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The Kiss Of The Concubine by Judith Arnopp (2013)

December 11, 2014

There are exactly two things wrong with this book: the cover, and the title. I held off on reading it for a long time because I thought it was going to be mediocre to dreadful and I had plenty of mediocre and dreadful things to read already. I was wrong, though – this book is wonderful. It isn’t especially subversive – lots of tried-and-true plot points and stereotypes go walking through the story; ambitious Thomas Boleyn, softhearted sleeper-around Mary Boleyn, etc – but even the stereotypes are given grace notes which make it easy to feel that they’re very real people whom Anne simply doesn’t understand very well. It’s written in a style which normally gives me hives, which is the first-person present tense. But in this case, and for this story, it’s perfect – Anne has no idea what’s going to happen, no backward glances, no regrets until she’s actually in a regrettable situation. And she’s in love with a Henry VIII who is, in her eyes, eminently lovable and much more sinned against than sinning.

The story begins conventionally enough; Anne is back from France to await a marriage with James Butler, and meanwhile she’s drumming her heels at Hever, bored out of her skull and with only George to talk to since Mary is off at court being the king’s “favourite”, and just how far the relationship has gone nobody’s quite sure. However, there’s an early clue that this book isn’t quite like the others – Anne has no problem with the projected Butler marriage; he’s wealthy, eligible, and doesn’t have a terrible reputation, so she doesn’t see any problems with it. Trouble begins only when she’s sent to court to occupy her time while her father and Butler’s father negotiate, and she encounters both Henry Percy and Henry VIII after playing Perseverance in the famous masque. The king mistakes her for Mary (much to the distress of the real one) and she and Percy fall hard for each other and are broken up by Cardinal Wolsey in the space of about a month. Meanwhile Henry, restless and discontented, has noticed his former mistress’s sister, takes a fancy to her, and is roundly – and sincerely – rejected. Anne, after all, has Mary right in front of her as a cautionary tale, and as tired as she gets of Catherine of Aragon’s company (she snipes that if she spent less time on her knees and more on her back, perhaps she’d have better luck getting another son) she really doesn’t want to go there.

Henry pursues her back to Hever and begins turning on the charm. Yes, he really does – and just as Anne fell hard for Percy, she falls hard for him. Later on, she’ll be shocked that anyone could think she strung him along out of pure ambition – why, she thinks, would anyone have put up with annulment hell for seven years if she wasn’t in love? You can argue with her logic, but it’s not hard to believe that she falls for him; he’s the center of her life and the life of virtually everyone else in the country. It’s hardly surprising that she finds him fascinating – anyone who has that much power over you will be fascinating by definition. And in love she stays right until the end, shoving aside Catherine and Princess Mary out of sheer conviction that she wouldn’t feel this way without divine approval and only later on considering that perhaps things are a little more complicated than that. (She also grudgingly concedes that Mary has more raw courage than she; she may hate Mary’s defiance-unto-death attitude, but she knows that she herself would always choose the path that meant survival).

You can see why she is, too – she and Henry have spells of fighting constantly, but they always make it up and seem to enjoy the whole process. Even after the low point of the January 1536 miscarriage, their relationship rebounds; Anne is certainly distressed about Jane Seymour, but assumes she’s a passing fancy like so many other girls have been, and meanwhile she’s got one of her feuds with Cromwell to pursue. Said feud is, of course, the dispute over monastic resources during the course of which John Skip preached his sermon obliquely comparing Cromwell to Haman and Anne to Queen Esther. However, for Anne this sort of thing has become business as usual. Her arrest, and accusation, is not the inevitable result of a doomed downhill slide but rather a total shock to her.

While imprisoned, she begs to send a letter to Henry – which of course, is impossible. She obsesses over getting to him. She agrees to falsely confess to a precontract in order to save her own life, although it would mean being sent to a convent; at least this way she’ll be able to hear news of her daughter. She just can’t believe any of it is real, and then she finally figures out what’s really going on.

