Posts from January 2015
January 30th, 2015
Our book today is a squat, brick-red little triple-decker, the three-volume life of Henry VIII that Everyman editor W. Llweleyn Williams carved out of 12-volume history of England written from 1856 to 1870 by the great J. A. Froude. Williams knew what he was about; Froude’s book – the unabridged edition of which is out of print, will always be out of print, and was fairly panting to be out of print even when it was in print – is from front to back a staggering literary performance, but John Q. Reading Public no more wanted to be staggered a century ago than he does in our post-literate age, whereas no publisher ever balked at the idea of lobbing another biography of “England’s Bluebeard” onto the pile.
The allure is so ready-made, in fact, that in his Introduction to this three-volume set (bought at dear, departed, and much-missed W. B. Clarke & Co. on Tremont Street in Boston, a long, long time ago), Williams feels confident enough to indulge in a little hedge-trimming of our august author himself, done without fear of hindering sales:
Froude has been accused, and not without justice, of not feeling a proper aversion to acts of cruelty. The horrible Boiling Act of Henry VIII excites neither disgust nor hatred in him; and he makes smooth excuses for the illegal tortures of the rack and the screw which were inflicted on prisoners by Elizabeth and her ministers. He had himself been reared in a hardy school; he had been trained to be indifferent to pain. It may well be that his callousness in speaking of Tudor cruelties is to be traced to the influences that surrounded his loveless childhood and youth.
And it goes on! After enumerating some of Froude’s more famous factual slip-ups, Williams gives some of the man’s firmest critics the floor, as in this example:
But Froude was sometimes guilty of something worse than these trivial “howlers.” Lecky exposed, with calm ruthlessness, some of Froude’s exaggerations – to call them by no worse name – in his Story of the English in Ireland. When his Erasmus was translated into Dutch, the countrymen of Erasmus accused him of constant, if not deliberate, inaccuracy.
Lord Carnarvon once sent Froude to South Africa as an informal special commissioner. When he returned to this country he wrote an article on the South African problem in the Quarterly Review. Sir Bartle Frere, who knew South Africa as few men did, said of it that it was an “essay in which for whole pages a truth expressed in brilliant epigrams alternates with mistakes or misstatements which would scarcely be pardoned in a special war correspondent hurriedly writing against time.” So dangerous is the quality of imagination in a writer!
Strangely enough, none of this does anything to shake the strong impression that Williams venerates Froude, and the proof, as they say in Yorkshire, is in the pudding: the man’s rolling, luminously mandarin prose will almost unfailingly generate that veneration in any reader – then or now – who allows himself to sink slowly into its Victorian velvet cushions. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Froude never condescends to his readers (one of the fringe benefits of his striving always to be a popular rather than an academic historian, and also perhaps a byproduct of having tried his hand at writing fiction); the relationship is rather like that of a knowing, slightly world-weary cicerone with his gaggle of eager but uninformed sightseers. He himself knows all, but he won’t pretend to approve all:
Leaving for the present these disorders to mature themselves, I must now return to the weary chapter of European diplomacy, to trace the torturous course of popes and princes, duping one another with false hopes; saying what they did not mean, and meaning what they did not say. It is a very Slough of Despond, through which we must plunge desperately as we may; and we can cheer ourselves in this dismal region only by the knowledge that, although we are now approaching the spot where the mire is deepest, the hard ground is immediately beyond.
He enters with unabashed relish into the centuries-old controversies of his subject, hating, for instance, Anne Boleyn with a calculated fervor born – we won’t say of loveless childhood – of a strident reading of the sources. Not for him the later fad of considering her just another victim:
Thus she too died without denying the crime for which she suffered. Smeton confessed from the first. Brereton, Weston, Rochfort, virtually confessed on the scaffold. Norris said nothing. Of all the sufferers not one ventured to declare that he or she was innocent – and that six human beings should leave the world with the undeserved stain of so odious a charge on them, without attempting to clear themselves, is credible only to those who form opinions by their wills, and believe or disbelieve as they choose.
And oh, can he perorate! When the mood is on him, his expostulations exceed in both their force and their beauty the best parallel passages of all his contemporaries, as when he swerves from a discussion of Reformation religious upheavals to praise the Christian humanists under Henry:
Hunted like wild beasts from hiding-place to hiding-place, decimated by the stake, with the certainty that however many years they might be reprieved, their own lives would close at last in the same fiery trial; beset by informers, imprisoned, racked, and scourged; worst of all, haunted by their own infirmities, the flesh shrinking before the dread of a death of agony – thus it was that they struggled on; earning for themselves martyrdom – and for us, the free England in which we live and breathe.
And what of Henry himself, the object of this utterly fantastic treasure of a three-volume set? Froude’s conclusion isn’t anything original but instead a relativism that tries to walk a path between the growling contempt of a biographer like Francis Hackett and the nearly-unconcealed locker room admiration of later writers:
Henry had many faults. They have been exhibited in the progress of the narrative: I need not return to them. But his position was one of unexampled difficulty; and by the work which he accomplished, and the conditions , internal and external, under which his task was allotted to him, he, like every other man, ought to be judged. He was inconsistent; he can bear the reproach of it.
