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In Bed With Anne Boleyn by Lacey Baldwin-Smith (2014)

October 6, 2014

This book is a mess. A short, easily-digested mess which does try to explore new territory – albeit to the extent that it produces a ridiculous ending — but just a mess all the same. However, if you’ve ever wanted to see Jane Boleyn raising demons by saying spells in Arabic, a strangely multi-talented Mark Smeaton, and Catherine of Aragon offering to take the veil — read on!

I should start by clarifying that despite the title, we don’t actually spend that many pages in bed with Anne Boleyn, and thank goodness for that, because those scenes are excruciating to read. We encounter the first one right off the bat, as the teenaged Mark Smeaton is walking home (he’s on leave from Wolsey’s choir until his voice finishes breaking and they can decide whether he’s worth keeping on as an adult singer or not). While strolling through the fields he just so happens to encounter a pair of aristocrats getting it on beneath a tree, and what’s more, he knows who they are: Henry Percy (a flabby weakling) and Anne Boleyn, plain, dark, flat-chested, and yet with a strangely intense sex appeal. Mark doesn’t get away quickly enough and they both spot him – and, worse for his pride, they laugh at him. Anne describes him as “Wolsey’s prize singer” the way she’d refer to a prize animal, and teases him about being a foreigner, which is a bit much for Smeaton to swallow, since he was only born in Flanders but Anne spent much of her youth in France and enjoys playing the mysterious, accented foreigner at court. Thus is born Mark’s longstanding resentment of the bitchy Anne and her cowed and adoring suitor.

From her onward the story breaks into several streams which were easy enough for me to follow but could be more confusing for someone who didn’t already know the story, since there isn’t much narrative flow and a lot of background knowledge seems to be assumed. Anne isn’t really the star here; it’s an ensemble piece, with the leading viewpoints belonging to Mark Smeaton, Henry VIII, Anne herself, with occasional one-time dives into other characters’ heads as well.

Anne begins as an ambitious, one-note bitch and that’s pretty much what she remains. She does seem to have a real affection for Henry Percy, but that’s about where any sign of the softer emotions ends, and once their engagement is broken up by Wolsey at the newly-infatuated king’s request (to Mark’s secret delight, since he still resents Anne and Percy for having made fun of him) Anne is sent home to Hever, where she stews in bitterness and boredom. Her only diversions are an affair with Thomas Wyatt, and asking her sister-in-law Jane Boleyn to cast some spells to lay a curse on Cardinal Wolsey and kill him. Jane is newly married but already mutually antagonistic with George, though for once it’s because Jane is gay, not her husband, and she appears to be no great friend to sex in any form, as she just happens to interrupt Anne while she’s in the preliminary stages of “a most intimate encounter with Thomas Wyatt.”

“I cannot wait,” the black-draped Jane tells her. “You asked me to cast a spell on Cardinal Wolsey and I have been working on it ever since. The moon and Saturn have to be in the right position and the planets all in a line. Only today, and not again for over a year, will the heavens be in such a favourable alignment.” Anne decides that the heavens can’t wait, so she drinks a potion and kneels in a magic circle with Jane while the latter calls upon Leviathan, Behemoth and Ziz, and confers with their shades in order to use them as conduits for a curse on Wolsey. When the visions of spirit animals have disappeared, Jane notes “I recall you wanted him to die alone, stripped of all power and fame, and in great pain. That you shall have. Any further requests?” Anne tells her she doesn’t want anything more, except “You might put in a good word for me with the king. He has been debauching my sister Mary while I am exiled here at Hever. That doesn’t seem fair to me.” Jane thoughtfully puts in this demand as well, and before you know it Henry is visiting Hever and falling hard for Anne as they walk in the garden. (This would seem to testify to Jane’s effectiveness, except that Henry was clearly a bit interested in Anne before, so who’s to say).

