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Mayflowers For November by Malyn Bromfield (2016)

November 11, 2018

If you looked at the synopsis, you might think you’ve already seen this book dozens of times. A lowborn girl possessed of a special talent is, through a series of unlikely occurrences, raised up to become a personal maid to Anne Boleyn, receiving confidences, witnessing intrigues, and of course experiencing youthful romance even while Anne’s own love story is collapsing into ruins. Unable to prevent Anne’s arrest and death, the maid, having become disgusted with the treacheries of court life, flees with her lover to a humbler existence. Sound familiar? If you read this book, it will — and it won’t, because this is an absolutely masterful take on that story; one that goes head to head and may even be better than Norah Lofts’ servant story in The Concubine (1963), especially as it does not permit its young couple to take refuge in a bucolic paradise together, but rather shows us how they continue to mature and what new troubles replace their old ones — because in the religious turmoil of the mid-sixteenth century, there is no safe haven for anyone, no matter how elastic their religious and political convictions may be.

The bones of the plot are as I’ve described; the maid is a young girl named Avis Grinnel, whose parents both work in the kitchens (her father as a baker, her mother as an assistant to the confectioner) and her talent is for discerning the sex of an unborn baby — a talent she’s frequently called on to use as she assists her aunt, who is a midwife. This gift is what brings her to the then-expecting Anne Boleyn’s attention, and to her own befuddlement Avis is summoned to meet “the whore” (as Avis’s mother always calls her) to tell her about the child she’s expecting. After some coaxing, Avis confirms that the child will be healthy and will look like its father.

The Queen turned to her brother. “This is good news, is it not, George?”

When her brother answered his voice was heavy and dull like the thud of a blunt axe upon wet wood.

“She says nothing of a prince.”

“I cannot say what I do not see, sire,” I pleaded, in a voice I had never heard before, a sword sharpened on stone. “A daughter …”

“A plague on your daughters.”

“You curse my issue, brother? In the name of God, be quiet.”

“Sure, you cannot believe what the wench says. The King’s astrologers have gazed at the stars and consulted their almanacs before casting their figures.”

Again she scolded him with words I couldn’t understand, French, I supposed. Mother had told me that my ladies at court coveted the fashionable clothes and bejewelled hoods that Anne Boleyn had brought from France, where she had been at court for many years.

“It is God’s will that I give Henry his long-awaited boy,” Queen Anne told her brother more calmly. “yet, I see there is an honesty about this girl.”

After telling Avis that if she keeps the conversation secret and proves to be honest, she may end up rewarded, she dismisses the girl back to the kitchens. She doesn’t stay there for long, of course, as her prediction proves true (much to the malicious satisfaction of her mother and aunt, both Catherine’s partisans) and soon Avis is promoted to attending upon the infant Elizabeth, then subsequently upon Madge Shelton — Anne, anxious to be able to use Avis’s gift in the future, wants her to be relatively accessible. As Avis moves becomes enmeshed with the great people of the court (although certainly not one of them) she becomes more and more fearful both for her religiously recalcitrant parents and for Tom, the kitchen’s rat boy, who has both ambitions beyond a life of pest control and the intention of marrying Avis when he’s made enough money to live on. What his plans are to get that money she doesn’t know, but she can guess that it involves a great deal of smuggling both of illicit persons and literature, and when every so often he does manage to send her a token, she’s almost as fearful as she is pleased — the less she knows about where he is and what he’s doing, the less she can accidentally reveal to anyone else. After all, Cromwell, kindly and avuncular as he is to her (as he is to all the servants) is spectacularly good at worming information out of people.

