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Queenbreaker: Perseverance by Catherine McCarran (2016)

February 7, 2019

The first of a planned trilogy, this incredibly dense, weird, dark, and enjoyable book covers a startlingly short period of time — the six months between Anne Boleyn’s first being officially recognized as Queen, and the birth of Elizabeth. If this doesn’t sound like the amount of time that could produce almost four hundred pages’ worth of incident, lay your fears to rest; our protagonist, Mary Shelton, and the enormous assembled cast (the author provides a short guide to all the names at the beginning which I appreciated) manage to get both themselves and other people tangled up in so many intrigues and dangling on the edges of so many precipices that by the end the story felt downright rushed. They manage to accomplish all of this by being stone-cold sociopaths who will happily destroy a fellow maid of honor’s life if that means they’ll be able to walk one place further ahead in a processional line. And Mary Shelton, newly arrived from rural Norfolk, finds this state of affairs disconcerting — not so much because she disapproves of the cutthroat tactics of the others, but because she isn’t even close to their skill level. At least, not yet.

If you’re wondering who Mary Shelton is, she’s the same person who appears in many other books as Madge Shelton; there have been many arguments over the years about whether a surviving portrait of “Marg. Shelton” should properly read “Mary Shelton,” whether there may have been sisters named Madge and Mary who were confused, whether the Mary Shelton who lived a generation later might have been the source of the confusion, and so forth. Noble genealogies are like that — the further away you get from royalty, the less certain everything becomes. (To add to the confusion, there is a character named Madge Shelton in this story — except she’s Margaret Parker Shelton, wife of Mary’s brother Jack Shelton and sister to Jane Boleyn.) Regardless, this Mary is the fourth of five surviving children (two boys and three girls), and when the story opens in early spring of 1533, she’s fourteen years old and desperate to be the one chosen to be an attendant on their newly-ascendant cousin Anne Boleyn, who has just been officially prayed for as Queen for the first time.

It isn’t just that she wants to lord it over her equally ambitious sisters — though she certainly wants that — but she was recently abandoned by a young man named Tom Clere after he went to court, and has also heard rumors that her parents are going to betrothe her to a middle-aged local landowner. Getting out of rural Norfolk and learning to emulate her cousin who made good is, in Mary’s mind, an absolute imperative. This is how she ends up crashing her parents’ private confab, in which they’re discussing the shortcomings of each daughter and which one will embarrass them the least, and demanding outright to be chosen. To her own shock, and her sisters’ extreme displeasure, it works. As her mother tells her, “To achieve what Anne has requires three things: ambition, the right connections, and luck. Some might say luck is the most necessary ingredient of the three, but they are wrong. It is ambition. I saw the first hint of it in you last night, Mary.”

As Mary prepares to leave for court, while dodging increasingly nasty pranks from her sisters, her mother, Polonius-like, gives her advice that will become increasingly relevant as the story goes on; mind your manners, be lively and pleasant, and above all, be cautious about playing Pass-the-Time, flirting with young men. “Pass-the-Time is not proper courting.” But, still importantly:

”No task [Anne] requires is beneath your honor, because you serve the Queen. And because she is Queen, she will demand nothing that compromises your honor.”

“I understand, madam.”

Mother shifted to her side. I inhaled cloves from the hippocras she’d finished the evening with. “But if she ever should try to compromise you, you will tell me at once.”

My toes bunched. “I will, madam. But why would she?”

Mother’s long sigh stirred my hair. “Because she is Anne.”

Mary would like nothing more than to be like Anne, unquestioned star of all her family. “All of my advantages, my music, poetry, dancing and needlework were yoked to the cart of my one and only living purpose: a good marriage …. cousin Anne had turned the standard on its head. Could I marry a king? Not our Henry, of course, but why not the King of Scots? … A crown. I wanted one too. Is it a sickness of the Boleyn female, I wondered? What if I hated Scotland? Could I remain at the English court as Queen of Scotland? I would hold the same status as cousin Anne. Would she hate me for it? I might.”

When Anne keeps her kneeling painfully on the floor during their first meeting, “my skin tingled. This was power. I wished I could do the same to my sisters.”