Froude can be inconsistent too, of course – those ‘howlers’ are very real things, after all, and they exist in their fair number in these three volumes – but it’s not given to many biographies to be so moving and readable after so long a time and so much intervening research on such a well-known subject. Other chunks were carved out of that 12-volume quarry, I know, and re-reading these volumes made me want to hunt down all the others.
June 9th, 2014
Our book today is The Queen’s Head, a 1988 murder mystery set in the England of Elizabeth I, written by a first-class hack under the pen-name of “Edward Marston” (there’s an in-joke there, but you’d have to be mighty well-read to spot it, and there’s no class of scribblers better-read, of course, than hacks). The Queen’s Head centers on a London acting troupe, Lord Westfield’s Men, although the main star of the book, Nicholas Bracewell, is occupied backstage as the company’s general factotum and manager – and, naturally, as an amateur sleuth.
It’s a taut, economical whodunit, one that opens with a quick, effective description of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1587 and then whisks us straight into the hurly-burly Elizabethan theatrical world. Marston has researched that world with the verve and thoroughness of a working professional who’d hate getting called out on some piggling detail by a dry-as-dust academic, and he brings it alive with well-chosen details on every page.
His most clever move is the conception of Bracewell himself: he’s a friendly, supportive everyman rather than a Sherlock-Holmes-style martinet, and that allows him to be a perfect sounding board for the outsized personalities all around him. And as the action of The Queen’s Head commences, the biggest of those personalities belongs to flashy star-actor Will Fowler, the current toast of the London stage. In scene after scene, Marston wonderfully captures the peculiar allure of that stage-play world (an allure that hasn’t changed from that day to this, one suspects) – as in the early scene where Bracewell and Will Fowler try to convince broken-down old actor Samuel Ruff not to retire to his family farm in godforsaken Norwich. They come right out and ask him, “How can anyone exist without the theatre?”
“Cows have their consolation,” suggested Ruff.
“Leave off this arrant nonsense about a farm!” order his friend with a peremptory wave of his arm. “You’ll not desert us. D’you know what Nick and I talked about as we walked here tonight? We spoke about the acting profession. All its pain and setback and stabbing horror. Why do we put up with it?”
“Why, indeed?” said Ruff gloomily.
“Nick had the answer. On compulsion. It answers a need in us, Sam, and I’ve just realized what that need is.”
“You’ve felt it every bit as much as I have, Sam,” said Fowler with his eye aglow. “The danger of testing yourself in front of a live audience, of risking their displeasure, of taking chances, of being out there with nothing but a gaudy costume and a few lines of verse to hold them. That’s why I do it, Sam, to have that feeling of dread coursing through my veins, to know that excitement, to face that danger! It makes it all worthwhile.”
“Only if you are employed, Will,” observed Ruff.
“Where will you get your danger, Sam?”
“A cow can give a man a nasty kick at times.”
“I’ll give you a nasty kick if you persist like this!”
Only a little while later, Will Fowler is killed in what looks like an ordinary bad tavern brawl, and his dying words embroil Bracewell in the cleverly-constructed mystery at the heart of The Queen’s Head. Marston is an unabashed fan of what used to be the genre’s staple elements – plot-twists, whole shoals of red herrings, and the Clever Reveal – and the whole thing moves along like precision clockwork to an ending that will leave any mystery fan craving more.
Fortunately, there’s more – lots more. I lost count of how many Nicholas Bracewell mysteries Marston ended up writing, but it had to be well over a dozen. And this wasn’t his only ongoing series, not even close: he did one featuring two ship’s detectives during the heyday of the luxury-liner era at the beginning of the 20th century, and he also did many books in a quite good series featuring two men – a soldier and his whip-smart assistant – investigating location-oriented mysteries brought to light by the compiling of William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book. Probably there were lots of other series as well (pen-names being like tattoos – once you’ve broken down and tried it once, you tend to try it many times), but these two stand out in my mind as being especially enjoyable.
But I think the Nicholas Bracewell mysteries ring the truest to both our author’s personal interests and his natural wit. If you’re a fan of Tudor fiction, you should dig up this great old series and treat yourself.
August 8th, 2013
Our book today is Anne Boleyn by Norah Lofts, written in 1974 when our author was the ripe old age of 75. But before all you Norah Lofts fans go shuffling to the bookshelf, rest assured that I’m not mixing up the title of Lofts’ great 1963 Anne Boleyn novel The Concubine; I’m referring instead to the honest-to-gosh biography she wrote about Henry VIII’s divisive second wife. Lofts, who won the National Book Award, wrote a handful of nonfiction works in the spare minutes left over from writing her dozens and dozens of novels – which might not sound like much in an age where Philippa Gregory, Alison Weir, and Carolly Erickson, to name just three best-sellers, often switch from one genre to another, but Lofts was something a trailblazer in the cross-market move. Like her later literary heirs, she often found herself in a position where the extensive research she’d done for her historical novels was just sitting there, ready to be otherwise employed.
In this case, she returns to the raw material from which she fashioned The Concubine, and she brings to that material exactly the same novelist’s sensibilities that made virtually all of her books so popular. The resulting biography is far more impressionistic than is currently in vogue – it would be a very sloppy researcher indeed who would ever use Lofts’ Anne Boleyn as any kind of reference material, despite all the fact-checking work that went into it. But right alongside that impressionistic novelist’s flair, informing it, is the distillation of a lifetime’s deep reading, often revealed in offhand comments that never fail to provoke a smile – as when she tells us, “‘The Devil can quote Scripture for his purpose,’ as Shakespeare, who knew everything, said.”