The story is told in alternating chapters; in half of them, an almost middle-aged Avis, now expecting her own first child, is living in the waning days of Queen Mary’s reign and reminiscing about her youth to White Boy, a blind, simpleminded young man whom she and her husband care for, and who also works for them. In the other half, we see the story of the young Avis — or rather, the story she’s telling to White Boy as they talk, work, fend off increasingly aggressive religious inquisitors, worry about the increasingly uncertain future, and wait for her ferryman husband to return from his not always particularly safe night-time missions. So from the beginning we’re aware that we may not be seeing so much precisely what happened, as what the story has shaped itself into in Avis’s mind, twenty years after the actual events, and after she’s seen how they ultimately ended. There are few quasi-fairytale elements which appear rhythmically throughout — Avis’s visions of unborn children, and the gold angel noble coins which Tom the rat boy manages to acquire and to send to her at significant moments. Did it all really happen quite so neatly, or is she unconsciously creating patterns in a story which actually had more loose ends to it? We can’t be sure, just as we can never be certain about our own decades-old memories and the patterns we see in them.

Furthermore, Avis’s social ascension is not so much the opening of a glorious new vista of opportunity for her, but rather a gradual realization of just how powerless, and increasingly endangered, people like her and her family actually are. A confident, willing conversationalist as a young girl, one who trusts in herself enough to snap back to George Boleyn the first time she encounters him, the further the fourteen-year-old Avis rises, the less she finds herself able to rely upon or talk to anyone — especially as both her parents and Tom blame Anne as the sole instigator of the religious shakeups, and she fears to get them into trouble. Elizabeth’s nurses gossip to and around her, but she fears saying the wrong thing in response; Madge Shelton talks to her more openly than she would to a social equal but expects no genuine response and occasionally slaps her for giving the wrong one, and Anne Boleyn can barely extract a word from Avis even when she genuinely wants one. When Anne is pregnant for the second time, Avis fears to go near her at chapel and, when she can’t avoid an encounter and has a vision of stillborn boy, lies and says she can’t see anything. As the new religion takes hold and the Oath of Supremacy becomes an obligation, even her prayers are for silence — “In church, I prayed that Father, Mother and Tom would keep their sympathies to themselves and I asked God to take care of them.”

Her increasing conviction that words are dangerous is brutally borne out by the increasing persecutions both for adhering too much to the old religion, and for straying too far from the new one — and despite her prayers, her own family is not exempt. Madge Shelton is too preoccupied by her own affairs — both with the king and Francis Weston — to have excessive concern for her maid, and the wrenching end to both affairs (manipulated by Anne, who’s desperate to get the king back) leaves Madge in a less than sympathetic state of mind towards the queen, to put in mildly. Anne’s dislike of Madge doesn’t mean she’s forgotten about Avis, however; in a gesture made up of both kindness and obliviousness, Queen Anne ends up summoning Avis in the spring of 1536, after losing her third pregnancy, and gives her both an unfinished baby’s bonnet and a bit of a scolding.

”I waited for you, Avis. Don’t you know that I waited for you to give me some sign, to tell me of the bonny prince I carried. Why do you think I brought you to court? I have watched you sewing, or tending to Mistress Shelton’s attire and when I caught your eye you hid behind your mistress, too shy to so much as glance at the Queen, that queen who remembered her promise to you and has brought you higher than a mean girl who weeded the gardens could ever have dreamed.”

We walked beside the hedge and I said nothing. What was there to say? She knew that when she carried Princess Elizabeth I told her only what I truly believed. What was I supposed to do if I saw no living child?

As it turns out, Anne has realized the impossibility of Avis’s position — how can she be honest about such a dangerous vision as the death of a king’s child? — and has devised a way around it. “Next time my boy will be strong and when you see that this is so, you will not need to say anything at all, only return the little bonnet to me and I will know.” Even the Queen of England can’t promise Avis direct protection, only offer a way to communicate a safe message by using no words at all. And Avis’s powerlessness is confirmed when she attempts to give Anne help which goes beyond simply watching and waiting.

”There is something you can do, Your Grace, to ensure a healthy child, to prevent the child leaving the womb too soon. There are herbs, potions that midwives know of that will …”

”Be silent, wench,” the Queen snapped. “Would you have me swallow a witch’s potion. Such concoctions are the devil’s work.”