And then I realise. It is all suddenly quite clear. It is not Henry at all. It is Cromwell, manipulating the king to his own ends, and Henry believes it all. He believes I never loved him, that I slept with his friends, laughed at him in secret.

Poor Henry! He must be suffering the most horrible torment. I almost feel his sense of betrayal, imagining me indulging in heinous depravity, laughing … Poor gullible Henry, deceived and controlled by the son of a draper, tricked by a servant into destroying his real friends. After this day he will have no one to trust, never again will Henry know the comfort of an honest friend, for he is letting them all die.

Is this true or not? The reader is as isolated as Anne, so we never know for sure; she can’t see Chapuys’ accounts of Henry’s water-parties and extreme lack of grief over his supposed cuckolding, so neither can we. Anne goes to her death pitying herself, but pitying Henry more.

SEX OR POLITICS? Sex, definitely – there’s far too much about the burning glances which Henry and Anne are always exchanging – but the politics are present enough to give a solid understanding of the Ives hypothesis as to Anne’s fall.

WHEN BORN? Either late in 1501 or early 1502 – in the autumn of 1535, she thinks that she’ll be thirty-four years old soon. George and Mary are both older but by how much isn’t stated – it doesn’t seem to be a lot, though.

THE EARLY LOVE Although we never see James Butler, he still manages to make minor novel history by being – for once – considered acceptable by Anne!

I am intended for James Butler, the heir of the Ormond estates, but his father and mine spend overmuch time quibbling over details, protracting the arrangement and leaving me in limbo. Although I have never set eyes on James, I am content with the match. He is young and rich enough to make a good husband, and I have heard no ill stories of him. I trust my father to choose well for me.

The Butler match of course fails thanks both to Anne’s abortive romance with Percy and Thomas Boleyn’s unwillingness to concede enough money for a settlement, but it’s both amusing and a little sad that this one paragraph alone would have been enough to make this book unique even if the rest of it hadn’t had a single original thing in it. Later on, when Anne is reflecting on the different forks in the road she might have taken, she briefly imagines herself as an Irish countess with a “brace of sons”, and doesn’t seem too upset by the idea.

Of course, she also imagines herself as Percy’s wife, and Percy is by far the most important person in this category. She meets him at the famous Shrove Tuesday masque where she played Perseverance, and they fall in … well, later on she remembers it as love but it all goes too fast for that. The two of them discover the joys of making out beneath stairwells and wandering off the garden path when supposedly out attending their superiors, but soon enough are busted by Cardinal Wolsey (beneath a stairwell, as it happens), and summarily parted and told that they’re both going to marry other people and like it. Percy puts up a brief fight but after Wolsey threatens to summon his father, he doesn’t have much more to say – he just stares at the floor, beaten.

My eyes fill and Harry seems to dissolve, his features blurring as if I am looking at him through a rain-washed window. I see him shatter and his cheeks grow moist and, as I look, I realise he is really just a boy. I try to hang on to the passion we have shared, the love we pledged, but it is shifting into something more resembling pity.

Later on, she’ll be somewhat surprised to learn that Percy denied having pre-contracted with her; not that he did, but as it would have been very convenient for the king to have grounds for annulment, she had expected Percy to give in and lie about it. She doesn’t particularly resent him for that perceived weakness, though.

Thomas Wyatt makes a few appearances – he and Anne enjoy reminiscing about their childhoods and in the last days of her life Anne has regrets that he was married so early and thus not an option back when she still had options. The impression we get at the time, though, is that she loved him like a sister and that’s about it.

