The Light In The Labyrinth: The Last Days Of Anne Boleyn by Wendy J. Dunn (2014)
A startlingly readable YA novel from the author of the much less readable Dear Heart, How Like You This?, The Light In The Labyrinth follows the adventures of Kate Carey, oldest daughter of Mary Boleyn, when she’s sent to court during the last months of 1535. Like many other maids of honour — both real and fictional — Kate is anxious to escape her dull life in the country for the glamour of court. Unlike most of the other maids, she has an immediately understandable reason for this: her mother has foolishly married William Stafford without permission, giving Kate both newly-constrained finances and a stepfather and two half-siblings whom she doesn’t want. Kate would much prefer to join her brother Henry at court, where he’s being brought up, but her mother doesn’t want her to go for mysterious reasons relating to her father which the reader will guess a long time before Kate does.
It’s hard to do this book justice in a plot summary because taken bit by bit, none of it is particularly original, but when you put all the pieces together they become a story which is surprisingly sweet and affecting, even though I doubt it has much to do with anything the original Catherine Carey ever experienced. She’s thirteen years old when she goes to court, and her most recent memories of her aunt and uncle are more than two years old; when she arrives there, she finds an atmosphere that’s far more tense and complex than she remembers, her aunt Anne and uncle George are kind to her but are obviously under great stress and not used to treating her as anything but a young child, her grandfather Boleyn isn’t the kindly grandfather she remembers but an autocratic whip-cracker, and her brother is pleased to see her but strangely evasive. Eventually, of course, the story comes out which apparently everyone but Kate already knew; she’s actually the king’s daughter, as is her brother Henry. Mary apparently promised William Carey (whom Kate remembers very affectionately) that she would never tell her children that he wasn’t their father, and she’s spent a lot of time agonizing over whether she could actually do so now that he’s been dead for eight years. Eventually she writes Kate a letter of revelation, but as it turns out she needn’t have bothered since Anne has finally had mercy on the bewildered Kate and told her the truth.
Kate, who had been holding onto the memory of her supposed father in order to nourish her resentment of her stepfather, is immediately hurled into some serious angst over her bastardy which she tries to get out of her system by writing poems in the Devonshire MS (passed on to her by Madge Shelton, who complains that Thomas Wyatt likes to hog it) and keeping a journal. The Devonshire MS, true to history, is passed around among various maids of honour, and Kate gets a fair number of scenes with women who don’t usually get more than a few mentions in other novels, primarily Margaret Douglas (who uses Anne’s bedroom for assignations with her secret husband, causing much confusion later on), and Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk and Lady Worcester put in quite a few appearances. (I was sorry to see that there was no Margery Horsman, but you can’t have everything).
There’s an atmosphere of lowering gloom through the whole story. The king had been engaging in heavy flirtation with Jane Seymour just before the story starts, and when Anne’s pregnancy is announced there’s a strong feeling that it’s her last chance. Several cliched but still quite creepy overheard conversations establish that Thomas Cromwell is anxious to get Anne out of the way as she’s interfering with his plans for the monasteries (i.e. she doesn’t want every single one liquidated for cash) and is conspiring with the Duke of Norfolk in hopes that they’ll get a chance of some sort to strike at her. In the meantime Kate has met with a certain young courtier named Francis Knollys, and their extremely low-key courtship is played out as Catherine of Aragon’s death is celebrated by both Anne and Henry in yellow (Anne is a reluctant participant), Henry falls at jousting, and Anne miscarries. After this, it’s open war between her and Cromwell – at one point, Cromwell tries to blackmail Kate into spying for him – until finally Anne has her almoner preach the famous sermon comparing herself to Queen Esther and Cromwell to Haman. When Anne is arrested, Kate – who has spent most of the story trying to help her and being told she’s too young – begs the king for permission to accompany her aunt to the tower. Henry, righteously enraged about Anne’s hundred or so supposed lovers, asks Kate, “You dare to speak so to your King?”
“I dare to speak so to my father,” she replies, and after much blustering, Henry lets her go, warning her that she’ll hate him, but he has a divine duty to avoid civil war. (He does praise her bravery, pointing out that she is his blood, after all). Off Kate goes to the Tower, and after some very well-done scenes combining both the terror and boredom of waiting for one’s show trial, and a brief interlude where Anne is told that Henry just might send her to Antwerp, Kate attends Anne at her trial and then to the scaffold. Afterwards, inevitably, her mother arrives to take her home, with the news that while she’s now engaged to Francis Knollys, as she wanted, she’ll need to wait a few years before marrying him, and the story ends on the requisite note of cautious optimism.