“It is herbal medicine, Your Grace, nothing more, just such as you might take for a headache or a stomach pain. My aunt is a midwife, she knows these things, she has helped many women but she is not a witch, Your Grace, I beg you …”

“I have told you before, Avis,” the Queen said more gently, “Remember, I told you that it is faith that saves us. I will have no potion. My faith is strong. I will pray to God and he will save me. He will give me a living son. When the mayflowers bloom you will see a baby boy growing.”

And as it happens, Avis does see that — but what she doesn’t see is Cromwell and his determination to get rid of Anne to advance his own agenda, and the willingness of the embittered Madge and her mother to be tools in his cause. Anne is too early on for even a midwife to be sure, and when Avis gives her the cap after the initial arrests, she gives it back — it’s too late, she says, as Cromwell will simply say that the child’s father was not the king. In a very short interval, Anne has become even more powerless than the maid, and her own meaningless, flirtatious words are what help bring about her end. Avis’s own ability to hold her tongue is also severely tested when Cromwell drops his avuncular concern and begins hammering at her — not only does he want exact specifics of Anne’s and George’s relationship, but he’s sure that Avis knows where the rat boy really is. She doesn’t so much win the interrogation as survive it, and upon seeing Madge rifling through Anne’s clothing for her next outfit and urging Avis to come and help her dress, walks away from her without obeying, and forever.

The older Avis remembers her perpetually silenced younger self, but even as she does so we see her defending her household from robbers and would-be inquisitors, preserving her marriage to Tom (not an easy task, as he remains a risk-taker and, after twenty years of religious war, an increasingly bitter and disilllusioned one) and preparing for the birth of her child. While it’s clear that all of this confidence has been purchased with a great deal of sorrow and disillusionment, she still does have it, and the ending — which I won’t detail, as the book is good enough that it should be discovered directly, not secondhand — shows that even if Avis has not regained security, she has, at last, regained her voice.

SEX OR POLITICS? Both are subsumed by religion, and the destruction of both people’s faiths and people’s lives. Burnings begin in the 1530s and continue in the 1550s, and the push and pull of doctrines has erased something that can never be brought back.

I think of mother’s advice when Anne Boleyn became Queen and the old religious ways began to be destroyed: we must keep our beliefs to ourselves and God and let the masters see what we want them to see.

There have been so many changes in the churches these twenty-five years; I don’t know what to believe any more. When I was a girl praying at my bedside, the Spirit of God was real. It was a warm cloak around me and a guiding voice within me. Sometimes I felt His presence so terrifyingly heavy upon my shoulders that I thought I would be struck down, like Saul on the road to Damascus. Each time I knelt at Mass to receive the host, something wonderful happened: the bread became Christ’s body and the wine became his blood. In Edward’s reign there was no transubstantiation.: the miracle of the Mass was gone. I heard the priest recite the liturgy in English and was saddened that the sonorous beauty of the Latin language was gone.

Now Mary is our queen and the priest elevates the host to receive the body and blood of Christ, yet there is still for me an emptiness, as if something marvellous has departed never to return. Since my husband has taught me to read, it gives me such pride and pleasure to pick up my English New Testament and study a while and it grieves me greatly that I must do this furtively.

“I suppose I am a heretic, but I don’t feel wicked or sinful, just confused,” I say.

WHEN BORN? Avis turns fourteen on “the last day of May” 1533, so she was born on that date in 1519. Anne’s age is never stated exactly but since both Avis and her aunt express concern that Anne is getting on in her thirties and may soon have trouble becoming pregnant, probably around 1501.

THE EARLY LOVE Tom for Avis, Henry Percy for Anne, and Francis Weston for Madge Shelton. Only one of these lasts, and even Tom and Avis don’t exactly ride off into the sunset together at the end — they have several decades of religious turmoil, dangerous jobs, and involuntary childlessness ahead of them. Henry Percy isn’t mentioned by anyone in the higher ranks, but by Mistress Pudding the confectioner, reminiscing after Anne’s arrest. “Mayhap, all along, God has wanted Anne Boleyn to marry her true love, Henry Percy of Northumberland, for everyone knows that he cannot abide his wife nor she him. And if this had been so, Anne Boleyn would be living happily in her castle in the north with a nest of little children and would have no need of lovers.”

