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Brazen by Katherine Longshore (2014)

February 26, 2015

The followup to Tarnish, which was told from the perspective of the young Anne Boleyn. Anne is older now, married to Henry VIII, and the mother of the infant Elizabeth, and we’re seeing her from the perspective of the fourteen-year-old Mary Fitzroy, nee Howard, who has just married Henry VIII’s bastard son, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond. Mary has a way with words – a somewhat irritating way, as it happens. “Wish is a word that tastes like sugar syrup. It is sweet and delicate, but ultimately has no substance …. Star tastes like a good, full-bodied wine.” It’s not a bad conceit, but this sort of thing becomes Mary’s signature tune and she pauses the narrative to tell us what words taste like far too often. One person she manages to impress with her verbal acumen, however, is her husband, nicknamed Fitz, whom she barely knows (and, in the Biblical sense, doesn’t know at all – they’ve been forbidden to sleep together until he’s older and healthier). He gives her a leather-bound blank book, stamped with the initials M.F, “For your words” he tells her. Throughout the story she fills it not just with her words but with those of her friends Madge Shelton, Margaret Douglas, Thomas Wyatt, her brother Henry Howard, and many others. And the Devonshire MS is born in a welter of adolescent angst.

Mary’s marriage takes place at the end of 1533, under the auspices of Anne Boleyn, and she stays at court to serve Anne while gossiping with Madge and Margaret, watching the men, and wishing she could spend more time with the boy she’s nominally married to. Anne herself has matured into someone who would be right at home in the twenty-first century – she emphasizes to Mary that women must be themselves, that she is “not nobody” no matter what the king says, and that love and freedom are some of the most important things in life. And, like anyone born in the twenty-first century, Anne is apparently not very good at negotiating her way through the politics of the Tudor court; by the time the book opens the king is already grumbling about her and quarrelling with her about how he can lower her as much as he has raised her, and though their relationship occasionally warms up slightly they seem to spend every moment Mary observes either on the outs with each other or about to be on the outs with each other. Henry is, of course, obsessed with having a son – Fitz has rather mixed feelings about this, since his own political and strategic significance largely derives from the fact that he’s the only male offspring the king has and just might, through some royal and judicial sleight-of-hand, become king one day.

Fitz himself is presented as sensitive, retiring, not liking to profit off the death of his enemies (he received some of Anne Boleyn’s properties when she fell, but not, in this version, willingly) and immune to the superstition which besets his father – when he falls ill for the last time, the king attributes it to Anne Boleyn’s witchcraft from beyond the grave, whereas Fitz merely thinks that these things happen and can’t be attributed to any magical source. It’s not surprising that Mary falls for him and after a great deal of tension and adolescent agonizing, they defy his father by secretly sleeping together. There’s a lot of potential political trouble surrounding the event (Mary’s father, worried that the king might be planning to get their marriage annulled, wants her to consummate it, and under Anne’s influence she’s less than happy at the idea of doing something purely to please her father). All of it, happily, is avoided when Mary does not become pregnant and Fitz, not long after Anne’s betrayal by Cromwell and her execution, falls ill and dies of consumption. Realizing that she really loved him and is done being used by the men in her life, Mary resolves to leave court for good, and when her father proposes to bring her back, she says “I am a Fitzroy. I am a duchess. I do not need a man to give me my identity, Father. I have my own.” His reponse is to tell her that “I will find another Howard girl. I will put her on the throne.” And with that we’re back to the first and best book in this series, Gilt.

SEX OR POLITICS? Sex, without a doubt. Politics are certainly mentioned, what with Mary’s father referring to her as a pawn and giving her differing directions on what exactly she should be doing with her husband so as to keep her position (and her family’s) intact, but what the characters are really interested in is writing about men, talking about men, deploring the amount of power held by men, and eventually sleeping with them.

WHEN BORN? Mary was born in 1519. Anne’s birth year is never mentioned, but in Tarnish it was established as 1507. (The author mentioned in a note that she realized 1501 was more likely, but that she used the 1507 date because she wanted to make the book a coming-of-age story more appropriate for an adolescent. Fair enough). It doesn’t make much of a difference here, since either way Mary is a good bit younger than Anne and sees her as an authoritative adult, precise age irrelevant.

THE EARLY LOVE Henry Percy is mentioned fondly by Anne but isn’t seen. Fitz, of course, is Mary’s first love (and last, for that matter).

THE QUEEN’S BEES Madge Shelton and Margaret Douglas are the major players here (along with Mary herself, of course). Madge is lively, flirtatious, and likes bright colours, and writing poetry in what will eventually become the Devonshire MS. She also has an affair with the king and, it’s implied, with several other men (not including Henry Norris, whom she somewhat hypocritically resents for flirting with Anne). Margaret Douglas writes and copies poems as well, but her personality undergoes a sharp break after her secret marriage is discovered. She returns from her banishment much more sober and, Madge suspects, more serious about angling for the throne – “Now there’s a new Margaret, who quietly submits”. She carries Jane Seymour’s train after the latter’s marriage to the king, and this is presented as a deep betrayal to Anne and to her friends. Jane Seymour is mentioned but unfortunately is as flat and insipid – and as voiceless – as she usually is. “Frowsy old Jane Seymour,” Madge calls her. “The simpering sow-faced cow. She has no beauty and no spark. That woman wouldn’t say boo to a goose. And she’d never tell anyone no.” It’s implied that the king is fond of her because she doesn’t talk back to him, but it’s still difficult to see the attraction.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR Mary herself to Anne, along with Madge and Margaret Douglas. Mary also has a maid named Alice.