THE QUEEN’S BEES In her early days at court, Anne shares a room with Madge Shelton and Margery Horsman (who doesn’t get much fleshing-out, but points for mentioning her existence at all). Lady Wingfield and Lady Worcester also put in appearances, as of course does Lady Rochford, who although she follows the standard script of being a shrew who’s unhappily married to George, manages to do so with a great deal more depth and realism than most others. Jane Seymour, alas, is the usual “green-faced” dimwit who never gets anything interesting to say. At the end, Anne is still unsure whether Henry means to marry her or whether she’ll be thrown over as well – considering how little news she had from the outside world, her confusion is understandable; she couldn’t read Chapuys’ reports on Henry’s nocturnal adventures, after all.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR She has a servant at Hever named Jenny, and later as queen she has an attendant called Nan who is very discreetly implied to give her a few hints about improving her experience in bed (not via physical demonstration, they just talk about it since Anne doesn’t feel very secure asking her ladies-in-waiting, knowing they would gossip to people who mattered). A maid named Alys is very briefly mentioned – she’s the first person in Anne’s household to catch the sweat. We don’t hear from her again after this, so maybe she died of it, but we’re not told.

THE PROPHECY None, really. At the beginning of their love affair, Anne briefly imagines a red-haired baby who grows up to rule England and is half Boleyn, but doesn’t dare to mention it. Besides, in her imagination, it’s a boy.

IT’S A GIRL! Henry doesn’t rage, nor does he come around instantly – he’s just crushed.

He comes in quietly, his hat in his hand, as if seeking penitence. Where I had expected rage, I find sorrow, and where I had expected retribution, I find only defeat. His close-cropped hair is glinting, the candlelight forming a nimbus around his head, but it is the only bright thing about him.

He has a hard time getting enthusiastic about Elizabeth until he actually holds her, and Anne tells him that she’s so strong that her brothers will have to be really impressive. Finally, he concedes that “We have made a good start, Sweetheart,” and Anne is relieved to know that all is well (which it is, for a while, anyway).


FAMILY AFFAIRS Margaret Boleyn, Anne’s grandmother, lives at Hever throughout her life and by the time Anne is old enough to notice is already partially senile; Anne’s primary association with her grandmother is an annoying little dog who leaves droppings everywhere. Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn don’t stand out too much – he’s ambitious, she’s ambitious but also somewhat nervous and sickly. They’re not badly done, they just don’t leave much of an impression. Mary Boleyn is, as per tradition, the cast-off mistress of two kings and the mother of two ambiguous children who are widely believed to be the king’s. Less usually, she resembles Anne strongly enough that the king takes Anne’s hand during a post-masque dance, mistaking her for Mary, and Mary is greatly disappointed by this – more so when Henry later visits Hever, but not to see Mary. He’s moved on, and she has to as well.

George is a charming, skirt-chasing, bright young man who enjoys giving Anne advice a little too much; in the early days she grumbles to George’s fiancee Jane about it, and Jane assures her that once they’re married “I will fill his house with children, and he will lack both the time and the energy to pry into your affairs.” George’s advice is usually sound – he gets really panicked at the idea of comparing Cromwell to Haman – but sometimes he’s not, and when he’s wrong, he’s spectacularly, disastrously wrong. He’s the one, for instance, who persuades Anne not to change out of her yellow clothes when news of Catherine of Aragon’s death comes, telling her that if she dresses in anything that looks like mourning, people will say she’s admitting Catherine was queen. Solid enough reasoning, but it backfires spectacularly when people are shocked at the yellow and think it shows that Anne is an icy-hearted climber whose fall nobody will weep for. George also jokes about Anne being the perfect woman for him just a little too much, and mostly while drunk. Neither Anne nor Jane are amused by this.