THE QUEEN’S BEES Madge Shelton is the one we see most of; far from being the shallow, happy butterfly we usually see (and even if she’s not happy, she’s usually shallow) she’s genuinely in love — and having an affair — with the married Francis Weston, and her butterfly act is mostly just that, an attempt to mold herself into the flirtatious, amusing, knowing court lady she feels obliged to be. (“Oh Avis, what an innocent you are,” is a recurring line of hers). She becomes the king’s mistress briefly and unhappily, and her subsequent love for Weston is viciously ended when it becomes clear that he’s with her because he was bribed to do so, as a distraction. Madge’s engagement to Norris is essentially a surrender; she can’t have Weston, then why not Norris?

Madge’s relationship with Anne, already strained by her quarrels with Lady Shelton, is permanently poisoned when Anne and George reveal that Weston was having an affair with Madge not because he loved her but because the Boleyns paid him to do so; Weston always needs more money than he has, and Anne was willing to do anything at that point to take Madge away from the king. In the early months of 1536, Madge is the one who ends up giving Anne the supposedly innocent advice to re-win the King’s interest by engaging in a little flirtation with Brereton et al. Whether she does it deliberately to endanger her or simply didn’t mind giving Cromwell what he wanted after the fact is never clear, but her anger at Anne for her manipulation is obvious and understandable, even if the fallout is much less forgivable.

Jane Seymour is quiet, kindly (at least initially) and has acquired the nickname of “the Chin” from Madge Shelton — “Don’t you think she has an ugly chin?” Jane is impossible to know, as her brothers do all the talking for her. Margery Horsman, Catherine Carey (rumored to be the king’s daughter), Mary Howard, Bess Holland, Margaret Lee and many others all make sharply-drawn cameos, but Madge is by far the most dominant and, in the end, is rather frightening.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR Avis herself to Elizabeth, Madge Shelton, and intermittently to Anne. In fact, this book is unusual in showing just how pervasive the master/servant relationship was, and how closely they could live together; Avis’s parents, of course, are servants, as is Mrs. Cornwallis — here jokingly nicknamed Mistress Pudding and a much more hardheaded, practical figure than the hopeless pursuer of Mark Smeaton who starred in The Queen Of Subtleties (2004) but they’re not cheek-by-jowl with the people they serve. Avis becomes a maid to high-born women, living very closely to them physically but not dreaming or daring to do such thing like offer advice without leave. And White Boy’s relationship with Avis and her husband exemplify a third kind of master/servant relationship which was also common; in which a poor person served another person (or people) who were somewhat less poor, and where the social lines were far more blurred than they could ever be between a member of the aristocracy and her maid, no matter how physically close they may have been.

THE PROPHECY The older, pregnant Avis visits a “wise woman” who lives in a ruined chapel and who, in answer to her fears about her unborn child, writes the date 17 November 1558 in answer to her question, which prompts the thought of “Mayflowers in November” for Avis. Whether the wise woman has genuine powers is never entirely clear. In 1533, there are quite a few predictions from offstage prophets who are certain that Anne will have a boy, but the only real consistent power belongs to Avis. However, when her aunt describes her as having “the sight” Avis’s response is to push back, hard, and for good reason.

”Oh, you are as bad as Mother,” I cried. “I am neither a sorceress nor a cunning woman. I do not foresee the future. I do not have the sight, whatever that is. Pray do not speak thus of me for people will say I am a witch. I just know what a woman is carrying. I don’t know how. Maybe it is just luck. Sooner or later I will be wrong …. What if I begin to see more than innocent babes? What if I see terrible things? like the Nun of Kent, who everyone is talking about, who saw a vision of the King in hell. What if it is the devil’s work?”

Her aunt brushes this aside as needless worrying, but given what happened to the Nun of Kent, not to mention quite a few others, it’s easy to see why Avis is concerned. (And while she may not see the future on a broad scale, her vision of Anne’s second baby makes it clear that the baby is dead, which has serious political implications and is a prediction nobody in her right mind would want to make.)