She takes us through all the familiar stages of the King’s Great Matter, always with an eye for the well-set scene, and always trying to inject some common sense analysis into her retellings:
Henry cited Leviticus and his troubled conscience in a secret little court, called together, by his own request, to accuse him of making an incestuous marriage. Wolsey was there, anxious only to please his King and visualizing another, more fruitful marriage for him with a young French Princess, Renee. And the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Warham, was there – he had long ago expressed doubts about the validity of the marriage. There were lawyers there, too, some to accuse, some to defend the King of this concocted charge, for after all if he had been living in sin with Katharine, he had done so openly for eighteen years. And although to a King a marriage without a son might be tantamount to being childless, Mary’s existence, the short life of the little boy, dead before his navel healed, even the miscarriages, seemed to prove that the Levitical curse of childlessness did not apply here.
But the best aspect of this Anne Boleyn book is also its most frequent-occurring aspect: Lofts loves to tell a story, and she knows that the first step in doing that well is to establish vivid characters (you can see it even in that heartbreaking little line “dead before his navel healed”). She retails the familiar story of how Thomas Cranmer, Henry’s Archbishop of Canterbury, is “remembered as a turncoat, the man who recanted, and then, recanting upon his recantation, was condemned to be burnt as a heretic” – and how he thrust his right hand into the flames first because it had signed his recantation. She knows that Cranmer will have a sorry reputation among her readers, but she wants to assure than that in reality “he was a man, capable, like most men, not of steadfast courage, but flashes of bravery every now and then.” She points out one such flash of courage, when Cranmer wrote to Henry the day after Anne Boleyn was confined to the Tower on suspicion of capital crimes. Cranmer owed his heady elevation entirely to Henry, but he was an old friend of the Boleyn family, and the crisis had thrown him into turmoil. And being incurably bookish, this turmoil prompted a letter, which Lofts uses all her novelist’s license to bring to life:
‘I am in such perplexity that my mind is clean amazed; for I never had better opinion in women than I had in her,’ he wrote, ‘which maketh me think she should not be culpable.’One imagines the pen halting there and the perplexed mind asking itself: Too strongly worded? Likely to offend? He wrote on, hastily, ‘And again, I think that Your Highness would not have gone so far, except that she had surely been culpable.’ The well-meant, slightly schizophrenic letter went on to say that Cranmer hoped Anne would be able to prove her innocence, or that if she could not, the King would be merciful.
The King’s mercy is a subject that exercises her quite a bit in her book’s necessarily dark final chapters. Like everybody else who writes about Anne Boleyn, Lofts can’t help but begin litigating the famous case, sifting for indications of guilt or innocence on the part of all involved:
The four men who had denied the sin of adultery did not confess on the scaffold. That was significant for the Tudor Age was a time of belief. Men might differ about ritual, about who as Head of the Church, but there were few agnostics or atheists. George Boleyn, Francis Weston, Henry Norris and William Brereton all believed that when their heads were struck off, their souls would face God and His Judgment. To die with a lie upon your lips, or a sin unconfessed was to invite a punishment far more severe than any man could inflict; yet not one of them cleared his conscience by making a last-minute confession. This – strong evidence in Anne’s favour – meant far more in the sixteenth century context than it does today…
She has the wit to quote from William Davenant and the discretion to leave it at that:
But ask not bodies doom’d to die
To what abode they go:
Since knowledge is but sorrow’s spy
It is not safe to know.
Anne Boleyn caught some flak when it first appeared because Lofts talks a bit about the role witchcraft might have played in Anne’s seduction of Henry, but there’s a case to be made that her treatment of the subject is decidedly tongue-in-cheek. And whatever her intentions might have been, the passages themselves (especially the final one, in which Anne of course returns to haunt the night-darkened halls where once she ruled) make for some corking good reading. Which was, one suspects, the whole point.
April 12th, 2013
Our book today is the tense and yet lush Tudor novel My Enemy the Queen, which that champion quiller of historical romances, Victoria Holt, wrote in a free afternoon one day in 1978. ‘Victoria Holt’ was a pseudonym for an Englishwoman named Eleanor Hibbert, who was born in 1906, endured a brief, tedious interval learning how to walk, talk, and feed herself, and then spent the next 70 years (she died in 1993) writing novels in the way that other people exfoliate dead skin cells. We may never know how many books she wrote, nor how many pseudonyms she used to write them – “Victoria Holt” was one of her most famous, but then, so was “Jean Plaidy” and “Philippa Carr,” and there were at least half a dozen others, many of them containing little private jokes, each of them writing in a slightly but noticeably different register (as often happens with prolific writers who work under different names). She wrote in her lifetime more books than most people read in a lifetime, and that would ordinarily be astonishing achievement enough, but she went it one better: all her books are soundly good, and a dozen or so of them are considerably better than good.
My Enemy, The Queen is one of her best books. It’s the story of Lettice Knollys, who was the childhood friend of Princess Elizabeth and later became a lady-in-waiting when Elizabeth became queen. For decades she thus occupied that unenviable (and extremely rare) position, an old friend to a Tudor. She was tall and shapely and witty, and she enjoyed for a time great influence in Elizabeth’s court. She married Walter Devereux, the Earl of Essex, and commanded money and property of her own when he died.
