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.
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.
Once again, I got emails – of a far less welcome kind this time, but book-bloggers can’t be choosers. Many of you wrote in response to my recent “Eight Great Books” post not to share my enthusiasm or to discuss my choices but rather to point out that the eight novels I picked were all written by men. My very first internal response to this was “Yes? So what? It’s possible they were all written by right-handers or blue-eyes too.” My second internal response was “No really – so what? I was rhapsodizing about how much the books in question moved and delighted me – it never occurred to me to check who was going to which bathroom.”
It shouldn’t have occurred to me, and it shouldn’t have occurred to any of you either. It reminds me of all the worst reasons why I left academia.
I dislike almost everything about this kind of non-issue. I dislike the insinuations that can’t help but come along with pointing out that everybody on my first list is a man – the foremost such insinuation being, of course, that I intentionally planned it that way and was hoping nobody would notice, the insinuation of wrongdoing. I dislike the reductivism of it all, the sense that readers today aren’t actually reading anything anymore but rather just checking off boxes and prepping their outrages for when they find trumped-up reason to pounce. Of course personally I dislike the inattention of it all – a casual glance at Stevereads over the years reveals absolutely no gender-bias (and, on a not-unconnected point, a casual glance at the books I’ve personally given to many of you reveals no such imbalance either). In short, the implicit accusation/complaint isn’t valid.
It prompts what I think is a natural – though entirely wrong – response on my part, which is to defend myself. To point out how many female authors I’ve championed over the years, to marshal a barrage of links back to the appropriate Stevereads postings, and maybe links elsewhere as well. But not only is that impulse entirely wrong, but it’s deeply unpleasant to feel, even for a moment, even long enough to call it wrong. Just like it would be deeply unpleasant for, say, the female readers making this point to go back over their last year’s reading and count up how much of it was by black people, or gay people. The instinctive response to go back and count up is irritating because it’s already complicit, even when no guilt can be assigned.
Still, I did say I disliked ‘almost’ everything about such a non-issue, right? There is, in fact, one part of it I like: it gives me a reason to concoct another book-list, and that’s fine by me (I also, as some of you were canny enough to point out, can’t resist a challenge). So here are eight really, really good modern novels written by women, even though that attribution is entirely irrelevant!
When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant (2000)
Grant’s harsh and luminous novel about postwar British-administered Palestine stars strong-willed and intensely memorable Evelyn Sert, who opens things as forthrightly as she carries the whole book:
Scratch a Jew and you’ve got a story. If you don’t like elaborate picaresques full of unlikely events and torturous explanations, steer clear of the Jews. If you want things to be straightforward, find someone else to listen to. You might even get to say something yourself. How do we begin a sentence? “Listen …”
Twenty-year-old Evelyn journeys to the hot, mesmerizing international city of Tel Aviv (wonderfully evoked in these pages) and there finds every aspect of her relatively pampered and privileged life challenged by the no-nonsense women (and one sensuous but deceitful man) who are working to get a nation born:
I told her my Hebrew wasn’t that good.
“Fine,” she said. “I speak six languages. Pick one.”
“English is all I know fluently.”
“Then you are a fool.”
When I Lived in Modern Times confounded a number of critics when it first appeared, and even now it holds the power to confuse in almost equal measure as it pleases. An apolitical novel about politics? A coming-of-age novel that seems at times almost disinterested in its heroine? And yet, re-reading it in 2011, I found it every bit as sharp and interesting as it was when it first appeared.
A Mercy by Toni Morrison (2008)
I haven’t been a big fan of Morrison’s writing over the years, usually finding it deceitfully arch and faux-oracular (whenever some young person tells me Beloved is their favorite novel, I always want to advise them to get out of the house more often). But this slim, almost mythic novella of a wild and disconsolate 17th century America reads like one long prose poem. At its heart is the question of ownership in the free world, and one of its main characters, Jacob Vaark, embodies all the contradictions of that question – he has slaves, servants, a mail-order bride, and is himself owned by his vanities. Morrison sets up the happy beginning of his married life to Rebekka so deftly you know it’s all going to unravel horribly:
They settled into the long learning of one another; preferences, habits altered, others acquired; disagreement without bile; trust and that wordless conversation that years of companionship rest on. The weak religious tendencies that riled Rebekka’s mother were of no interest to him. He was indifferent having himself withstood all pressure to join the village congregation but content to let her be persuaded if she chose. After some initial visits and Rebekka choosing not to continue, his satisfaction was plain. They leaned on each other root and crown. Needing no one outside their sufficiency. Or so they believed.