However, as the newest and least experienced attendant, Mary will start out on the receiving end of such treatment far more than otherwise. The other attendants outrank her either by age or birth or both, and they’re not going to give her an inch if they can help it. Mary is shoved out of lines, struggles with others for the privilege of walking Anne’s dog, is goaded to kiss the “servant” Mark Smeaton after winning a contest in which a “kiss from a gentleman” was the prize, and generally shown her place in the pecking order (Mary’s threat to excuse her own lateness by blaming Lady Worcester for it is met with a resounding smack on the face and “You’ll keep quiet, Mary Shelton. The Queen does not need you running to her telling tales of nothing.”) The two leaders among the attendants are Margaret Douglas (called Margot) and Mary Howard (called Mariah) both highborn, both vain as peacocks, and both determined to keep the other — and everyone else — in their places. Mary Howard is engaged to the thickheaded Duke of Richmond but not too enthused about it, Margaret Douglas, not yet engaged, is happy to “tarry” and engage in a little Pass-the-Time with various engaging gentlemen.

Mary Shelton is not entirely averse to Pass-the-Time herself, whatever her mother might say, and as determined as she is to ignore Tom Clere, whom she sees occasionally and rebuffs completely. Before long, she’s made the acquaintance of John de Vere, heir to the Earl of Oxford, who woos her in oddly familiar poems (she is “like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear”, for example). The heir to an earldom is too much for her to hope for — but didn’t Anne have hopes of Henry Percy once, and ultimately do better even than that?

Of course, it’s never that simple. Mary’s ultimate goal at court might be to marry well, but that doesn’t mean Anne won’t have work for her to do along the way. After she’s assigned to attend on Mary Howard, the latter puts it bluntly. “Anne intends to have an informant in our little circle.”

I gaped. “Not me. On my honor, I am no spy.”

“But you are a social climber.”

“Well, who is not?” I asked, baffled. “Why else does one come to court?”

“I am not,” Mariah declared. “None in our circle are. That is the point. And how we mean to keep it …. The quickest way to favor is through betrayal. Information is the currency of the court. Secrets are gold. Ferret them out and sell them to the highest bidder.”

“That is beneath me!” I looked her in the eye, all meekness burned away by the accusation. “I seek advancement, true. Friends in high places, true. But I will not win them through deceit. Not like some.”

Scornful, Mariah shook her head. “Proud words. I’ve heard them before.”

Unsympathetic as Mary Howard may be, she’s been at court too long to be wrong. Not five pages later Anne is sending a message via Mary’s sister-in-law Madge that Mary Shelton is to be on the lookout for a certain shared manuscript of poems which may contain hints as to the identity of Mary Howard’s secret lover — and she’s positive that there is one. Mary fails spectacularly at obtaining the manuscript, and from then on begins to drown in an increasingly rapid whirlpool of plotting — deeds done to appease Anne (who’s as cold as ice even when pleased, when angry she’s an avenging fury), deeds done to appease Mary Howard (who correctly suspects Mary Shelton of spying on her, and who is clearly deep in some sort of illicit affair which Mary Shelton can’t quite decipher), and deeds done to appease Thomas Cromwell, who’s quite kindly and avuncular as long as Mary promises to come up to scratch with the information he needs, and who seems to know an awful lot of things that she’d rather he didn’t (a constant thread of fear runs through the story as other characters somehow manage to discover secrets that Mary thought she had hidden very well — she discovers the solution far too late). Rendering things even more complicated is Lord John de Vere, who tells his father that Mary Shelton is merely for Pass-the-Time but who tells Mary that that was just a feint to put off his father who, like Henry Percy’s father before him, thought his son could do better.

The Earl of Oxford isn’t the only one who disapproves of the match — Anne, sufficiently pleased with Mary’s attempts at showing her loyalty, decides that she’ll both reward her and position her advantageously by marrying her off to the newly-widowed Duke of Suffolk. Mary, crushed, asks about John de Vere, and Anne gets a chance to show herself at her finest.