Anne holds out against the king, pretending virginity and unsure of just how good a deal she’ll be able to get but after some delightful conversations in which she urges him to execute a priest accused of inadvertently clipping money (since religious status should make no difference and the state’s law should prevail over the Vatican’s) along with a few other things, she gives in to his begging letters and sends him the famous ornament of the damsel in a ship with a diamond, which here means that she’s consented to sail through life with him – as his mistress. They enjoy a year or two of that before the restless Henry, nagged by Anne and unhappy that he doesn’t have a son, miraculously discovers that Leviticus forbade his first marriage and sets the wheels of the divorce in motion. He and Anne swear off sleeping together while it’s going on, as he wants her to be his wife now and his future wife shouldn’t be anyone’s mistress, not even his. After the usual wrangling with the Vatican, Wolsey’s downfall, and the trip to Calais, Anne convinces him to break free of the Pope’s wishes – he’s a captive of Charles V and is less a mouthpiece for God than for the Emperor, and their visit with Francois I has made it clear that he’s on their side and is willing to acknowledge Anne as queen. They marry, with Mark Smeaton in attendance in a musical capacity, and Anne is so taken by his music that she decides she’ll transfer him from the king’s household to her own. Mark, still disliking her but taken by the prospect of having his own room and more available women to chase, agrees.

So what has Mark been doing with himself all of this time? Maturing, joining Wolsey’s adult choir, and becoming fast friends with Thomas Cromwell and George Cavendish, the latter of whom is almost a father figure to him. Cavendish is totally devoted to the Cardinal and sees no political career for himself if the Cardinal ever fell, but Smeaton and Cromwell are birds of a different feather, and as Wolsey’s position becomes more precarious they start to realize that it might be time to look for a rising rather than a setting sun. Cavendish has estates and a family to return to, but Cromwell is (he says) too old to start over in a completely new profession, and Mark’s way to make a living is to be attached to a great household. Cromwell, now determined to go to Henry VIII’s household to “make or mar”, knows that Wolsey could very plausibly be charged with praemunire – what a pity that the documents exonerating him aren’t anywhere to be found! Mark knows where to find them, though – Wolsey hides them in the hollow leg of his favourite travelling desk. All he wants in return for this information is a position at court once Cromwell makes it there, and a handsome New Year’s gift every year in order to maintain him in the style in which he wishes to become accustomed.

Off they go, Wolsey is destroyed, and Cavendish retires to the country, though he still pops up now and then to have dinner with Smeaton and Cromwell when the country gets a little too peaceful. Mark begins to show evidence of strong political skill; quite often he’s the one giving suggestions to Cromwell about tricks he could try in relation to the dissolution of the monasteries, getting Thomas More to swear the Oath, etc. Inevitably, they meet up with Hans Holbein and Mark is able to make some pointed suggestions about some finishing touches he could make to his current painting of “The Ambassadors.” Apparently he’s a gifted artist as well as a gifted musician – Cromwell thinks he’s wasted in the latter capacity.

All goes swimmingly until Mark is taken into Anne Boleyn’s household, and even there things don’t go pear-shaped right away. However, once Elizabeth is born and it becomes gradually clear that Anne is unlikely to have another child any time soon, the atmosphere becomes tense, and once Anne miscarries a male fetus in January 1536 (after dancing in yellow to celebrate Catherine of Aragon’s death) it becomes clear that her days are numbered – unless, of course, she can get pregnant again. How is she going to do that? Why, by enlisting a couple of young studs from her household to stand in for Henry, and of course one of them is Mark, who still doesn’t like her but later admits to Cromwell that she was pretty impressive in bed all the same. Jane Boleyn serves as the go-between, exactly as she’ll do later for Katherine Howard – in fact, she follows the Spanish Chronicle’s account of the lady-in-waiting who hid Mark Smeaton in a cupboard and brought him out when the queen called for “marmalade.”

The marmalade idyll is short, however. Lady Worcester rashly blurts out the story of Anne’ nocturnal activities when her own brother taxes her with having been a little too easy with various men, and Jane Boleyn turns her in, with a bonus accusation of incest as well. Mark is imprisoned, along with Norris, Weston, George Boleyn, and William Brereton. Cromwell, who still likes him, sweats the truth out of him but reflects that while technically Mark should have told the king the moment Anne made her request of him, realistically, it would have been very hard to do. Why would the king believe him, after all? The trials take place and Mark is condemned to die alongside all of the rest, except for the two Boleyns – they’ll be executed a few days later. Mark, as the lowest ranked, has to watch Norris, Weston and Brereton die ahead of him, and just as he’s about to be pushed forward towards the by now well-used block, a couple of guardsmen come forward and pull him away, back towards his prison. “Am I being pardoned?” he asks, but “Don’t you wish!” comes the reply. “Just the opposite, you will be given a full traitor’s death the day after the queen and her brother die. No merciful beheading for the likes of a confessed traitor. I will enjoy your screams.”