SEX OR POLITICS? It’s YA, so while there’s some very very restrained romance between Kate and Francis, politics wins pretty much by default. Like many novels written in the last decade, this one endorses Eric Ives’s hypothesis about Anne Boleyn’s fall; that Cromwell was the chief architect and motivated by their struggle over the monastery funds. I wouldn’t call it a politically complex book, but there’s enough in Kate’s diary entries, and in various overheard conversations, to give you the gist of Ives – although the idea that Anne was living on borrowed time as early as November 1535 is probably one he would have disagreed with.
WHEN BORN? 1507. George and Mary are both older – George’s exact isn’t given, but Mary is described as being thirty-two years old in late 1535, so she was probably born in 1503. Kate turns fourteen sometime between November 1535 and February 1536, so she was presumably born in late 1521 or early 1522, which makes for a mildly annoying inconsistency since she repeatedly remembers her putative father William Carey dying when she was five years old. He died in June 1528, meaning that Kate would have had to be six by then.
THE EARLY LOVE We don’t see Percy directly, but Anne tells Kate that although she had wanted to marry him, it had never actually happened. “I wished it, but Hal was too afraid of his father to promise me marriage. He hoped to get his mother to do his work for us, but Wolsey discovered us first. Percy will not lie for Cromwell for the King’s satisfaction.”
Kate’s early love is, of course, Francis Knollys. Katherine Willoughby also mentions having been in love with the dying Henry Brandon even as she married his father, in a slightly overwritten but nonetheless disturbing section.
THE QUEEN’S BEES Madge and Mary Shelton are identical twin sisters who share a room with Kate and both like to write in the future Devonshire MS. (Since there’s a lot of confusion about whether Madge/Mary Shelton, I have to say I liked this particular answer to the conundrum; identical twins with similar names who were easily mixed up by other people). Madge was briefly encouraged by Anne to flirt with Henry to draw his attention off Jane Seymour, but Anne later apologizes for this – it’s left vague just how involved Madge has become, since of course they’re not giving details to Kate. Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk, becomes Kate’s confidante and gives her a lot of solid (and of course, largely ignored) advice about the best way to keep her reputation at court intact. Margaret Lee appears as well; she’s the sensible hard-headed friend, as is her fictional wont. Margaret Douglas also plays an unusually plot-critical role when Anne allows her to have a rendezvous with her forbidden suitor in her (Anne’s) own room. Lady Worcester happens to come along while Kate and Mary Howard are standing watch nearby and asks who’s in there with the queen, and Mary unthinkingly says that it’s George. And thus the seed of an idea is planted. Disappointingly for a book which is rich in maids of honour, Jane Seymour is once again relegated to standing mute in the background – she never gets a word of dialogue at any point. She’s supposed to be generally disliked – Anne and her partisans call her “the white mouse” – but that doesn’t mean she couldn’t say something once in a while.
We do get one fascinating glimpse of an earlier lady in waiting – namely, Katherine Willoughby’s mother, Maria de Salinas. Katherine hears an account of Catherine of Aragon’s death from her mother, and in a brief, strange aside mentions that her mother had slept with the eternally lustful Henry VIII – only once, but she still “wears sackcloth” for it. I’ve never seen this particular pairing anywhere else.
THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR Kate has a maid named Alice, described as a yeoman’s daughter who went into service because her parents had too many other children to feed. Alice also looks after Madge and Mary Shelton. Anne has her maids of honour, of course, and she also has a dwarf (female) fool, who isn’t named but turns up a couple of times doing juggling tricks and the like. Most interestingly, Catherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk, has a woman servant named Betty who’s enormously tall and keeps a knife in her stocking lest anyone try to take advantage of the duchess.
THE PROPHECY No straight prophecies, but lots of gloom and foreboding from Anne about possibly following Catherine of Aragon’s path.
IT’S A GIRL! The story starts too late for that, so we never learn one way or the other. While Henry is clearly obsessed with having a son, it’s also clear that his temperament has taken a sharp turn for the worse since his jousting accident in January of 1536, so perhaps he wasn’t as nasty about Elizabeth’s sex when she was born as he becomes later.
DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? No.
FAMILY AFFAIRS I had hopes that Thomas Boleyn would turn out to have hidden depths, since at the beginning of the book Kate remembered him as an indulgent grandfather, and his talent for languages is actually referenced as possibly being a source for Elizabeth’s skill in that direction. Alas, he ran true to stereotype after all; Kate’s memories are those of a young child, and now that she’s close to being an adult she can see that her primary value to Thomas lies in the fact that she’s the king’s daughter and, illegitimate or not, she ought to worth something when it’s time to make a marriage settlement. In other words, he’s the usual calculating, icy-hearted politician whom we know and loathe. It’s clear that this Thomas didn’t have any of the original’s misgivings about Anne’s rise to power; he expresses great pride that Anne “listened to my advice” and says that it’s too bad Mary chose not to do the same. We only see Elizabeth Boleyn a few times – she’s described as old and frail and bossed around by Thomas; after Anne’s last miscarriage she comes up to court to take care of her, but Thomas orders her home again after a few days and she’s so cowed and tired that she just goes. Anne’s big moment of rebellion against Thomas comes a few months before her fall, when she tells him that she’s ashamed of her earlier arrogance and only wants to help preserve the best part of religion in England. Thomas, looking for monastery spoils, is rather taken aback by this.