Then she made the colossal blunder of falling in love with another old friend (and long-time quasi-paramour) of Elizabeth’s, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. The two courted in secret, consummated in secret, and married in secret, and when Elizabeth inevitably found out, she was furious. She poured imprecations of violence on the couple’s heads and banished Lettice permanently from court.
Our author’s tireless historical research revealed to her that Lettice Knollys lived into her 90s, a ripe old age indeed in a time before medicine, and the winning idea of crafting a book as the reflections of Lettice looking back on her long life sprang naturally to mind. At one point an older and wiser Lettice warns her son “One does not consider personal affronts when dealing with monarchs,” but she’s not a good follower of her own rule and spends most of her book brooding on just such personal affronts – and not only those she received from Elizabeth. One of the book’s subdued triumphs is its chilling success in conveying how secondary Lettice’s marriage to Leicester would have been to him once he was intent on regaining and retaining the favor of the Queen. He had to be almost constantly in attendance on Elizabeth – and so, absent from Lettice herself. When he talks to her about Elizabeth’s reluctance to execute Mary Queen of Scots, he does so as one court ally to another, never dreaming his wife might resent him:
Leicester was impatient with her [the Queen], and I reminded him that not so long ago he had thought of making terms with the Queen of Scots when he thought there was a possibility of Elizabeth’s dying and her coming to the throne.
He looked at me in amazement. He could not understand my lack of understanding of political expediency. Previously I should have been with him in what he suggested. Oh yes, indeed I was out of love.
“If she does not take care,” he cried vehemently, “there will be an attempt to rescue Mary and it may succeed.”
“You would not then be in an enviable position, my lord,” I commented wryly. “I believe Her Majesty of Scotland is very fond of lapdogs, but she likes to choose her own, and I am sure have no house room for those who once pleased the Queen of England.”
“What has happened to you, Lettice?” he asked, bewildered.
I retorted: “I have become a neglected wife.”
There are similarly good turns of scene all throughout the novel, and a great deal of the historical research is remarkably sound (our author provides her sources). It’s true that the narrative never soars, never really makes Lettice into a person, much less an old, bitter person, but re-reading it and being swept up again in the old familiar story, you can’t help but wonder if today’s new crop of Tudor novelists were swept up in these same pages, when they were young girls as thirsty and impressionable as sponges. That’s a debt-worthy service, if so – and that’s on top of the fact that the originator still makes fine afternoon’s reading.
November 24th, 2012
Some Penguin Classics front such a great story that you feel irresistibly compelled to open with it: a rector of stern and upright countenance mounts the lectern of the old church of Diss in Norfolk, his broad, rough face blackened with barely suppressed rage. He has lately come from a dressing-down given to him by his old friend the Bishop of Norwich on a very particular subject, and he strongly suspects he knows where the bishop got his information – from the rector’s own tattle-tale parishioners. He grips the lectern and glowers at those parishioners now and gets right down to business:
You have complained of me to the bishop, that I do keep a fair wench in my house. I do tell you, if you had any fair wives, it were somewhat to help me at need. I am a man, as you be. You have foul wives, and I have a fair wench – of the which I have begotten a fair boy, as I do think, and as you all shall see.
Then he raises his voice and calls out: “Thou wife, that hast my child – be not afraid! Bring me hither my child to me!” Whereupon the lady in question brings the awestruck naked infant to his father, who proceeds to wave the child at his appalled congregants, still ranting:
How say you, neighbours all? Is not this child as fair as is the best of yours? It is not like a pig, or a calf, nor like a foul nor no monstrous beast. If I had brought forth this child without arms or legs, or that it were deformed, I wouldn’t have blamed you for complaining of me to the bishop. But to complain without cause! I say as I’ve said before, Vos estis: you be, and have been, and will and shall be knaves, to complain of me without a reasonable cause!
The vigor, the inappropriateness, the weird cluelessness, the hilarity – these things belong so thoroughly to the early Tudor poet John Skelton that even if the anecdote isn’t true (it’s posthumous, alas), it couldn’t speak more accurately of the man. Skelton was born around 1460, educated at Oxford and Cambridge, created a poet laureate at Oxford, Louvain, and Cambridge, and around 1498 became a distant advisor to Henry VII and tutor to his son (and the future king) Prince Henry. He got his rectorship at Diss in 1502 as an almost explicitly worldly preferment, for although he took Holy Orders he was very much a creature of the Court, a public intellectual, friend and rival to other literary-political figures like Thomas More (and friend also, in a contentious and not unwary way, with the greatest humanist of the age, Erasmus, who blurbed him as the “incomparable light and ornament of English letters” mainly because he wanted to stay in good graces with the job-dispensing Court; he couldn’t have despised Skelton’s learning, although his coarseness would have rankled the refined Dutchman) – and at times a very public enemy to the supremely powerful Cardinal Wolsey, who’s the butt of some of Skelton’s most scathing verse satires.
Such a man – vain, active, utterly worldly – must have been bewildered indeed by his parishioners’ complaint about his keeping a “musket” in his private chambers and getting children on her. “See?” we hear him bellowing, red-faced, “It’s not deformed! What the Hell is wrong with you people?”