”John de Vere never courted you, did he?” Anne went on. “There were no promises made, no talk of anything to do with marriage. Comprenez-vous?”

Anne’s mild tone wanted only one answer, but the pit opening under my heart forced me to make another.

“But what if … what if I love him?”

Silence shattered the chamber’s buoyant mood. Anne’s black eyes widened at the corners.

“Love does not raise you above your mother and sisters. Love does not secure your future. Love does not conmingle your blood with royalty. I do …. You are our kin. You do not marry for love, but where and when we tell you … Mrs. Shelton, Mrs. Carey, I charge you both to be watchful for our dear little cousin. Let nothing draw her away from her duty. No melancholy idling, no pouts. The Duke has his informants. They must only report Mary’s beauty and happy countenance.”

Along with planning Mary Shelton’s wedding, Anne is also planning to have Mary Howard finally married to the Duke of Richmond, in order to either smoke out Mary Howard’s secret lover or at the very least to separate them permanently. It’s when Mary Shelton is wailing to Mary Boleyn that the penny finally drops that breaking up love affairs is not an unfortunate side effect of these planned marriages, rather, it’s the main purpose. Anne, as it turns out, had once attempted to elope with Henry Percy and make a love match of it, but she was betrayed and the plan was spoiled. “Her reputation would have been ended then and there. No, she was caught afore she ever left Greenwich … I told our father,” says Mary Boleyn. “I concocted the scheme. But I never thought she would go through with it …. I wanted her ruin. Yes, Mary, the hatred goes both ways with us. So you no longer need pity me. I told you before. Sisters are born rivals. Why should she claim herself an earl when I had been settled with plain Master William Carey? Is it right the elder should bow to the younger?”

Much like Mary Shelton and her own sisters, Anne and Mary hated each other even more than they loved advancing their family, and the resulting spiritual ruin is horrifying. Mary Shelton’s reaction is to attempt a last-ditch escape by doing what the younger Anne tried to do — an elopement and secret marriage with John de Vere, and she succeeds, at first. It doesn’t take long for her to realize that de Vere is prepared to deny it for reasons Queen Anne knows and approves of, and that in doing this she has handed an invaluable weapon to any of her enemies whom he or Anne might happen to tell. Her frenzied attempts to curry enough favor to keep her secret from being spilled involve a truly insane finale in which she attempts and fails to help Mary Howard elope with her secret lover, has her engagement to Suffolk broken, and is on the verge of being sent to Syon convent by her family as punishment for her now-revealed “wantonness,” and is rescued at the last minute by someone who has decided that Mary Shelton, who now hates Anne more even than she hates Mary Howard, would make an excellent weapon to take down Queen Anne. The book is engrossing enough to keep the finale and its revelations something the reader should discover for herself, so if you want to avoid spoilers, don’t read the breakdown below. I’ll say only that the person who rescues and intends to use her is not Thomas Cromwell.

SEX OR POLITICS? Both, very much intermingled — very little on the page but so much beneath the surface. Most of the maids of honors’ waking occupations consist of getting all the dirt they can on their rivals — which is to say, everyone who isn’t either themselves or a very, very trusted family member, and that dirt usually has something to do with either heresy or sex. The latter is much more in evidence, as Mary is despatched to discover who Mary Howard’s secret lover may be, as Mary attempts to hide her own love affair with John de Vere, as the other maids try to bully her into kissing Mark Smeaton (who is not a gentleman) so as to humiliate her, and as various men (Francis Weston prominently among them) take full advantage of Pass-the-Time whenever their hands get the chance. It hardly needs saying that while the story has a strong undercurrent of sex, sexy is the last word I would use to describe it.

Religion is more of an undercurrent (Mary trying to write letters during Mass and later being sworn in as Anne’s maid on an English Bible, courtiers flirting during sermons) but occasionally rises to the surface, as when George Boleyn declares that Anne’s baby must be a boy since God had put her in the position she was in — presumably to spread the Gospel. As strangely compelling as this vicious Anne is, it’s hard to really see her as sincerely loving the new religion for its own sake; one gets the impression that she advocates for it because she enjoys dividing and controlling people, as well as making them beholden to her (the story of her protecting her maid who had been caught with heretical literature is much less pleasant once it becomes clear how much leverage she now has against the woman as a result).