Morrison’s handling of her human characters can be as arch and unconvincing as always, but there’s a guiding spirit moving powerfully through this skinny book, elevating it from her usual stuff and repaying multiple re-readings.
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin (1971)
This novel also features prominently on every ‘Top 50 Sci-Fi/Fantasy Novels of All Time’ list I’ve made since it was first published (all the other 49 are by men, of course), and like most of the best Sci-Fi and Fantasy, it can be read and enjoyed by strangers to the genre. It’s the story of George Orr, a hapless citizen of the near future who seeks medical help for all the disturbing dreams he’s having. Unfortunately for him, he goes to Doctor Haber, a budding megalomaniac, who quickly realizes the unbelievable: George Orr’s dreams change reality itself. Haber of course wants to harness this power – first to get George to ‘fix’ everything that’s wrong with the world, and then eventually to simply transfer the power to himself, so he’s no longer limited by this well-intentioned milquetoast. And passive George is more than happy to let him shoulder the burden, although with a warning:
“Everything dreams. The play of form, of being, is the dreaming of substance. Rocks have their dreams, and the earth changes … But when the mind becomes conscious, when the rate of evolution speeds up, then you have to be careful. Careful of the world. You must learn the way. The must learn the skills, the art, the limits. A conscious mind must be part of the whole, intentionally and carefully – as the rock is part of the whole unconsciously. Do you see? Does it mean anything to you?”
Haber doesn’t see, and in true Frankensteinian fashion, his power goes horribly awry – and reveals a layer to the book which Le Guin prepares carefully but which will still catch the reader deliciously off-guard. This author is a legend for other works – her beloved “Earthsea” series, and her two landmark science fiction novels, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, but this is her best book, as tense and elegant as a modern myth.
A Much Younger Man by Dianne Highbridge (1998)
This beautiful, wise novel has been a source of frequent irritation to me since the moment it was published, and the reason is the only thing it shares in common with the great World War Z: it’s virtually impossible to force people’s minds to remain open long enough to recommend it. I plugged World War Z way back at the very beginning of Stevereads, and I’m plugging Highbridge’s book now, for all the good it’ll do me – those of you who haven’t already dismissed it because of its cover will certainly read no further than knowing that the book’s plot is summarized in its title: mid-30s school teacher Aly falls in love with Tom, the teenage son of her best friend. There: the world faces a zombie plague. Sigh. Highbridge takes this very simple premise and treats it in a manner, as one critic put it at the time, “openly sexual but without a hint of lewdness or smirking.” Aly falls in love with Tom (and he very much with her) despite every caution sounding in her right from the beginning:
“Did you wonder why I didn’t play [his lute, for company] the other night?”
“No. I just assumed you didn’t feel like it.”
“I didn’t. Not like that, on show.” Then he says, with the barest pause: “I would’ve played for you.”
A small alarm bell rings somewhere in her head. She looks quickly at him, half-afraid to see the tell-tale intensity of an incipient crush in his eyes. Not really a problem if so, but better if not. He’s looking straight back at her. His eyes aren’t almost blue, as she thought, they’re grey and completely guileless. Somehow this is not reassuring. “I’d like to hear you some day, but I don’t know much about that kind of music,” she says.
“You don’t have to. You’ll see.”
And Highbridge unfolds it all with a deeply respectful intelligence. The result is one of the most honestly affecting novels of love and society that you’re likely to read in a full year – but Heaven and Earth couldn’t move you to try it, because you’re still staring at that cover. Sigh.