THE PROPHECY None really, although at one point the Duke of Norfolk says that Margaret Douglas and her descendants will never have throne – true, Margaret Douglas herself never got it, but her descendant sits on the throne today.

IT’S A GIRL! Mary doesn’t come to court until Elizabeth is a few months old, so we don’t get to see her birth directly, but from the way the king talks later on it’s clear that a girl is not enough for him.

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? No.

FAMILY AFFAIRS Oh so many – Mary is the daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk, a famously incompatible couple – he deserted her for the household laundress and also was accused of knocking her around on multiple occasions. Mary doesn’t believe the latter allegations – not at first, anyway – but it’s clear that both of her parents are incredibly cold, repellent human beings. The Duchess is cold and distant, strongly unsympathetic to the Boleyn faction (in large part because her husband supports it) and gives Mary to understand that she’s useful only insofar as she can be used to help the family gain ascendancy and that women are useful only for having children and getting out of the way of the men. Her father is cold and distant and gives Mary to understand that she’s useful only insofar as … you get the idea. However, she prefers him – at first – because he takes her part against her mother. For all the Norfolks hate each other, they’re sometimes impossible to tell apart. At the end, when Fitz is dead, Anne is dead, and Mary has become useless to him, her father becomes angry at her because she didn’t (he thinks) follow his order to sleep with her husband. He ends up knocking her down, leading Mary to re-evaluate her earlier impression of her parents’ relationship. Her brother Henry (called Hal, for clarity) is married but enjoys heavy flirting with Mary’s friends – she objects when Madge writes his name down as someone “kissable.”

Anne’s family gets less attention, obviously, but they’re there. George Boleyn is there, receding somewhat into the background but nonetheless very close to his sister and once spotted coming out of her room late at night – one of the many harmless-in-themselves facts which will later hurt him a great deal. Jane Boleyn is recognizably the same person from the other two books – nervous, shy, in love with George. Anne remembers and quotes what Jane once told her about how being love is like the smell of strawberries – it makes everything around you seem sweet. The incest accusation which supposedly came from Jane is touched on – it turns out to be a reference to the time in Tarnish when a neglected and unhappy Jane told Anne that she was sure George loved her better than his own wife. As Jane tells Mary later, she didn’t believe it at the time, and she had no idea how Cromwell knew she had said it, as it was so long ago, but she couldn’t deny that she had said it, and that was enough to damn him. Nonetheless, Jane spends her whole period of post-execution exile working to go back to court – “Because it’s the only place to be. The only place.”

Mary Boleyn appears only once, for the scene where her pregnancy is revealed and she’s banished. As per usual, she quotes a little from her later letter to Cromwell (and very effectively, too) and once she’s gone, she’s gone – Anne is furious, and never mentions again. Mary Fitzroy, observing from the sidelines, eventually sees Mary Boleyn as having chosen the better part.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No, in Anne’s case. This book hews true to the Ives hypothesis – Cromwell killed her because of their dispute over the monastery monies. It’s unclear how much Henry knew about the plan, since Mary doesn’t know herself, but since he’s so unrelievedly hostile to Anne from late 1533 onward, it’s hard to imagine that he would have disapproved very much. Mary herself sleeps with her husband, once, and afterward blames herself briefly when it becomes clear that he’s deathly ill (though Fitz himself writes off the idea of sex causing illness as foolish). However, after his death, she denies that they ever did, partly because the king didn’t want it to happen, and partly because her father did – this way he doesn’t get to take credit for it and she hasn’t made herself “a pawn” in his plans. She loses out on a lot of her dower this way, since an unconsummated marriage can be invalidated.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE This books suffers from being the third in a series – tricks which were striking in the first two – the fragmented speaking style, the bits of modern vocabulary, and the triple-decker adverbs – start to become wearing in this one. It’s still cleanly written and fast-moving, though, and there are some good moments when the girls are playing around with the future Devonshire MS – Madge suggests writing the names of all the men they think are handsome, and perhaps nine months later Mary is looking at the book again, sees the list, and realizes that half of those men are now dead. It’s not brilliant prose but it’s well-paced and moments like these are handled very effectively.

ERRATA Anne Boleyn’s last miscarriage is said to be grossly deformed, a rumour which appears about four hundred years too soon, and a courtier says that Fitz can “resist everything but temptation”, a quip which appears about three hundred years too soon.

WORTH A READ? Yes, as long as you don’t read it too soon after Gilt or Tarnish, because when you get right down to it, they all have the same plot: girl in oppressive Tudor court realizes that freedom (either in love or without love) is the most important thing and that she must cast off the shackles of conventional court society. Its characterization of Anne makes vivid reading but is still more than a bit grating – she’s so obviously a modern woman. When Anne tells an angry Henry VIII that “I am myself! I am Anne Boleyn. You have not made me!” it’s inspiring and all, but not very period, since from a royal perspective Anne Boleyn was a nobody. When Madge Shelton tells Mary not to imply that Anne was no better than the rest of them because she married for wealth and her family’s gain, she doesn’t sound very sixteenth-century, either. Making a good marriage which brought your family up in the world was something to be proud of, not a second-best to a love match. Still, though, it’s an interesting read if you want to see what became of the Anne of Tarnish.

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