Those verse satires – but not, alas, the hilarious anecdote – are on full display in our present Penguin Classic, the Complete English Poems edited by Trinity’s John Scattergood in 1983. Professor Scattergood is too circumspect for dangling bastards – he largely dispenses even with the more secular dissipations of a General Introduction, preferring to present his scrupulously annotated versions of the poems as quick as possible.
Here we get all the fairly typical stuff Skelton wrote as a young man, but we also get the increasingly smart, free, and remarkable works that came bubbling out of him the more he wrote (and of course we get his famous “Skeltonics” – not, as it sounds, the name of a 1960s rock group but rather the term, coined in his lifetime, for the strange, utterly distinct verse form he used, so close to today’s rap music that it’s briefly disconcerting:
Nowe let me se about
In all this rowte
Yf I can fynde out
So semely a snowte
Among this prese-
Even a hole mese-
I rede we sease.
As Skelton grew more confident, his poems grow more delightful and scathing, finally crowned with such masterpieces as Phyllyp Sparowe, or the wonderful mock-pastoral Colin Clout, and the anti-Wolsey broadside Speke Parott, with its snide warnings against birds who preen in borrowed plumage:
For that pereles Prince that Parrot did create,
He made you of nothing by His majesty.
Point well this problem that Parrot doth prate
And remembre among, now Parrot and ye
Shall lepe from this life, as mery as we be.
Pomp, pride, honour, riches and worldly lust,
Parrot saith plainly, shall tourn all to dust.
Wolsey, contrary to popular legend, knew how to take a pasting as well the next butcher’s cur, and Skelton was very nearly impossible not to like (if he wasn’t your rector, that is); the two ended up becoming friends, and it’s doubtful if either one of them ever learned Parrot’s wise lessons about the wheel of fortune.
Fortune hasn’t been generally kind to Skelton, despite Erasmus’ encomium, despite the shouted praise of his day’s best book critics, despite the esteem of E.M. Forster (who honored Skelton in a famous lecture but considered him weird), despite even the great James Russell Lowell, who surveyed vast pastures of English poetry from Chaucer onwards and found almost nothing prior to Spenser that merited anything but contempt. Writing in the 1870s, he made one exception:
One genuine English poet illustrated the early years of the sixteenth century, – John Skelton. He had vivacity, fancy, humor, and originality. Gleams of the truest poetical sensibility alternate in him with an almost brutal coarseness. He was Rabelaisian before Rabelais. But there is a freedom and hilarity in much of his writing that gives it a singular attraction. A breath of cheerfulness runs along the slender stream of his verse, under which it seems to ripple and crinkle, catching and casting back the sunshine like a stream blown on by clear western winds.
All very true, and even so respectable a soul as Professor Scattergood must have felt the breath of that cheerfulness, to prompt this definitive Penguin edition. If readers happen upon it (perhaps at the outside carts of my beloved Brattle Bookshop), they’ll feel it too. Skelton never fails, when even his much more august literary descendants, Spenser and Sidney, sometimes do.
May 21st, 2012
Our book today is Mary Luke’s 1984 novel The Ivy Crown, which is the lightly fictionalized story of Katherine Parr, the sixth and final wife of King Henry VIII. I found a fat, heavy hardcover copy at my beloved Brattle Bookshop (I’m often there, and I’m happy to talk books at any time, should you find yourself in the vicinity) and immediately realized that I hadn’t seen a second-hand copy of it anywhere in all that time – the last time I read it, I was selling it to customers, new, at Lauriat’s, as a stone-cold super-hottie book-clerk. That kind of desuetude is odd for a big piece of Tudor fiction in this age of The Other Boleyn Girl and Wolf Hall, but then, the collective book-memory is shorter than it’s ever been. Doubtless the average book-person scanning the carts at the Brattle might not even recognize Mary Luke’s name, but once upon a time she wrote an intensely good trio of staight-up nonfiction books about the Tudors. The Ivy Crown was that great big Tudor novel that all Tudor fans have constantly incubating inside them.
It’s a heartfelt book and scrupulously conscientious. Mary Luke was what’s commonly called these days “the real deal”: tough, learned, careful, opinionated – formidable, in a way given only to a certain kind of Connecticut matron in cashmere and pearls. She turned to fiction because it gave her a little more creative latitude when sources were stingy with drama, but she was in no way interested in license. Her novel adheres as close to the known facts of Katherine Parr’s remarkable life (twice married and twice widowed before she married Henry and became has last queen, kind and tender to his children, zealous in what one scholar has referred to as her “Erasmian piety,” and – most tragically of all – quickly married in love after Henry’s death, only to die herself, in childbirth) as it’s possible to do, and re-reading it the other day, I recalled the strengths and weaknesses of the thing.
The main strength is that you can absolutely trust what you’re reading, the facts of it or the rock-solid conjecture of it. When Luke gives us a banquet-hall scene, she tries to give us every detail of the photograph in her head:
Taking her place in the circle forming for the dance, she found handsome young William Cecil, the Protector’s secretary, as her partner. Across teh room her brother, Will Parr, flirted with young Lady Fitzwilliam as her older husband tolerantly looked on. Will would never change, she thought, sighing. As Thomas danced by she caught the amused look in his eye and knew he’d seen Will bent on another feminine conquest. Near Edward’s small throne, Kate Brandon and her elder son Henry, now the Duke of Suffolk, were talking with the Greys. Frances Brandon Grey had put on weight which her heavily bejeweled gown only emphasized. Katherine wondered if she and her husband had visited their daughter, asleep now in another wing of the palace.