A few days later, Mark is hauled off on a hurdle, fully expecting to die, and after a long and painful journey arrives in darkness at a pit, where a mysterious horseman pays off his guards. They depart, and the two are left alone. The horseman is, naturally, Thomas Cromwell, here to deliver the king’s mercy. The king will never pardon him formally, but Cromwell has persuaded him “to grant you your life on condition that you vanish.” Cromwell’s explanation of how he managed this is as follows:

Majesty without compassion is a travesty. The essence of clemency is its unpredictableness. It is open to all humans, even the most despicable and guilty, but it can never be foreordained. It must be totally capricious as it was in the famous Mantell and Lord Darcy case five years ago. Both men relied on the king’s mercy and died; Thomas Cheney, by far the worst culprit of the lot, was pardoned …. I pointed out to the king that you were in exactly the same position, you had actually confessed to adultery with the queen while the others had all claimed innocence. The king didn’t sound as if he had been listening to me, and quite at out of the blue asked, “Did Smeaton enjoy fucking her?” …. The king thought for a moment and said, “There is at least one bond between the two of us: we both found the harlot rapturous. I can’t possibly pardon Smeaton. The Privy Council would never allow it, but Cromwell, I can do this: save his life. Have him disappear and give him a new life. I never want to hear his name spoken again. I leave the details up to you.”

This explanation results in one of the least likely lines of dialogue ever to appear in print, when Smeaton says “Are you actually saying that my having found intense pleasure in having had sex with Anne Boleyn saved my life?” Yes it has, and more than that, it’s procured him an entirely new one, courtesy of Cromwell, who gives him a sack of money, some new clothes, a passage back to Flanders, and a new name. “I rather like the sound of Peter Brueghel, a good Flemish resounding name.” Off Smeaton goes, and Cromwell heads back home, first making sure to stop by his office and enter Smeaton’s name in the list of those executed, so that by all official standards he’ll be dead. That evening, he’s burning up with fever, and after a slow recovery from his illness he finds he can’t remember anything he was doing the day he became ill except that he was riding his horse somewhere. And if, in later years, he ever sees any paintings which seem somehow familiar, he never lets on to the reader.

SEX OR POLITICS? The title gives you a strong hint, but there’s a good amount of political information nonetheless. The trouble is that it’s so random and (in some cases) so out of the way that I think it would make comprehending what’s going on very difficult for someone who didn’t know much about the period. Since I’ve read roughly a thousand of these things I didn’t have any trouble following it, but someone who’s just starting out would probably be frustrated to read a long, elaborate chapter with secondary characters nagging Holbein at how he should finish his painting of “The Ambassadors”, only to have it ultimately lead nowhere. It does establish that Smeaton has an eye for art, but it takes a really long and pointless time to do it and it’s only the setup for a hilariously unbelievable ending anyway.

WHEN BORN? 1500 or 1499 – she’s described as being twenty-one years old in 1521, when she returned from France and performed the masque of the Chateau Vert. Mary’s and George’s ages aren’t specified.

THE EARLY LOVE The effete Henry Percy – weirdly, they’re engaged for more than two years and have been sleeping together for most of that time, but Wolsey breaks it up on the king’s orders. James Butler is mentioned as the undesirable alternative candidate for Anne’s hand, but Anne doesn’t relish the idea of living on a Z-grade Irish estate, and later on suspects that the king was behind the fact that the Butler match stalled. After her engagement to Percy is broken up, Anne has a rebound affair with Thomas Wyatt while she’s at Hever, but that barely rises to the level of friends with benefits.