WHEN BORN? Mary is fourteen years old very early in 1533, so presumably she was born either in 1518 or January of 1519. Gabrielle is sixteen, so circa 1516 for her, and Emma is twelve, so about 1521. Her brothers Ralph and John are both older — Ralph is seventeen, John’s age is vague but he’s old enough to be married to Margaret Parker and have several children. Mary says that Anne is “twelve years my senior. She had been sent to live in the Low Countries at seven.” This would mean a birthdate of 1506/7, but there is a twist. Before going to court, Mary thinks that Anne is the youngest of the three Boleyn siblings, but later it’s revealed that she and George are twins (a fact hidden from superstitious country people, though why I’m not sure since early medieval canards about twins were not generally treated very seriously). Anne was born first, and George followed a moment later, “He could not bear her absence longer.” Whether Anne is actually a few years older than her purported age or George is a few years younger is never stated.

THE EARLY LOVE Mary has fallen in love with — and lost — Tom Clere before the story opens, and spends much of the book attempting to convince both him and herself that she hates him and will never forgive him for abandoning her. Once at court, she falls quickly for John de Vere, heir the Earl of Oxford, who woos her with some suspiciously familiar-sounding poetry (though he doesn’t want to write in the Devonshire MS — too politically risky), and with whom she finally exchanges vows and consummates them. As it turns out, both the love and belief in the contract is entirely on her side, and de Vere turns out to be as much of a shit as his future son would become many decades later. Anne had ordered him to court Mary Shelton and compromise her, and de Vere, whose secrets Anne also knows, coldbloodedly uses and discards Mary just as he was ordered.

For Anne, her early love was of course Henry Percy — Mary is shocked early on to learn that the glassy, chilly queen she meets actually planned to elope with him but was thwarted when betrayed by her sister, who had no interest in seeing her younger sister bag the heir to an earldom when she herself was stuck with a much less exalted husband. As a result, Anne has become an example par excellence of the Anne type who turns her back on love with a vengeance and cares only for ambition. Not only does she reject it for herself, but actively works to break up love affairs among her attendants, because if she can’t have one, nobody can. Percy’s reaction appears to have been not viciousness but withdrawal. At one point, he helps Mary out of an awkward situation in which she was almost caught with John de Vere in the woods, and escorts her back to Anne. After Mary thanks him, he tells her

”Go home to Norfolk, mistress. You may find some happiness there that no one can take from you.”

“I was not happy in Norfolk, my lord,” I murmured. “And could never be.”

The animation bled away and his face resumed its cold, wary stamp. “Then God pity you. For you will be nowhere happy but the grave,” he said, and went down the stairs.

THE QUEEN’S BEES Lots of lots of them, many with defined personalities, and almost all of them complete sociopaths. Mary’s first roommates (bedmates, in fact) are Bess Holland and Joan Percy (the latter the niece of Henry Percy himself) — they’re among the more sympathetic characters, but Joan survives at court largely by staying in the background being a Percy, and Bess Holland is, of course, dear to the Duke of Norfolk and nobody would dream of replacing her. The chief hellcats are Mary Howard (here called Mariah, to make the Marys easier to distinguish) and Margaret Douglas (called Margot) — both born to the court and making it very clear how little time they have for anyone who wasn’t. Mary Howard’s wealth and status are apparent the moment Mary Shelton first sees her in a daring new fashion.

Earrings! On the Lady Mary Howard! They were a male Italian fashion. Mother called them vulgar. I’d never seen a man wearing them, let alone a woman. Let alone the daughter of the Duke of Norfolk. I scrutinized the dainty teardrop pearls, swaying as she walked. They looked very fine to me.