And her Katherine, thought sincerely devout, is no mousey scholar (this particular author always found it understandably difficult to empathize with such people). She has passionate opinions on everything, including, early in The Ivy Crown, her royal predecessor in Henry’s favor, the feckless strumpet Catherine Howard, here vilified to Katherine’s brother Will Parr:
“She isn’t what the king is looking for, unless it’s a quick tumble on the heath at Hampstead or the park at Richmond. She’s pretty, I trow, with her wide eyes and dimples and the way she laughs and glances sideways at the king. I know she’s much to his liking. But so was her cousin, Anne Boleyn. They seem to fascinate him, these Howards! Which gives old Norfolk one up on Tom Cromwell because she’ll act in religious matters as the duke says. She may sing and dance and be merry as a lark, Will Parr, but I doubt she can sign her name and I’m certain the changes in the church mean little to her! She’ll be nothing but trouble for the king and he deserves better.”
Of course Catherine didn’t work out – and KP herself was indeed what the king was looking for: a wife who could be both stimulating and soothing, an end to jealously and mistrust and fencing, a peaceful harbor at journey’s end. She was all of those things for Henry, and (minor psychopathic ripples notwithstanding) he was grateful for it, leaving Katherine as Regent when he went off to fight in France one last time – and providing amply for her after his death, when she became a still-young Queen-Dowager and her good friends Thomas and Edward Seymour became the foremost men in the country, in command of the Council that would rule until young Edward VI came of age. She loved the blustering Thomas and married him soon enough after Henry died; it was his child she died bringing into the world (a girl, named Mary, who shortly thereafter disappears from the historical record).
It’s a tremendously charged human drama, and conveying that charge is where Luke’s book fails; all that impeccable research very noticeably impedes the drama. Re-reading the final chapters of The Ivy Crown, I was irresistibly reminded of a book I’ve praised her before, Suzannah Dunn’s great 2007 novel The Sixth Wife. I’d hardly finished The Ivy Crown before I was taking The Sixth Wife down from the shelf and falling into it all over again.
Dunn’s book is narrated – in an entirely, unapologetically modern voice – by KP’s bosom friend Catherine Brandon, the Duchess of Suffolk, who stands in loving awe of this marvellous woman who has been such an integral part of her life for so long:
For all her bookishness, gangliness and pallor, there was nothing off-putting or overawing about her for the five-year-old me. She was never anything but a comforting presence. I’d say that she always made a fuss of me, except that somehow she did it with no fuss at all.
All through the fast-paced pages of this book, we get lavish, believable glimpses of the person behind the Katherine Parr’s royal facade, and there are many times when Dunn’s intentionally anachronistic approach wins through magnificently (in fact, it almost always does), as in the scene where Catherine Brandon remembers the time her brother, incensed at catching his wife in adultery, goes to Henry insisting on the technical penalty, which is death. KP naturally intervenes, and the memory of it is bittersweet:
Kate knew what to do, of course. She knew not to argue with Henry. I’d never have been able to do that, but that’s why it was she who was his wife. She could do one better, too: she could praise him and sound as if she meant it. You’re the most forward-thinking ruler that has ever been, and perhaps above all you’re a man of conscience. Oh, and there’s the small matter of you being a man who understands women – how many of them are there? – so you know how we can be, funny creatures that we are. Something like that. It would have stuck in my throat, but she was good, was Kate, she kept focused. In this case on saving a woman’s life.
Send her to me, was what she requested of Henry. For safekeeping. For now. Will’s sick, she told him, but he’ll get better … but not if he’s responsible for his wife’s death.
That’s how she turned it around.
Don’t – please – condemn him to that, she said. Send Annie to me.
Ah, yes, Kate and her strays: Henry would have liked that.
Bittersweet was the operative emotion during this entire re-read, in fact, since the cruellest, most wonderful thing The Sixth Wife does is make us love this Katherine Parr so personally, so completely, that we want history somehow to change so that she avoids the pointless, heartbreaking fate we know is charging straight for her. She doesn’t avoid that fate, of course, and the Dunn’s concluding chapters are brilliantly heart-breaking.
The natural instinct, after those chapters, is to seek out the living Katherine Parr, and unlike virtually every other woman of her time (or any other time prior to our own), that’s possible to do: KP wrote. Not just household inventories and letters but books as well – she was the first woman to publish books under her own name in English. They were liturgical works – prayers, translations, more of that “Erasmian piety” – and they sold like balloons. And thankfully, it doesn’t require a trip to the rare book crypt at Windsor Castle to sample all that writing: in 2011, Janel Mueller edited for the University of Chicago Press a glorious big volume of the complete works and correspondence of Katherine Parr. In these lovingly annotated and footnoted pages, she lives again as much as any mortal can ever hope to. Here are the books she wrote, the translations, the marginalia, and of course the letters, which breathe and chuckle with life – like the quick note she dashed off to Thomas Seymour about his priggish brother Edward, a note written in playful haste in May of 1547 with never the faintest thought that it would still be here centuries later:
This shall be to advertise you that my lord your brother hath this afternoon made me a little warm. It was fortunate we were so much distant, for I suppose else I should have bitten him. What cause have they to fear you having such a wife? It is requisite for them continually to pray for a short dispatch of that hell. Tomorrow, or else upon Saturday at afternoon about three o’clock, I will see the King: where I intend to utter all my choler to my lord your brother, if you shall not give me advice to the contrary. For I would be loath to do anything to hinder your matter.