THE QUEEN’S BEES We don’t see too many of them except Mary Boleyn (who attends Anne when she’s giving birth), Jane Boleyn, and Elizabeth Browne (Lady Worcester), the last of whom is portrayed as attractive but unreliable, which traits will come into play at Anne’s downfall. Jane Seymour is mentioned a few times as being dull and unattractive – from Anne’s point of view at least – and Anne regrets that she didn’t die as well as Catherine of Aragon. However, we never see Jane herself and any interaction with her. We see a lot more of Wolsey’s ex-attendants; Cavendish, Smeaton and Cromwell, all of whom like to get together for dinner and trading of confidences every now and then so the reader can catch up on what’s going on in the world outside court.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR Mark Smeaton to his various superiors. This gets him in trouble ultimately since when he’s serving Anne she orders him to be a ringer for the king and he does.

THE PROPHECY Jane Boleyn reads some tarot cards for Cromwell, and predicts that Anne will be dead within six months. Cromwell wonders aloud how much of that prediction is wishful thinking, but when he questions Jane’s powers later on she tells him that the day may come when she’ll be in a position to save him and will choose not to, though whether she actually saw that in her tarot cards or not is left open to question. Mark himself ends up not-quite-prophesying when a restless King Henry asks him for his opinion on a dream he’d had in which Wolsey offered the long-dead Arthur the Papal Crown. What could it possibly mean? Mark explicitly disclaims all prophetic ability before launching into an interpretation which boils down to “His crowning Arthur with a papal tiara is … clear; kings of England are not only superior in the eyes of God to popes but also they should be their own popes in their own kingdoms.” Henry, not surprisingly, likes the cut of Smeaton’s jib and tells him he’s wasted as a musician and that his dream interpretation “has the ring of God’s truth.”

IT’S A GIRL! We never see Henry’s reaction directly, but we see Anne’s, and she’s so unhappy that she refuses to get out of bed to look after the baby, though her attendants keep asking her to. “I must act the expected role of loving mother,” Anne thinks, “even though I feel like a prisoner expecting to be pardoned and freed being told she was going to be immediately executed.” Jane Boleyn, on the other hand, is thrilled at Anne’s humiliation.

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? No, not mentioned. She does have a birthmark, however – a “reddish spot” on her one of her buttocks, which her mother calls “Anne’s rose.” (We find this out while she and Thomas Wyatt are having post-coital conversation after Anne has helped Jane Boleyn raise the Devil).

FAMILY AFFAIRS Mary and Anne are the classic contrasting sisters – their appearances are so unlike that at one point Henry wonders if Elizabeth Boleyn had someone hiding in the woodpile at some point who fathered one of the girls. Mary is a zaftig blonde, “fair and cuddlesome” (Anne, by contrast, is distressingly dark and flat-chested) whose sex appeal was so great when she was young that “men were transported to acts of folly and rape.” Um, say again? At any rate, she acquired quite the reputation in France and once she came back to England, promptly picked up where she left off and became Henry’s mistress – in an unintentionally amusing moment, Henry remembers “a joyous ten minutes in bed” with her. Mary is promptly disposed of and married off to William Carey once she became pregnant. George Boleyn isn’t seen too much; he’s the only Boleyn sibling who doesn’t get a detailed physical description, and their parents are, unusually, barely mentioned at all except for some general references to Anne’s “grasping” family. Jane Boleyn, “sharp, angular and cold”, spends her copious free time raising demons with the help of Egyptian incantations and laying curses on them (though at one point Anne notes that Jane’s curse on Wolsey took four years to work, so she’s not entirely sold on her effectiveness). Anne suspects that Jane “would be at home on the Greek island of Lesbos”, as she likes to kiss Anne a little too affectionately and detests George’s company, though confusingly she also complains that he’s gone from home too much and ignores her when he does turn up. (George is probably confused as well, considering that he’s usually the closeted one in that marriage). Witchcraft combined with an unhappy marriage apparently make for aging quickly; she’s a newly-married young woman in 1526 but by early 1536 she’s a “disagreeable old woman.”

