Book Review: At the Mercy of the Queen
by Anne Clinard Barnhill
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2012
Lady Margaret (“Madge”) Shelton, the heroine of Anne Clinard Barnhill’s sumptuous and passionate debut novel At the Mercy of the Queen, was yet another Boleyn girl. Her father, Sir John, was married to Anne Boleyn, the aunt of the famous Anne Boleyn – so the Shelton girls were first cousins to Henry VIII’s second queen and thus quite naturally became fixtures at Court, like so many other well-born girls. They waited on Anne Boleyn, and they flirted with the pack of courtiers who roistered at Henry’s bidding, and – with any luck – they made the social connections that would allow them to marry well and retire to the country. It was the ultimate finishing school, and it could turn young girls like Madge Shelton into powerful, capable noblewomen. Given the caprice of the Tudor court, it could also ruin them.
History glances at Madge Shelton once or twice. For instance, her nickname “Pretty Madge” likely reflected her beauty, and the fact that Anne Boleyn once upbraided her for jotting love-poems into a prayer book likely reflected the fact that she was both literate and not very bright. The most intriguing rumor is that she was, in 1535, briefly the mistress of the king while his ardor for Anne Boleyn waned – and that perhaps she was given the job of mistress by Anne herself, as a way of keeping the king safely in (as it were) Boleyn hands.
In other words, she’s ripe for a modern novel of her own, and that’s exactly what Barnhill gives her, although ‘modern’ might be stretching things a bit. At the Mercy of the Queen is a curiously rococo affair, full of ‘mayhap’s and ‘methink’s and bound so closely to its young protagonist’s passions that they often seem like the author’s own:
Madge had seen the look on Jane Seymour’s face when the queen dismissed her, a puffed-up gloating look. Oh, of all the women in the queen’s service, the Seymour wench raised Madge’s hackles. Lady Jane thought so well of herself an her family – and imagined herself, Plain Jane, replacing the queen in the king’s affections. Fool!
All the more ironic, then, that the young lady who briefly replaces the queen in the king’s affections is Madge herself, although she does it reluctantly (in the hilarious seduction scene, she keeps sticking up for her cousin all through what an earlier generation once referred to as “first base” and “second base,” stopping only when the King essentially says “Enough about Queen Anne already! I’m kind of busy here!”). Since Henry is promising money, manors, servants, and a quasi-prince for a son – and promising it all to a Boleyn, never the most sentimental folk – Madge’s reluctance doesn’t read plausibly, and on that score it’s got company in this book: Anne Boleyn herself is hardly more than a virtuous, dedicated wifey, far more given to praying then preying.
The presence of all this Boleyn innocence is the novel’s biggest weakness – mayflowers like these wouldn’t have survived a minute at a cut-throat court patrolled by Howards and Seymours (as Barnhill herself points out, even mild-seeming Jane Seymour has a sting) – but oddly, the portrayal of that innocence is Barnhill’s greatest gift as an author. When she has Madge reflect on the simple pleasures of life on the family’s country manor, we can practically smell the fresh-cut grass:
“Oh, we do not lack for entertainments, sir. We chase the lambs in the spring and in the summer, we pile hay in great stacks, then jump onto the stacks from atop the barn. We run our dogs through the fields and follow them, exploring all the wonders of nature as we go. And we dance to the fiddle music of our yeomen, dances as old as the hills themselves,” said Madge, happy with remembering.
Barnhill is consistently good at finding these little moments of grace amidst the ruthless hustling of Court, as when Anne Boleyn, exhausted by a miscarriage, sings a plaintive song of lost love to the King late at night in room flickering with candle-shadows. Henry – in many ways Barnhill’s most successful dramatic realization – quietly changes the mood, with only ‘mousy Madge’ as witness:
“Madame, you have not lost your charms – I could listen to you sing all this night,” he said. He rose and indicated the queen was to rise also. Then, he took her in his arms and began to dance with her, gently, around the room. He sang himself, his strong tenor voice lilting this way and that, singing a love song.
“Lilting this way and that” is lovely, and there are many equally pretty bits scattered throughout these pages. Intentionally or not, this book serves as a protracted counter-argument to the sharp, businesslike Tudor Court negotiations readers will find in most other novels on this period (including that wonder of the season, Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies): here families like the Boleyns and the Sheltons are capable of raising innocents and happily send them to Hampton Court to be devoured. Here we have a wide-eyed Madge Shelton who can be saved from rape in the woods by none other than the King himself and worship him all the more for it. We have skipped back a full century, to the Tudor confections of W. Harrison Ainsworth, and although there are lush and colorful pleasures to be had in such confections (a hard heart indeed that can’t enjoy Ainsworth – or Jean Plaidy, for that matter,both of whom wrote about Madge), they feel out of sync with our mercenary times.
Maybe that’s Barnhill’s whole point; if she’s setting out to give us some pure Tudor escapism, she’s succeeded admirably, and more power to her. Readers who want their young female characters to be hard, conniving you-know-whats must look elsewhere.