Jane Seymour appears as a very plain girl (“Butter-teeth” Mary silently nicknames her after getting her first glimpse of them) who has overcome that natural disadvantage to become a skilled sycophant and sticker-in of rhetorical knives. Lady Worcester and Lady Rochford are engaged in a perpetual power struggle over who is closest to the Queen, Margaret Parker Shelton is married to Mary’s oldest brother John, a family connection which carries precisely no weight with her considering that her sister is Jane Boleyn and much more influential. Mary Wyatt, sister to the poet, is nicknamed “the last duenna” and causes great annoyance by her insisting on proper behavior when the other ladies are anxious to start sharpening their knives again. Margery Horsman even makes an appearance, although given the size of the cast her role isn’t as great but she comes across as a mildly humorous sort who’s one of the less psychopathic members of the crowd. Honor Lisle is, like many others, superficially friendly to Mary but hates her because Honor wanted Mary’s place at court for her own daughter. Mary learns very quickly that the women of court are all living in a snake pit — but it takes her a bit longer to learn that the same is true of the men, and she sees much less of them and barely sees the king at all.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR Mary has a maid named Janet de Walle, from the Low Countries, and when she was younger was tutored and cared for by Semmonet, who was once Anne’s governess but whom the Shelton girls inherited after Anne left for the continent. Semmonet is responsible for Mary’s skill at speaking French (not to mention how similar she sounds to Queen Anne) but the connection proves to be a double-edged sword, as of course Semmonet knows everything that goes on in the Shelton household — and Anne knows Semmonet. The mystery of how so many of Mary Shelton’s childhood secrets were known to other attendants (not to mention her early love of Tom Clere) traces straight back to Anne’s exchanges of letters with Semmonet.

In a slightly different vein, Mark Smeaton turns out to be very much the faithful servant of Mary Howard, but proves alert enough to escape being caught red-handed with her even with about a dozen different people trying to track them down. Unless the author is planning some really major changes to the real world events, he’s not going to keep this gift of evasiveness forever.

THE PROPHECY While Anne is pregnant, the possibility that the child may not be a boy is never spoken of; the baby’s male sex is a given, and any bets made on the subject are about when “he” will be born. Nobody makes any predictions that the child will be a girl, although quite a few (notably Mary Howard) are secretly hoping this will be the case.

IT’S A GIRL! “My God, he will hate me for this,” are Anne’s first words on learning she’s had a daughter — but her mother is right there to set her straight. “Remember how it came into being. He will forgive this disappointment if you keep your wits.” A few moments later Anne, having been prettied up and forced to sit up with the baby in her arms, is giving Henry a loving, peaceful smile and showing off the baby with pride. Henry isn’t sure what to think at first but is carried along on the tide of Anne’s supposed joy and announces that they’ll name the baby Elizabeth after both of their mothers. “And the next will be a son,” says Anne, closing out the scene nicely. Of course, the celebrations are still somewhat muted.

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Not mentioned — the only feature that merits comment are her black, slightly protruding Boleyn eyes, which Mary is very pleased to have inherited as well. She is less pleased with her small birthmark, which she’s convinced will drive suitors away.

FAMILY AFFAIRS George Boleyn is described as pleasant and beloved of everyone except his wife, who once struck him in front of the entire court (a risky move considering the penalty that could carry). He also manages to undercut Mary right at the beginning by flirting with her in front of his wife, who is very influential in where Anne’s attendants are placed and has absolutely no use for any girl whom George makes up to. The reason for their hostility isn’t clear, nor is it clear that she’s being set up for an old-fashioned Lady Rochford portrayal since all the rest of the women at court are every bit as unpleasant as she is — or if not quite, at least not too far away, like Mary Boleyn, who is pleasant, friendly, and helpful to Mary Shelton — and who also calmly confesses to having thwarted Anne’s planned elopement in order to keep her younger sister from rising too far above her.