She makes her case a bit more, then signs the thing “Katherine the Queen, KP” – and suddenly she’s there in the room with you, this pretty, forthright, bookish woman, this kind-hearted and sharp-brained Tudor original. Reading her own books is tougher than reading books about her, of course, although more rewarding – and still bittersweet after all, since the brain and heart in her words deserved to reach a comfortable old age surrounded by children of her own.
Still, she’s remembered all kinds of different ways. You can round out all of these with Linda Porter’s lively, incredibly readable biography of the Queen, if you’ve a mind to.
April 18th, 2010
Sometimes – far too infrequently for my liking – keeping up with the Tudors means keeping up with their pets, and last week’s TLS had a brief snippet on one of those times: a mention of “Hatch,” the dog-skeleton found on King Henry VIII’s fighting ship the Mary Rose when she was finally raised from the bed of the English Channel, some 250 years after she sank.
As the TLS points out, Hatch would have been a working dog, a ratter: Tudor sailors believed having a cat on board was bad luck. Since cats rat by stealth and patience and ratting dogs just bull in and kill their quarry, it stands to reason a) Hatch had the Mary Rose reasonably rat-free in very little time, probably while the vessel was still fitting out in Portsmouth harbor (no whole, drowned rat-remains were found on the ship, only tiny – knawed upon? – fragments) and b) Hatch got very little in the way of other exercise or proper diet – the flat feet of the skeleton hint at quite a bit of time either pacing the decking or else pacing a cage.
Nevertheless, Hatch was a warrior dog: he was on board the Mary Rose when she launched to counter a massive French invasion in 1545. The ship was a huge state-of-the-art seaborne blunderbuss of 700 tons, and she might have proved a terror to the French had she not been under the command of that prize-winning booby, that bumptious, officious moron, that dolt of the first rank, George Carew. Impressed as always with empty bluster, Henry VIII gave Carew command of the Portsmouth fleet entrusted with repelling the French (as symbol of his authority – and in characteristically snide Tudor reference to a proclivity of Carew’s best not mentioned in front of the children – he was given a golden whistle).
Carew took command on the Mary Rose about a day before he was supposed to fight her against seasoned French warships. By that point his vessel had already been dangerously overloaded (not least by Carew himself, who’d taken the liberty of having nine-tenths of his worldly goods loaded on board already, including extensive wardrobes, furniture, gold plate, and for all we know, the very stones and wooden beams of his home estate back in the country), and that overloading got worse, with fighting men packed on board far in excess of the number who could ever be effectively used in combat. These men were unknown to Carew – half of them were unknown to naval service – and the result may have been a merry, cheering sight in dock, but it could only spell disaster once you needed to get something done.
And so it proved. The Mary Rose launched in July of 1545 and promptly started listing. George Carew had just enough time to call out to a nearby vessel that favorite canard of bad commanders everywhere – “It’s the crew’s fault!” – before he and nearly everyone under his command went to their watery graves – including poor Hatch, who got his nickname from the modern excavators who found his remains near a carpenter’s cabin, leading some to wonder if he wasn’t shut into a cabinet when he drowned.
However it happened, Hatch’s mortal remains are now on display for the public, and while they’re gawping, they ought to remember that this little skeleton represents a gigantic chunk of the Tudor world of which we seldom see anything: the animals. Horses, sheep, pigs (including pet pigs), birds, rats, mice, and innumerable cats and dogs surrounded every single individual in Tudor times, from the lowliest commoner to the highest minister. It was a world filled with their noises, their smells, and their unfailing tendency to provide companionship and provoke affection. When we think of the era, we sometimes too easily think of the rich clothing and polished pewter of the most familiar Holbein portraits and mentally edit out that other society, off to the side, pawing the earth impatiently, or licking its paws, or simply watching with apparent indifference while traitors’ heads were chopped off.
Although you can 100 percent believe the sketch of George Carew’s officious, dimwitted mug done by Holbein – in that he was, as always, entirely accurate.
February 8th, 2010
Our book today is the one that started it all: Philippa Gregory’s totally unexpected runaway bestseller, The Other Boleyn Girl (originally titled The Other Boleyn Sister – obviously it was feared that historically illiterate American audiences would feel they were reading a sequel, as with The Madness of King George III)(although I myself actually prefer the American title here – it has a slightly more brutal, impersonal tone, one that fits the book’s mercenary tale better than the more familial ’Sister’).
Safe to say no historical novel written in the last thirty years has been as influential as this one. In only ten years, The Other Boleyn Girl has generated five spin-offs, two different movie adaptations (one for the BBC and one for the mysterious ongoing purpose of keeping Eric Bana employed), an ongoing HBO series (since The Tudors would be unthinkable without the success of the book), and a vast, untrackable ocean of like-minded books set in the Tudor era (I plumb that sea at greater depth here). And like great touchstone historical novels before it, The Other Boleyn Girl has exerted its main influence as a kind of imaginative primer. Just as Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur opened the floodgates for Roman historical fiction, just as Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber opened the floodgates for a brief resurgence of Restoration bodice-rippers, so The Other Boleyn Girl has taught a generation of readers that the Tudor era isn’t something they need a Ph.D. in history to enter and understand. Such teaching often pays long dividends, and this time is no exception: Hilary Mantel owes her recent Man Booker win as much to Philippa Gregory as to the intrinsic strength of Wolf Hall.