IT’S A GIRL! Avis is not yet in Anne’s household when Elizabeth is born — she’s sent for a few days later, after Anne has recovered and decided that somebody with her particular talent should be kept close at hand. So instead of seeing Anne’s and Henry’s immediate reactions, we see those of the people around her — her father and mother saying that it’s a sign of God’s disapproval, her aunt declaring that “Master Lydgate, in his wherry, can read the stars more truly than the King’s astrologers,” and Mistress Pudding declaring that the king and queen will need to eat the sweets she’s been working on regardless, since sugar and gold leaf can’t be wasted on servants’ meals even if the royal baby was the wrong sex. However, we do get a hint of Henry’s feelings when Avis spies him visiting the infant Elizabeth, a week or so after her birth.

I saw him immediately: a splash of brilliant gold filling the room. He was sitting in the nursing chair by the fire, cradling his sleeping daughter on her swaddling board. The little cap and biggin bands that had bound her head were discarded on to the floor at his feet alongside his big feathered bonnet. He kissed her forehead, letting his russet hair mingle with her pale-marigold curls while his bulky shoulders heaved in violent jerks, making the little white bundle jolt in his arms.

Behind him a gentleman of my father’s age wearing fur and costly fabrics that glimmered in the candle-glow waved his hand frantically in the direction of the door behind me. He put his finger to his lips. Already I was keeping secrets as Father had warned: the King’s secrets.

I fell into a curtsey, hiding my face in my skirt. On my hands and knees I crept slowly backwards pretending not to hear King Henry’s rasping sobs.

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Anne has a habit of covering up her thumb, which makes Avis think the rumors might be true, but it seems to be closer to Wyatt’s description of a double nail than an actual sixth digit, which would be hard to hide for long.

FAMILY AFFAIRS George and Jane Boleyn both make appearances, and both are quite unpleasant. Avis first sees George when she’s summoned to tell Anne what the unborn Elizabeth will be — “he was the handsomest man I had ever seen, and I did not like him.” He speaks French with Anne, at least partially to make sure the servants don’t understand (I really enjoyed seeing this, it always bothers me a bit that the multilingually-raised Boleyn siblings always seemed to forget their French with each other even when it would give them a conversational advantage). George, while fond of his sister, is hardheaded enough to insist that her stillborn boy be summarily disposed of before the king can see — “It never lived. Just get rid of it.” In this he’s a second edition of his father, who scolds Anne for having “too much mettle” to carry a boy and arranges for the king to be told that the stillbirth was a girl, in order to make sure that he doesn’t come to a similar conclusion. Anne’s mother is gentler than the men in her family, though as we see her primarily when helping her daughter through a stillbirth, perhaps that’s uncharacteristic.

Jane Boleyn is as old-school as they come; a coldblooded harpy who loathes George, conspires with Cromwell in order to bring both her husband and hated sister-in-law down, and oversees the destruction of a full-sized Holbein portrait of Anne even before the trial is held. “Master Secretary will see that I am well provided for,” is her response when Madge Shelton challenges her about what will happen to her own fortunes now that her husband is soon to die. Mary Boleyn is barely seen and vanishes in the space of a sentence in the autumn of 1534 when she’s banished for marrying William Stafford. Avis hears of the scandal secondhand from Madge Shelton, who has minimal sympathy. “In law, Mary is the King’s sister and should have made a fine match with a wealthy earl or duke.”

”To run off and marry for love is a very brave thing to do,” I said.

“Oh, I had not thought of it like that,” Mistress Madge said. “Is this how the common people think?”

“Many years ago the King’s sister married the Duke of Suffolk secretly, for love, when her husband, the old French King, died,” I reminded her.

“Oh, I remember mother telling me what a terrible scandal that was, but she brought her dowry and that great diamond, the Mirror of Naples, from the French court so Henry readily forgave them. What kind of marriage settlement can be made without wealth?”

