Book Review: My Lady Viper
Keeping Up with the Tudors
By E. Knight
Knight Media, 2014
Anne Stanhope, who became Anne Seymour when she married Edward Seymour, brother to King Henry VIII’s third wife (and the mother of his only living male heir) Jane Seymour, comes down to us in Tudor history through only the scantiest of factual skeleton bones. She gave birth to a tiltyard full of children, most of whom lived to adulthood, and through royal favor she rose with her husband eventually to the rank of Duchess of Somerset, such things we know. We know also that she was disliked, considered mean and ambitious. It was rumored that Henry’s sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr, referred to Anne Seymour simply as “Hell,” and E. Knight, in her vivaciously readable new novel My Lady Viper, isn’t straying far from the accepted historical tradition when she has Edward’s brother Thomas Seymour tell her why:
“Because there is a special place in Hell waiting for you. A special place where only women of your vicious caliber reside. You hide in shadows, my lady, spewing your venomous control and willpower into the wind and those lesser beings, those unable to get away from the spray, do your bidding. Those willing to die for you so you might get ahead. How many of your friends have died? How many of your enemies?”
After Henry’s death, she sought to take precedence at Court even over the dowager queen (to say nothing of the princesses royal, or poor Anne of Cleves, Henry’s rusticated “sister”), fought to wear the royal jewels on state occasions, and clearly thought herself a queen in all but name. She was, in short, a villainess.
Those who might reflexively think this unpromising material for a crafter of Tudor historical fiction simply haven’t been paying attention. In the last twenty years, the two best-selling Tudor novels in a crowded field both sought similar renovation projects, Philippa Gregory in The Other Boleyn Girl of that inbred simpleton, Mary Boleyn, and Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall of that scheming liar, Thomas Cromwell. Hell, even that most contemptible of all Tudor figures, Jane Rochfort, has had her own starring turn in at least one novel. And now, thanks to Knight, it’s Anne Seymour’s turn.
The portrait that Knight paints is an accumulatively complex one but never simply a stained-glass picture of innocence lost. Her Anne is warped and corrupted by the petty iniquities of Henry’s Court in its exceedingly venal final years, yes, but she’s never exactly pure to start with. In Knight’s hands, she’s capable of a wide range of seemingly contradictory responses, as when she realizes something about Jane Seymour’s pregnancy in 1537:
The midwife had warned me, yet I told no one … The babe’s head pressed against Jane’s spine – breech. With the birth only a fortnight or less away, the child should have turned head down. Yet, this one was stubborn. I would pray extra tonight and offer another pound gold to the church if only God would see fit to make the baby turn.
This Anne – who can pray for the baby to turn but who tells nobody that it needs to – is somehow the same Anne, contrasts and all, who becomes nearly catatonic when, in 1538, her own little boy, her firstborn “Eddie,” lies dying:
The priest came in and began to pray and read psalms from his Bible. The servants filed in and prayed. I stayed there on my knees for I did not know how long. The sun was there, then it was gone, and then it was there again.
As Knight’s short, fast-paced chapters fly by (in addition to being a handsomely-produced volume – not by any means a given in self-published fiction – this is also a very well-orchestrated story), we watch Anne shrink in upon herself, and we’re never quite sure whether we should cheer her debasement or lament the better choices she doesn’t take. By the time Jane Rochfort thoughtlessly reveals the spotty sexual history of Henry’s young queen Catherine Howard, Anne has become something of a B-reel movie bad guy, complete with talk of “my plan”:
My plan was falling perfectly into place. Now I just needed to bide my time. The lusty Kitty Howard for certes would want to fill her bed with a lithe young man as she had for years. A fat, stinking old man – as King Henry had become – was not the type to soothe the appetites of such a girl. I was nearly certain, she would attempt something, and soon.
My Lady Viper can sometimes yield to such narrative laziness (and it has far too many “tis” and “twas” for its own good), but its willingness to present us with a main focal point character who grows less sympathetic with each passing chapter is, in the end, an audacity that deserves a little round of applause. By the time we finish the book, we’re in whole-hearted agreement with Queen Catherine’s verdict of “Hell” – but we’re glad of the sojourn just the same.