Keeping Up with the Tudors: The Boleyn Wife!

Our book today is The Boleyn Wife by Brandy Purdy, published earlier this year by Kensington. It’s a novel about Jane Boleyn (nee Parker), the “shy, plain” young woman who’s contracted into marriage with handsome young courtier George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, nephew of the grand Duke of Norfolk and brother to Mary and Anne, both of whom have attracted the amorous attention of King Henry VIII. The novel is told in the first person, and you’d think that would defeat the usual modern novel’s purpose right there. In most historical fiction these days, we’re supposed to trust the narrator completely and also like them, and by rights it should be impossible either to trust Jane Boleyn or to like her. Lady Rochford, as her marriage to George Boleyn made her, is one of the least savory or trustworthy figures in all the court histories of England; at every juncture where she makes an appearance, she makes things worse for everybody around her, including herself, through her lying, her opportunism, her treachery, her wilful credulity, and her stupidity. She was one of those bitter, brittle, strident seeming-ignorant people who scurry about the edges of actual lived life, constantly counting up ills, constantly contradicting patent facts, friendless of course, despised by everyone even in good times. I’ve known many Lady Rochfords; I know one now I wouldn’t trust with the life of a goldfish. If it’s three o’clock, she’ll say “that clock says 3:15″ just for the petty thrill of getting you to contradict her. Such creatures learned very early in their lives that being objectionable was a sure-fire way to be noticed, and they’ve long since made the decision that it’s easier to be noticed – even by irritating people – than it is to be liked. They make the lazy decision, which always serves to make humans repulsive.

But surely few such humans were as repulsive as Jane Boleyn! She spread rumors about her husband even before Anne Boleyn came to the king’s notice, and once that affair had begun in earnest, she worked overtime spreading rumors about all concerned. She naturally came to the attention of the Czar of Rumors, Thomas Cromwell, and in Purdy’s fantastically lively no-holds-barred novel, she also comes to his bed. And when Anne’s haughty failure to produce a male heir begins to create a groundswell against her, those rumors become deadly effective. Henry is portrayed the usual way in this book, as a headstrong, yelling monster (the highly intellectual image-repair job Wolf Hall does for Cromwell is something Henry could use himself … somebody write that book, hmm?), and when his eye begins to wander and he starts to yearn for freedom from the marriage with Anne that he wrecked Western Christendom to achieve, Cromwell is there well-armed with rumors … and Jane Boleyn was his armorer-in-chief.

Fans of Tudor history (or readers of my previous consideration of Lady Rochford here) will recall that she intersects with that history at two crucial points: it was largely on her tittle-tattling that her husband George Boleyn was arraigned and executed along with other slandered men and Anne, and she was the chaperon who “fell asleep” and allowed Catherine Howard to conduct her illicit affairs while she was King Henry’s wife. In my opinion the historical record easily gives grounds enough to suspect this particular Boleyn wife of much, much more iniquity than just these two examples – but these two examples are mighty bad even so.

This seems unpromising raw material for a novel, but Purdy is undeterred (and she seems to have an interest in history’s unsavory troublemakers), and the most pleasing fact about The Boleyn Wife is that its portrayal of Jane Boleyn isn’t pleasing at all. She’s not portrayed as some kind of misunderstood saint – she’s a petty, mean-spirited shrew from the earliest parts of the book, as in the passage clearly aimed at another Boleyn-titled novel, where Jane thinks of Mary Boleyn:

Like many, I stood in awe of her dazzling beauty – she had been plucked so many times it was hard to believe her bloom had not just wilted or faded – and her equally astounding stupidity. Mary must have been unique among courtesans; she had been mistress to not one but two kings and had failed to profit from either.

And it’s not just that Jane is inwardly vindictive and crass – everybody else sees her that way. They may have problems of their own, but they can always spare a moment to be ashamed of her, as in the scene where Jane and George and Anne are all watching a clearly besotted King Henry out riding with Jane Seymour. Anne comments that Jane Seymour looks good on a horse and says, “What a pity for her that there are no horses in the King’s bedchamber.”

“Perhaps she will ride the King as well as she does a horse,” I suggested.

“Shut up, Jane!” George and Anne snapped as one, swatting at me with their riding crops.

By sure-handed and deceptively easy steps, The Boleyn Wife draws us deeper and deeper inside the mind of a woman who’s so unsympathetic as to be depraved. We see her love for George Boleyn twist and intensify into hateful obsession (spurred in part by his “occasional forays into sodomy” – in this telling of the familiar tale, one of the young Boleyns did indeed sleep with musician Mark Smeaton, but it wasn’t Anne), and when she discovers that she’s pregnant with Cromwell’s bastard, we’re given a chillingly dispassionate narrative of all the various ways she tries to miscarry. We’re never tempted to feel sorry for this monster, although she very often feels sorry for herself:

Once again, I felt like had made a mockery of me. Perhaps God, I thought, had a sense of humor and I am one of His favorite jokes. When I die and step through the pearly gates of Heaven, I fully expect to see Him doubled over and howling with glee, laughing at me.

The novel’s most grotesque scene takes place at its climax, when the King has a riding accident and is feared dead on the ground. Anne is heavily pregnant at the time – and out of favor with Henry, so the outcome of the pregnancy is crucial – and seeing him unconscious and unresponsive, all Anne’s enemies make a mad dash for her lying-in room to shock her with the news and perhaps cause her to miscarry. Jane runs faster than anybody, and the news does indeed cause Anne’s pregnancy to fail. Purdy spares us no detail:

It had two faces but one huge head, carpeted with wispy tufts of carroty hair, so large it had savagely ripped Anne’s flesh during its egress. The little shoulders slanted sharply so that the right was higher than the left, and the spine was as crooked as the letter S, while all four limbs, though perfectly formed … were devoid of bones and as limp and dangly as jellyfish. But between its tiny, flaccid thighs a perfectly formed male organ was plainly visible. This was Henry’s much-longed-for prince.

History tells us that Jane Boleyn went mad during her arrest in connection with the treachery of Catherine Howard, and thankfully, that madness isn’t mollified by metaphor here. It’s immensely to Purdy’s credit that she tells her unpleasant story without softening it or trying to drum up affection for someone who was clearly among the least attractive human beings in Tudor history.

Attractive, that is, in the inner, personal sense. A student of the period can’t help but wonder, after finishing this raw and satisfying novel, how events would have changed if the real Jane Parker had resembled the stunning woman modeling vaguely Tudor-era dress on the book’s cover. For all his bluster, Henry was in some ways a very timid, pious man: when he was searching for a mistress, not just anybody would do. The women could vary widely – from impetuous and challenging to bookish and comforting – but the men involved needed a certain uniform quality: they had to be pliant. Henry would never have confronted Anne’s beloved Harry Percy and said, “Look here, I fancy your woman – give her to me” – he was smart enough to stay one degree removed and have functionaries do that. If Jane Parker had looked like the woman on the cover of this novel about her, Henry would certainly have desired her – but if he’d pursued her after she was George Boleyn’s wife, George Boleyn would have killed him, or tried to.

But if he’d pursued her before they were married, the Parkers would have been involved in dynastic turmoils, and only distantly the Boleyns, and hardly at all the Howards. Interesting to think how that might have changed things, if at all.

And in the meantime, The Boleyn Wife is, I hope, as close as we’ll come to Jane Boleyn, heroine.

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