“What of love?” I asked her.

“A gentlewoman must not look to find love within marriage,” she answered in a voice so low I barely heard.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No, and Avis quickly becomes aware that everyone who matters is completely cognizant of this and either doesn’t care or is simply too afraid to say so.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE The writing style is mannered but in a way which manages to strike a good balance between comprehension and feeling distant enough that the reader can believe that these people are living, and speaking, in the sixteenth century. The only real issues I had were with the proofreading, which was lacking in quite a few instances (there were an annoying number of simple typos — “might” for “mite” for example). However, the story was good enough that all the missing commas in the world couldn’t spoil it.

ERRATA While there were a number of interpretations that one could disagree with (Lady Rochford primarily) I wouldn’t call them errata per se. Mark Smeaton, as is his custom, appears to belong to the Queen’s household rather than the King’s, and turns up much more than he probably did for someone who played in Anne’s presence but once, but from an artistic point of view it works.

WORTH A READ? Absolutely — one of my biggest problems with this writeup was having to remind myself that I don’t need to quote and give away literally everything, as I kept wanting to add more and more examples of what I enjoyed. It isn’t just that the narrator continues to mature in the decades beyond, but that Anne, who really appears very little, manages to cast such a dominant shadow in a cast full of nuanced secondary characters and grace notes. It’s a book which remembers the physical as well as the emotional; we see Avis at the market with her mother, longing for a dyed leather purse and being warned off because the first rain will make the dye run, and briefly being lent a fashionable “lettuce cap” and enjoying it so much that Madge Shelton threatens to smack her if she doesn’t stop touching the fur lining. The minor characters all manage to spring to life even if they only have a few words — Mark Smeaton, for example, with his reputation for being above himself (a carpenter’s son with horses and servingmen?) isn’t above giving Avis a cover story when she has to explain to Lady Shelton where she found a lost jewel from Madge’s headdress. Hans Holbein is a presence as well, working on a full-length portrait of Anne and not above the occasional sharp remark. None of these may sound like much in themselves, but they and many other small things combine around a strong story to make this one of the most refreshing Boleyn novels I’ve read in a very long time.

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From → Book Overviews

  1. Annalucia permalink

    Is this really classified as a Young Adult novel? That’s too bad; it’s an intelligent book that could stand to be read by any Adult, not just a Young one.

    As for Madge Shelton – well, this is the first book that made me go to Wikipedia and look up her up, to find out what happened to her in real life. (Wiki was not helpful, unfortunately). On the one hand she’s saying “My cousin, the Queen” every other sentence until you want to either laugh, or slap her. On the other hand she’s a pawn too, and I can understand wanting to kick against the role she’s obliged to play, and any “My God, What Have I Done?” moment must have been excruciating for her.

    Oh, yes – “The Chin.” That amused me far more than it should have, as did Mistress Pudding’s inordinate vanity about the curl of her hair.

  2. sonetka permalink

    It’s not actually classified as YA, the story setup just reminded me of one of the common patterns of historical YA (specially gifted girl about the intended reader’s age becomes involved with/an unlikely confidante to the mighty). Though YA gets a bad rap sometimes, there are lots of truly excellent YA books — for well-grounded creepy/historical stories, Laura Amy Schlitz is a good place to start, for example.

    The Shelton offspring — along with lots of other offspring of notable but not royal families — are infuriatingly hard to keep track of, especially since there were so many people with similar names and sometimes over-enthusiastic interpretations by genealogists who wanted to find ancestors who may not actually have been there. She’s not alone in this — Margaret Wyatt has also been assigned at least one husband she almost certainly didn’t have (but which another Margaret Wyatt may have) and of course Catherine Parr’s daughter Mary Seymour has been optimistically given a husband and children by later “tradition” — I don’t know if those children were ever born, but if they were, Mary Seymour was almost certainly not their mother since she’s unlikely to have lived past toddlerhood. Madge Shelton definitely did NOT marry Henry Norris, though — unfortunately for both of them, that’s an established fact.

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