was indeed an attendant on Catherine of Aragon, and she does seem to have had two sons besides George – Henry and Thomas – who died as babies. She may possibly have had others, but their names and sexes are unknowable, and she’d be singularly unfortunate if there were twelve of them. (Though curiously, an imaginary sister to Anne named “Amata Boleyn” turns up in a novel from 1837 which I haven’t reviewed yet. I’m guessing that this is because Anne had a paternal aunt named Amata). The masque of “Cardinal Wolsey Goes To Hell” was real, but Henry VIII probably didn’t see it and it’s highly unlikely that any Boleyn acted in it, though it was certainly staged by Thomas Boleyn. George Boleyn was at the English court quite young (ten years old, if not earlier) probably as a page. And of course there were rumours of Elizabeth having an affair with Henry VIII (prompting Henry’s famous reply of “Never with the mother” when accused of having slept with both Boleyn girls and their mother). What they amounted to can never be known, though I’d guess it wasn’t much. Once he had slept with both sisters, it would have be strange if people hadn’t been speculating about any other Boleyn women who had come into Henry’s orbit. And Henry Percy really was sent to arrest Cardinal Wolsey, though it’s unlikely that Anne hand-picked him for the job as vengeance for a thwarted love affair. And while it’s been said many times already, it’s worth repeating that Thomas Boleyn did not sit in judgement on Anne. Whether he was willing to do so or not, he was nonetheless excused from her and George’s trials and was well out of town by the time these trials took place.
WORTH A READ? I’ll say this (and it’s true of all of this author’s books I’ve read) – the pacing is incredible. The plot was ridiculous, the prose was as overgrown as Elizabeth’s own garden and the characterization was as thin as paper, but I read it right through and when I put it down, I wanted to pick it up again. There’s an energy to her writing which is undeniable and which is by no means common – most writers with plotting and characterization on this level would be unreadable. All the same, unless you’re consciously looking for something completely overblown, I’d stay away from this one. You won’t get too much insight into the Boleyns here, though you’ll learn a thing or two about the art of pacing.
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