Gregory’s book stands like an imperturbable tower above the brick-bats that have been hurled at it by its critics (myself included, way back when and under a pen-name), who for years have assailed its historical accuracy. Those critics, being critics, would have done that anyway, although in this case they were egged on by Gregory’s own claims for the historical accuracy of her book. Historical novelists almost always make such claims, and critics are well-advised to ignore them and concentrate on the important things about fiction, foremost of which is this: does it work?
The Other Boleyn Girl incontestably works. Gregory had written extremely competent if tweedy historical novels earlier in her career (including a whole series chronicling the exploits of a family of gardeners to royalty – how’s that for an English double-whammy?), but in this book she makes some key decisions, and they all pay off.
As you all know, this is the story of Anne Boleyn’s sister Mary, who was the first of Thomas Boleyn’s daughters to catch the roving eye of King Henry VIII, who’s portrayed here as tiring of his aging Spanish queen and hungry for sexual adventures – and a male heir. Gregory decides to tell the story from Mary’s point of view, to tell it sharply with none of the fustian palaver that had usually infested Tudor novels, and to shape her characters into resolutely modern people in period costume. Scenes unfold and transform with almost time-lapse rapidity, and Gregory’s previously languid approach to character development is here whittled to a series of mostly pointed observations. In crafting such a narrative, Gregory inadvertently grants Mary far, far more intelligence than she really possessed, but it’s a minor infraction, especially considering the sheer amounts of fun that result. The Other Boleyn Girl is above all a quite fantastic read. It’s comforting to think that alone might account for a great deal of its success.
Despite the cavils of historical critics, there’s a good deal of accurate research at the back of this book. But its main delight comes in it quick exchanges of dialogue, as in the tense little scene in which Anne sends her sister off to be with Henry:
“Are you clean?” Anne asked sharply.
She looked at me anxiously. “Go on then. And you can resist for a bit, you know. Show a little doubt. Don’t just fall into his arms.”
I turned my face away from her. She seemed to me quite unbearably crass about the whole matter.
“The girl can have a bit of pleasure,” George said gently.
Anne rounded on him. “Not in his bed,” she said sharply. “She’s not there for her pleasure but for his.”
I didn’t even hear her. All I could ear was the thud of my heart pounding in my ears and my knowledge that he had sent for me, that I would be with him soon.
“Come on,” I said to George. “Let’s go.”
Anne turned to go back into the room. “I’ll wait up for you,” she said.
I hesitated. “I might not come back tonight.”
She nodded. “I hope you don’t. But I’ll wait up for you anyway. I’ll sit by the fire and watch the dawn come in.”
I thought for a moment about her keeping a vigil for me in her spinster bedroom while I was snug and loved in the King of England’s bed. “My God, you must wish it was you,” I said with sudden acute delight.
She did not flinch from it. “Of course. He is the king.”
You can see several of the basic ingredients of The Other Boleyn Girl in that little scene (and a few of its key weaknesses, here symbolized in that repeated ‘sharply’): the modern speech cadences, full of contractions and free of ‘thee’ and ‘thou,’ the economical evocation of setting (characters in the book imagine each other doing things almost as often as they actually do things), and of course a free-wheeling willingness to make a scenery-chewing Lucifer out of Anne Boleyn.
Gregory’s also not above winking a little at her audience, as in this much later scene in which Mary and George attend the banquet in honor of Anne becoming the Marquess of Pembroke (and honor bestowed by the besotted Henry):
At the banquet George and I sat side by side and looked up at our sister, seated beside the king.
He did not ask if I was envious. It was an answer too obvious to be worth inquiry. “I don’t know another woman who could have done it,” he said. “She has a unique determination to be on the throne.”
“I never had that,” I said. “The only thing I’ve ever wanted from childhood was not to be overlooked.”
“Well you can forget that,” George said with brotherly frankness. “You’ll be overlooked now for the rest of your life. We’ll both be as nothing. Anything I achieve will be seen as her gift. And you’ll never match her. She’s the only Boleyn anyone will ever know of or remember. You’ll be a nobody forever.”
It was the word “nobody.”At the very word the bitterness drained out of me, and I smiled. “You know, there might be some joy in being a nobody.”
“You’ll be a nobody forever” indeed. There are Other Boleyn Girl tours, Other Boleyn Girl garden parties, Other Boleyn Girl stationary lines and book clubs … and I already mentioned the legion of knockoff novels set in a Tudor court suddenly become so lusty it’s a wonder anybody ever had time to trade dispatches with the Venetian ambassador.
We all owe that renaissance – the good and the bad of it – to Philippa Gregory and her improbable blockbuster of a book. Each publishing season, roughly 400 hopefuls plop their Tudor wares on the counter and hope the public will consume them in equal quantities, but so far that kind of success has evaded them all (and Gregory herself – none of those sequels sold more than a fraction of what the original did and still does). This is only natural, though the poor things don’t see it. The next lynch-pin book that catches and sparks the public’s imagination will be as unexpected as The Other Boleyn Girl was, and it will turn all eyes toward a different era entirely. The Windsors, anyone?