Anne’s parents are the usual cold articles of legend, but here they don’t look so much like two-dimensional portrayals as people who fit right in with the rest of the cutthroat politicians all around them. Anne’s great accomplishment is also their family’s accomplishment, and when Mary Shelton’s physical resemblance to Anne is noted by Lady Shelton, Elizabeth Boleyn is quick to put her in her place. “There is no one like Anne,” she says, and both Sheltons are forced to agree — indeed, it’s clear that they obviously believe it. Anne herself is as cold as ice; after her elopement with Percy was thwarted, she didn’t so much fall back on ambition (like so many classic twentieth century Annes) but gloried in it to the extent of actively throwing wrenches in any love affair in which she had any kind of influence over one of the participants. One has an odd sense, on reading this, that Anne was not so much damaged by her failure with Percy as unleashed by it.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? The book hasn’t reached the key period yet, but so far, no. Anne is nothing if not calculating, and while there’s plenty of verbal sparring and flirtation with gentlemen, she never takes it further.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE The writing can be dense, but as the thought process of a fourteen year old girl who’s also an aspiring cutthroat politician, the dense, frantic, tumbling thoughts worked perfectly. And some of the passages were arrows to the heart — and not just because I once had the displeasure of knowing someone who rather resembled this book’s Anne in sheer unscrupulousness. After learning the full extent of Anne’s betrayal of her, she reflects bitterly,

Tomorrow when I entered Syon they would strip me of my gown, my hood, my jewelry, my hair.

Tomorrow Anne would dance and sing and gossip as she did every day. Her chaplains would call blessings on her head. The gentlemen would praise her remarkable qualities, flirt, and challenge each other for her smile. Lady Rochford and the Countess would continue their war for her favor. The King would continue showering her with land, money, jewels, power. And her malice would remain hidden, unpunished forever. The wicked, as ever, would continue to prosper.

ERRATA The author has an extensive source list and an Afterword detailing her research, which on the whole is excellent even if some of the beliefs of Anne’s and Mary’s time are somewhat highly colored, so to speak — while twins being evidence of infidelity was certainly a theme of song and story, many of those tended to be about overly suspicious neighbors or husbands traducing a faithful wife, not literal evidence that a woman had slept with two men. The fact that Anne and George were twins would probably not have had to be hidden — but at the same time, the author’s choice to make this the case also helps to heighten the paranoid atmosphere of the book in which even the smallest, most innocuous oddity or unconventionality can be used to ruin a woman. It may not be factual, but artistically, it blends in. Similarly, the author chooses to make Henry VIII the author of “Greensleeves” but acknowledges that this is more tradition than fact.

The really glaring irregularity lies in the character of John de Vere. The author mentions the Oxfordian “theory depicted in the movie Anonymous” — and while correctly describing it as largely dismissed by academics, she nonetheless takes it several steps further and makes John de Vere the author of at least quite a few lines from Romeo and Juliet. While de Vere’s use of those lines hints to the reader (though not Mary) that their romance is doomed, it was really hard not to be knocked straight out of the book upon seeing those passages turning up, along with the implication that de Vere was secretly writing plays of the type that wouldn’t actually be seen for another half century, during a period of rapid literary change. (For a modern comparison, imagine a story in which it turns out that Hamilton was actually written circa 1965. It simply does not work in the time period.) The best I can say for it is that it doesn’t absolutely ruin the book and in fact helps contribute to the jarring sense of unreality as Mary gets deeper and deeper into intrigue she barely understands herself.

WORTH A READ? I enjoyed this book immensely, as a much darker turn on the theme that’s been used by The Other Boleyn Girl and many of its kind. Unlike the standard heroine, though, Mary Shelton does not want to escape vicious court life for a happier rural existence — rural life for her means “rotting away” in Norfolk, married to a local landowner and grinding away at a miserable existence, far away from the people who really matter. She wants to be like Anne Boleyn, and even after she discovers the depths of Anne’s sociopathy, she doesn’t want to re-evaluate her own life so much as vent her fury at not having been unscrupulous enough to outwit her. Most doe-eyed heroines faced with an evil Anne choose to retreat and wring their hands while Anne destroys herself, but Mary shows every hope of actively working to get Anne brought down or even killed. The irony is that she’s unable to see how she’s actively recreating the life of the woman she once idolized and now hates so much — like Anne, she’s ambitious, like Anne, her early love affairs were foiled by outside forces, and like Anne, she’s now transforming into someone whose sole intent is to get ahead and she’ll use, and be used by, whoever she can in order to do so. I can’t wait for the sequels to come out, so I can see how she pulls it off.

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