The huge success of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl has set countless authors on a manhunt through history. Or rather, specifically a woman-hunt, searching for prominent or forgotten female historical characters who can be given the Mary Boleyn treatment, polished into sympathy, double-talked into innocence, and propped up into quiet heroism. Certainly history obliges: the old truism that behind every great man there are several great women is also an old truth, and in most eras we at least have names and fleeting descriptions to entice our imaginations. In this particular game, relative obscurity can actually appeal to an author; there are ten times as many mistake-spotting experts on the subject of Anne Boleyn as there are on her luckless older sister (well, there were, anyway – Gregory’s bestseller has no doubt spawned a great many new experts), after all, and that holds true for every historical era. Did Cleopatra have a sister, or a half-sister? Did the Duke of Wellington (perhaps with a soft spot for sailing men)? Did Queen Victoria? The possibilities are endless.
And the prospective novelist is aided by one other thing: ‘relative obscurity’ has, shall we say, never been more relative than it is right now. Among young readers, it’s not at all unusual to have 900 friends on Facebook, but to put it mildly, the Muse of History won’t be one of them; Clio has been unfriended. One unintended consequence is that historical figures grandparents would have considered well-known are today not even names in textbooks – they’re certainly obscure enough to attract the Mary Boleyn treatment, whether they deserve it or not.
That ‘deserve’ bit isn’t as extraneous as it seems. Heroism, self-sacrifice, purity of thought or motive, even cleanliness of person … these aren’t universal traits among the human race, and they never have been. All well and good to find a Mary Boleyn and invest her with a backstairs martyrdom to contrast the brazen self-interest of her famously beheaded sister, but such an approach can’t consider the very real possibility that Mary was a moron or a meany, somebody who didn’t deserve her own book, except maybe to be its villain.
And if that doesn’t bring us to Alice Perrers, I don’t know what will. Not only is she a prime example of a historical figure our grandparents wouldn’t have considered obscure but she’s also a figure they would have considered utterly beyond the reach of a sympathetic treatment. In Emma Campion’s new book The King’s Mistress, she not only gets rescued from her 21st century obscurity, she gets the hero treatment right down to the soles of her sensible shoes. A thousand years of historians might be spitting out their tea and sputtering, “But … but she was a monster!” and that will be just fine by Campion – she’s got books to sell. Froissart’s mortgage is probably already paid up.
Still, the historians certainly have a consensus going. The real-life Alice Perrers first steps onto the stage of history after the death in 1369 of Philippa, the wife and queen of King Edward III, who had been his lover, confidante, and co-regent for forty years. Edward in his youth had been a sight to see, a tall, handsome warrior-king who combined the muscular vitality of his grandfather Edward I and the long-haired sensuousness of his father Edward II. And since he’d managed to avoid the former’s crazed self-righteousness and the latter’s frequent lapses in judgment, he was a great king almost before he was a grown man, and his renown just continued to increase, stoked by uplifting military victories in France and fortitude at home in an England ravaged by the Black Death.
He lived before medicine, of course, and by 1369 he was declining in body and mind. Some historians have speculated that he had a stroke or a series of strokes that hastened him into senility (Campion indulges in the novelist’s prerogative and decides on a massive stroke but no dementia), and virtually every historian agrees on how unfortunate his choice of companion was in those final years. Eric Delderfield is firm but comparatively gentle:
After Queen Philippa’s death in 1369, Edward retreated to Windsor where he became increasingly senile. Public finances were in a parlous state, Edward’s rapacious mistress Alice Perrers helped to erode the residual goodwill of the people and the sadness caused by the death of the Black Prince clouded his last years. He relinquished government to his fourth son, John of Gaunt, and reputedly died alone.
Carrolly Erickson is as blunt as a boot in the face:
Edward had the misfortune to outlive his glory. In his last years, weak and feeble-minded, he fell under the control of his chamberlain and steward, who enriched themselves at his expense and tarnished the high repute of the court. By the king’s side was his grasping mistress, Alice Perrers, by whom he had three children; she took advantage of him. In 1376 the Black Prince died.
King Edward is said to have died virtually alone, with only a single priest to give him the last rites. The greedy Alice Perrers was there to steal the rings from the old king’s stiff fingers.
Edward III’s best biographer, Michael Packe, is more circumspect – he doesn’t want to extrapolate without evidence, but you can just feel him straining to dislike our heroine:
Alleged to be ugly and greedy for money, she was also evidently litigious, though in this respect she did not differ greatly from many propertied persons in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Inevitably she was described as having come from nothing, the child of a domestic servant who later became a tailor. It appears more likely that she was the child of a prominent Hertfordshire landowner, Sir Richard Perrers, parentage that would make her coming to court in no way a breach of protocol. … She seems to have been an intelligent woman, though the chronicler chose rather to say that she influenced the king by her ‘clever tongue.’