Of course, the children Jane hopes for never come – George’s inclination towards “hearth wenches” and their increasingly fractured relationship help see to that, although he says he does want children. Anne holds out hope to the end that they’ll have a child, as she’s convinced that Jane would be much less bitter, and George less oats-sowing, once they had the all-important heir to the Wiltshire earldom. Jane herself is nicely drawn, although of course she’s very much a traditionalist Jane, so to speak. She’s very optimistic and happy in the early days, when she played Constancy in the same masque where Anne played Perseverance – she knows George isn’t her biggest fan, but is sure that they’ll have children and live sufficiently if not happily ever after. As time goes on, the combination of indifference and bad luck means that she has no children in a court where everyone else seems to be having them every eleven months; furthermore, she’s acutely aware that the Boleyn earldom hangs on whatever offspring she can produce. Her unhappiness and ambiguous feelings about George lead to her having a very hot-and-cold relationship with his sisters – she’ll stand on her dignity at one moment and try to be their best friend the next. (Anne knows the news of the sweat is serious when she tells Jane to go and fetch someone and Jane does it instead of complaining that she’s too high-ranking to run errands). Despite their uneven relationship, Anne always likes having her hair brushed by Jane, who takes her time over it and doesn’t yank on the knots too hard. I really liked that touch – it gave Jane an entire extra dimension in one sentence.

Jane’s testimony as to Anne’s supposed incest with George is mentioned, but she doesn’t appear at the trial (which of course is accurate). Anne is devastated by it but says that she “chooses to believe” that Jane’s words were twisted into an accusation as opposed to her consciously making one, and of course since we’re seeing things from Anne’s perspective only we never find out one way or the other. With this Cromwell, though, it’s quite possible Jane was manipulated or threatened; he is bent on bringing Anne down and has no particular concern for any collateral damage which may result.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No. However, in a classic instance of “Stalin would surely stop this if he knew about it!” she’s convinced that Henry truly thinks she did – that he was gulled completely by Cromwell & Co. If she could see the way he was acting on the outside she might doubt that, but of course she couldn’t.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE Modernisms creep in sometimes – “Henry, this thing is getting out of hand,” Anne tells the king when they argue about dissolving the monasteries, and the religious terminology can be jarring. But that’s about the worst you can say about it, and of course most of the time the writing is excellent – clear and vivid. It’s especially good when it comes to describing settings; lots of writers have Anne sitting and sewing shirts with the queen’s ladies, but not many have them white-faced and with heads aching from the heat; you can feel how happy they were to get outside into the gardens. I was delighted to see the tired old chess metaphor turned on its head when Anne compares herself to a queen and Cromwell to a pawn – “So now, as Cromwell the pawn dares to endanger his queen, I gather all my wits and prepare for the fray.” (Of course, in this instance the “pawn” actually wins). There’s a framing device in which the ghost of Anne comes to Henry’s deathbed to claim his soul, which was enjoyable but weirdly disconnected to the rest of the book, considering the way it was narrated; it could have been peeled off without any loss of effect but it isn’t bad.

ERRATA Titles are all right for the most part but an occasion unwarranted “Lady” or Sir Lastname do slip in. Mary Boleyn’s inconvenient pregnancy is moved forward by almost a year – for a while it looks as though she and Anne will both have children in the summer of 1534, whereas Chapuys’ letter stating that Mary was sent away for her pregnancy dates from September of 1534. To be fair, this kind of thing can be hard to pin down – the fact that Chapuys reported it in September doesn’t mean it couldn’t have happened a good deal earlier and he just didn’t happen to mention it until then, and of course there’s no indication of how far along Mary was when it happened; who knows, she may have been able to hide a lot under those enormous Tudor-era skirts. Henry VIII is also said to have definitely determined on making Henry Fitzroy his heir when it became clear that his first marriage would produce only one surviving daughter – while he certainly honoured Fitzroy far more than his wife thought appropriate, it doesn’t seem to have been quite as clear-cut as all that. And while this doesn’t quite count as an error, it was a very peculiar dropped plotline: at the end of April 1536, Anne is happily speculating that she may be pregnant again and sure that she’ll be more certain within a few days. She is, of course, arrested a couple of days later – but after that, we never hear anything about her putative pregnancy again. Granted, she’s got a lot on her mind, but it’s an important enough issue that you’d think she’d take notice either of increasing symptoms or of her period.

WORTH A READ? Yes! Go thou and read likewise.

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