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? Yes she did, with Mark Smeaton and several others, all in an attempt to get another child. She doesn’t succeed, probably through lack of time.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE There are some good moments, as when Smeaton works up the nerve to ask the king if he actually wrote “Greensleeves” or not, to which Henry’s answer is that Mark’s predecessor “introduced me to the new Italian style of composition and helped me compose the music. I wrote the lyrics obviously with the enchanting Anne Boleyn in mind; I was in the midst of courting her. Kings always get full credit.” These are, unfortunately, massively outnumbered by the bad moments, including Anne’s sexy talk (“Testicles sounds so medical” she tells Henry at one point while holding the same) and awkward attempts to sound loose and modern. “Get your ass out of here, Norris,” Henry tells his groom of the stool at one point – English readers might be forgiven for wondering why Norris brought a donkey into the room in the first place. When Wyatt pretends to compose an extemporary poem for Anne, he later confesses “I didn’t compose that poem on the spur of the moment. I spotted a falcon while riding through the forests between our houses, and composed as I rode here. I had just dotted the final `i’ as I arrived. Thus the pleased and grinning expression on my face.” Nobody in the world talks like that casually, I don’t care how knotty their poetry is. There is one hilarious miscue which I’m pretty sure is just a typo – Cardinal Wolsey drops an R and instead of calling Anne “the night crow” reduces her to “the night cow,” which I loved.

ERRATA It’s clearly not meant to be deadly serious, but aside from obvious things such as Mark Smeaton’s surviving and becoming Peter Brueghel (one of them, anyway) and Jane Boleyn summoning Arabic-speaking animal gods to make requests of the Dark Powers, the book is littered with smaller, irritating errors. The Masque of the Chateau Vert is staged to celebrate Princess Mary’s engagement in 1521, when in reality it was staged to celebrate Shrove Tuesday in 1523. Anne quotes “Double, double, toil and trouble” to Jane Boleyn about eighty years before the line was written, and Mark Smeaton remembers an old nursery rhyme about a king who wanted a bit of butter on his bread which wasn’t quoted directly but which sounded an awful lot like A.A. Milne. Richard Cromwell is described as Cromwell’s adopted son, which effectively he may have been, but poor Gregory Cromwell is mentioned once and then vanishes forever. George is not executed with the four (three) other men on May 17, as in life, but on the same day as Anne – right after her, in fact. There’s also a scene in which Catherine of Aragon offers to enter a nunnery to release Henry from his marriage — but only if Princess Mary is acknowledged as legitimate and made her father’s primary heir ahead of any other children he may have. Since a big part of Catherine’s stance was that she had no vocation and was never going to take the veil, that really came of out of left field — not to mention that whatever promises Henry might make, Mary could could have a gold-plated Certificate Of Legitimacy and still be displaced by the brother which Henry was confident she would eventually get. Why on earth would he turn that offer down? Let Catherine go into a convent and then he would have a free hand with regard to his children. Those are the ones that I can remember, but I admit I was feeling fairly beaten about the head after my second or third read-through and there are very likely more.

WORTH A READ? I will say this: I wish there were more modern books written from multiple perspectives, as this one is: historic novels lost a lot when the fashion shifted to telling stories from one or at best two viewpoints only. But this isn’t a worthwhile example of the genre, and it’s certainly not worth paying for when you can find its equivalent and better on a lot of fanfiction sites. This should be filed under “AU – Mark Smeaton Lives!” and left at that.

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From → Book Overviews

  1. Clare permalink

    I have to say, hun, you’re a glutton for punishment! This sounds hideous.

    • sonetka permalink

      All in the interests of research :). One of my favourite quotes on the subject is Samuel Schoenbaum’s “A penalty of the scholar’s vocation to which he must steel himself is the reading of rubbish.” It would be a stretch to call me a scholar, but at least I definitely qualify as an experienced reader of rubbish.

  2. It’s truly horrible! And that dinner party where everyone is pontificating! You have not mentioned that the author was an esteemed academic, who has written brilliant non-fiction books on Henry VIII and Katherine Howard so why did he write this drivel? Actually, my theory is that Madge the cleaner, was cleaning his study, saw some of his notes and wrote and published the book under his name!

    • sonetka permalink

      I knew about his academic books, but didn’t mention them — I think out of secondhand embarrassment for him. Madge the Cleaner sounds like a much more plausible author :).

      I’ve noticed that when historians turn to fiction-writing, the results tend to be underwhelming. Norah Lofts is the main exception to that which I can think of at the moment.

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