Packe doesn’t mention anybody dying alone or that horrid business with the rings, but Campion must have read Delderfield and Erickson and countless variations of them (she’s generous in her thanks to experts who helped her research the book, but it’s clear on virtually every page that she succeeded in making herself an expert as well), and she can hardly let it go unanswered, now can she? Her Dame Alice is defiant in her account of the final days:
I squeezed Edward’s hand, the large, once beautiful, once warm and enticing hand, remembering how his mere touch could melt me. I felt the signet and, remembering Edward’s request [that she have it], forced myself to ease my hand out of his death grip and work the ring off his finger. I did it clumsily, chafing the finger, and wept as I hid the ring in my bodice.
Numbly I went about the palace for several days, managing the servants, advising on the locations of Edward’s belongings. I could not leave him. Could not part from my life with him. I completed tasks I had promised to do for Edward, disposing of all signs of his illness, giving presents to his physicians.
Later I heard rumors that I had taken all his rings and hurried out of the palace with them. No one came forward to declare that I had lingered at Sheen for days. No one.
That’s neat, although weak – even in Campion’s tilted fictional version of Alice’s life and times, she has friends at court in those days of the king’s last illness, including his daughter Joan and none other than Geoffrey Chaucer, who gets drafted throughout the length of The King’s Mistress to be the king’s mistress’s best friend. There’s no historical evidence that they even knew each other, and Campion admits this readily enough – but it’s an enormous temptation just the same; I’m not sure I could have resisted (it’s the same reason so many Shakespeare novels have him cozying up with Queen Elizabeth), and I’m glad Campion didn’t. Her Chaucer is just how we English majors picture the poet: gentle, well-spoken, non-threatening, and a great listener, as Alice herself points out:
“Your gift to me [she tells him] is your willingness to listen to me. I am grateful to have a friend in whom I can confide without fear of lectures or censure.” Each night after my daughters and Robert went to bed, Geoffrey and I would sit and talk – or rather I would talk. I revealed my heart to my old friend, my loves and hates, my dreams for my marriages and my children, my regrets.
Chaucer claims that she inspires him; he makes her the model for his Criseyde, caught in a pure and hopeless love.
Still, this being an age of excess, she doesn’t overdo the ‘pure’ part. The King’s Mistress is not your grandmother’s historical novel; despite the fact that Alice is never characterized as particularly wanton (Campion of course realizes that this would, fairly or not, torpedo her attempts to generate any sympathy for her main character, she gets more action than some of the “Sex and the City” gals – Georgette Heyer would have fainted dead away.
Her first lover is her first husband, Janyn Perrers, a much older man to whom she’s given in a marriage arranged by her father. Along the way there’s also William Wyndsor, who gets a fond recall:
… I also dreamed of William Wyndsor, of lying with him, exploring his naked body. The memory of the dream excited and confused me – confused me because I could imagine lying with him and delighted in that imagining, but in the light of day could not see him as [her daughter] Bella’s foster father. Something about him did not feel trustworthy enough to share him with my precious daughter. Or perhaps I was still too bedazzled by the king’s kindness.
It’s the king who commands her deepest erotic yearnings, and not just with his bedazzling kindnesses, either. With a wink at the current pop culture craze sweeping the known world, Campion not only repeatedly refers to Edward’s beauty as “inhuman” but also, as we’ve seen, has Dame Alice refer to their first child together by the nickname Bella. But don’t expect any Twilight-style self-restraint on the part of this Edward. He’s got things in mind that don’t include holding hands at picnics:
But a few sips [of brandywine] helped calm my trembling – until he took me in his arms and kissed me with a rough passion that left me weak with fear and desire, in such a powerful and confusing mix that I pushed out of his embrace and turned away from him.
What am I doing? I asked myself in something like panic. The enormity of what this meant, to lie with my mistress’s husband, my queen’s husband, stopped me.
“I am frightened, Edward.”
He put his hands on my shoulders and gave me a gentle shake. “Look into my eyes and say that you do not want me to make love to you.”
Just what a girl wants – it’s the gentle shaking that seals the deal!
Any hint that her heroine might echo the real-life Alice Perrers in being rapacious or ugly or such Campion dismisses early and often: her Alice is not only uninterested in money (although our author doesn’t mind retaining that bit about her being litigious – in the course of the novel, she takes almost as many men to court as she takes to bed), she’s quite alluringly beautiful. I don’t see why so many writers feel this is a necessity – I think it does a disservice both to non-beautiful women who are interesting and men who are attracted to interesting women regardless of their beauty – but it’s a staple of romance literature and here it’s on everybody’s lips how lovely Mrs. Perrers is. Her foremost admirer is Robert Broun, a good man and the novel’s most fascinating character. He’s the only man with whom she allows a friendship to develop over time (well, except Geoffrey, but poets don’t count); he’s there in the background, quietly supportive during most of the crises that rock Alice’s life. And when husbands, kings, and counts are gone, he’s there for her at last – and with the appropriate things to say about her beauty:
Our lovemaking was tentative at first. I could not believe my flesh was once more pressed against the warm, muscled flesh of a man I desired, and who desired me. Perhaps he, too, could not quite believe this blessing. As we explored each other’s body, our kisses and our touches grew more urgent, until the boundaries between us blurred.