Mary, per novelistic tradition, is the pretty blonde sister who was passed around the French court with abandon, and whom Anne describes as seeming weak but having a quiet strength of her own in her ability to make a clean break from court life when she wanted to. Mary unhappily describes Anne’s gift of a gold cup and a bag of angels as “a reminder of the status I reject”, which seems a bit much considering that she was badly off enough to be writing to Cromwell for financial help. In addition to Henry and Kate, she has two very young children with Stafford – a toddler girl called Nan and a newborn son who isn’t named in the story. This Mary had rougher treatment from Thomas Boleyn than most, since in a story that seems to be partially sourced from old tales about Jane Grey, Thomas is supposed to have physically beaten her until she consented to marry the first time. Like many other Marys, this one lives mostly for her children and since Henry’s guardianship was given to Anne and he was raised at court, Kate was the sole recipient of her affection for a long time.
George Boleyn is vintage George; witty, supportive of both his sisters (unusually, he’s blond, with a much stronger resemblance to Mary than Anne) and unhappily married to the “jealous” Jane, whom we never see directly. Even her supposed part in the trial has her testifying via the damning “letter” which probably didn’t exist. Along with Jane Seymour, she’s been virtually banished from the story to make way for the male antagonists, Cromwell and Henry VIII.
DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No.
WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE It’s not bad, and it’s miles ahead of Dear Heart, How Like You This? The female characters tend to say “Welladay,” quite a bit, but they don’t say it even a tenth as much as Thomas Wyatt said “verily” in the first book. Luckily, Wyatt only appears for a couple of scenes here and is much more tolerable from the outside, though he still says “verily” a few times. Characters describe the court as a cesspit incessantly — they’re not wrong, but it gets monotonous.
ERRATA Well, first of all, there’s no evidence that Catherine Carey was ever at court to attend her autn – much less in the Tower with her – and she would likely have been too young in any case. Her exact age isn’t known, but she’s supposed to have been born around 1524. Many, many unearned titles are flung about: Cromwell is Lord Cromwell before his time, and Kate and Jane Seymour (among others) are called “Lady” without being technically entitled to it. The author did manage a clever workaround by having Mary Boleyn visit Anne briefly after her miscarriage, but doing so in secret since she didn’t have permission to be at court. This, of course, “explains” the gossipy contemporary references to her sister having helped Anne fake a pregnancy – if Mary was spotted by someone slipping in or out without permission, then she’d obviously be doing something nefarious, wouldn’t she?
WORTH A READ? I’m not sure I’d recommend it for a novice adult reader, but I’d happily recommend it for a younger reader, whether or not she had stepparent issues. It works very well as a coming-of-age story and has a surprising sweetness to it which is hard to encapsulate – I can’t point to any one passage, but it’s clearly been heavily researched and if it’s mostly the story according to Ives, well, you could do a lot worse. And while the author puts in the usual lines that tend to recur in these books – Anne’s supposed joke about Henry making her first a marquess, then a queen, then a martyr, for example – she also expands on them to good effect. Anne, for instance, also jokes morbidly that Henry had always liked her singing voice but she didn’t think he’d give her a place in the heavenly choir as a result, and she quotes Catherine of Aragon as having told Henry (on hearing news of the projected divorce) “Take what you want, said God. Take what you want, and pay for it.” As far as I know, neither of these lines has any nonfiction source, but they blend in very well with the better-established quotes.
I really enjoyed seeing different maids of honour brought into the foreground, and the circulation of the Devonshire MS – my only complaint was that Jane Seymour and Lady Rochford were both completely stereotypical completely shoved into the background. Having them as obscure, barely-there characters did help to throw the machinations of Cromwell into sharp relief, and was probably the reason they were downplayed, but I still wished we could have seen them actually interacting with other characters in ordinary ways; isn’t it all the more frightening to know that the woman you’re sewing shirts with today is likely quite happy to have your aunt thrown in prison tomorrow? There was a bit of a tendency towards glurge, especially towards the end and whenever Kate is interacting with the two-year-old Elizabeth, but on the whole it’s a solid YA production and a good introduction to the Anne of Eric Ives’ interpretation.
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