I woke in the night to find the lamp still burning.
“You are so beautiful,” he whispered.
It’s Edward, though, who’s “my home, my anchor” – his size, strength, and certainty sweep all comparisons aside as long as he’s hale and vital. Campion does an assured job of portraying an independent, intelligent young woman who’s nevertheless star-struck. For Alice, as for most of the inhabitants of medieval England, the king is the center of the universe; even the sobering advice Alice receives from Princess Joan isn’t enough to break the spell. The king’s daughter warns the king’s mistress:
He is a wonderful man, beloved of his people – including most of the court. So is the queen. If aught goes wrong, you are one of the people who will be blamed. Because you have no connections. Because he loves you. And the king is impetuous. I do not say you are the only one they will blame. They will call down one of his sons as well – not my Edward, for he is a hero and the future king.”
“Then what must I do?”
“Revel in your love, but keep your eyes open. At all times remember who you are, who he is. Find and nurture a few trustworthy friends. But do not blindly trust them. Nor should you blindly trust the king. He is a man, as William Wyndsor is a man. Your William is angry, I noticed that. He may yet be your salvation if aught goes wrong, but if you wed him, try to keep some of your property secret. Just in case.”
Things between Alice and her royal lover begin to change after the queen’s death, in ways not at all to Alice’s liking in Campion’s telling:
Until I returned to Edward after Joan’s birth, we had been lovers and companions in activities we both enjoyed – riding, hawking, hunting, lovemaking, dancing, music, chess. Our time together had been a refuge for both of us. Now Edward clung to me in the role of gatekeeper. Before events Edward would instruct me to keep this bishop or that lady from him.
“But how, my love?”
“Catch my elbow just so and pull me away, or whisper in my ear.”
“But they are my betters, Edward. I cannot do so on my honor!”
“I ask you to do nothing that Philippa would not do.”
“But she was the queen, Edward. I am not.”
“You will do this, Alice.”
He would accept nothing but my cooperation.
Here we can see some of Campion’s more persistent faults as a writer, conveniently gathered together. Most superficial is that parting tendency to explain what’s just happened in any scene. “He would accept nothing but my cooperation” is very, very clearly stated in “you will do this, Alice,” but there’s the explication anyway, and it happens often in the book. Alice will break up a fight and then we’ll immediately be told, “I hoped to avoid a confrontation” between X and Y. It gets annoying. I was often annoyed by it.
Less noticeable but perhaps more damaging to the book’s central plot is what we see of Edward here: nothing at all attractive. In a novel about royal sexual fascination, we expect to feel fascinated, but instead we’re only told that we should be. At virtually every turn, Edward comes across just as he does in that excerpt: manipulative, peremptory, and not at all alluring – the type of man women usually only sleep with for personal gain. And Alice does gain – she gets jewels, fine clothing, money, and manor houses – but Campion wants us to believe all that is secondary to love. Knowing that other Dame Alice is out there, the one who’s grasping and greedy for money, Campion insists, rather unconvincingly, on better motives.
That certainly sounds better than prying rings off fingers, but it’s possible that a better, braver book never got written in order that this one might get sold. What if, instead of this pure and perfect Alice Perrers, Campion had given us rapacity in all its seedy glory? What if, instead of merely contradicting all those accusations of greedy opportunism, she’d embraced them for all they were worth? I kept thinking how unusual it would be, and how satisfying it might be, if the ‘historical’ Alice Perrers, small, common, money-grubbing, had gone into her affair with the king wanting only money, lands, and the rings off his fingers. What if Campion had given us 250 pages of that woman, daring us on every page to put the book down and search for more pleasant company? What if she’d shown us King Edward transfixed by that woman, in spite of (or perhaps because of) her flaws?
At the close of her rememberings, Dame Alice looks back on her life:
Sometimes I fall to brooding over the past. Should I have been more selfish, more stubborn, more rebellious? Have I been too compliant, too quick to give the men in my life what they thought they wanted? Am I a fallen woman, or am I an obedient handmaiden? And ever I return to the puzzle: When had I had a choice to be other than I was?
She might not have had a choice, but Emma Campion did. I hope she chooses differently, next time.
Finch Bronstein-Rasmussen lives in Manhattan and attends college in New England.