Told By An Idiot by Rose Macaulay (1923)
Macaulay is unknown today except for her quirky The Towers of Trebizond (those NYRB people again!), and I myself treasure her Personal Pleasures as I treasure few other books of occasional essays, but this book is her masterpiece, and it’s a mystery to me why Told by an Idiot isn’t both recognized as a masterpiece and taught as one (I can only assume it’s because made the tactical mistake of being a woman). It’s the story of the unforgettable Garden family – the clergyman father, his saintly wife, their vibrant, incredibly diverse children, whose stories unfold over decades and are chronicled by their sister Rome, the ultimate family-observer, who first goes through her own heartbreak, when the man she loves confesses that he’s already married and gets a typically Garden-family rejection:
“Rome, you can’t do it. Don’t you know, now you’re in my arms, that you can’t, that it would be to deny the best in us?”
“What’s the best, what’s the worst? I don’t know, and nor do you. I’m not an ethicist. All I know is that your wife, while she wants you, or thinks she wants you, has first claim … It’s a question of fairness and decent feeling … or bring it down, if you like, to a question of taste. Perhaps that is the only basis there really is for decisions of this sort for people like us.”
“Taste! That’s a fine cry to mess up two lives by. I’d almost rather you were religious, and talked of the will of God. One could respect that, at least.”
“I can’t do that, as I happen not to be sure whether God exists. And it would make nothing simpler, really, since one would then have to discover what one believed the will of God to be. Don’t do religious people the injustice of believing that anything is simpler or easier for them; it’s more difficult, since life is more exacting … But it comes to the same thing; all these processes of thought lead to the same result if applied by the same mind. It depends on the individual outlook. And this is mine … Oh, don’t make it so damnably difficult for us both, my dearest …”
Miss Garden, who never swore and never wept, here collapsed into tears, all her urbane breeding broken at last. He consoled her so tenderly, so pitifully, so mournfully, that she wept the more for love of him.
The Virago Press reprinted this great book in the 1980s twice – once with a hideous cover and once with a good cover. I’d take a plain brown wrapper, if I could see it reprinted today.
Brightness Falls From the Air by James Tiptree (1985)
No, I’m not losing my nerve and desperately trying to work in a hated man onto our list! James Tiptree is of course the pen-name used by the late Alice Sheldon to write some of the best science fiction of the 20th century. Her novel Up the Walls of the World is a tour de force, and her short stories (such gems as “The Women Men Don’t See” and “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” and “Painwise”) likewise superb, but this novel – the last one she wrote before she killed her husband and herself – burns with a genius all its own, a genius I was at first slow to grant. The book tells the story of the planet Damien, where years ago the beautiful native species was horrifically tortured to produce a wildly valuable substance called Star Tears. In the present, a mixed group of tourists comes to visit the planet and threatens to re-awaken the tragedies of the past, since, as we’re told, the darkness that bred those tragedies never went away:
“All over this Galaxy, for as long as you live, there will be big crooks and little crooks and lonesome weirdos, Human and otherwise, dreaming up ways to get their hands on Star Tears stuff. Too abhorrent? Don’t you believe it. On the Black Worlds there are Human beasts who salivate over the prospect of torturing children. And passing in any crowd are secret people whose hidden response to beauty is the desire to tear it into bleeding meat.”
This dark and almost hopeless note is struck throughout this novel (horrible to think of the suffering Tiptree must have been enduring herself, to tap into all this and then put it down so cleanly on the page), and yet, impossibly, hope looks to prevail. Even if you think you don’t like science fiction (and surely you don’t think that, right? Wouldn’t want to be discriminatory, would we?), you’ll like this book, one of the late classics of the genre.
The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt (2000)
Those of you who’ve known me personally for a while might recall that I’ve been fervently recommending this book for over a decade, despite the fact that I’m a well-known Internet misogynist; even before The Last Samurai achieved its current mind-boggling and entirely deserved status as both a cult classic (this is one of those books that makes you feel like it was written for you, personally) and a literary landmark, I was telling any open-minded reader I could find that this was a literary landmark destined to be a cult classic. It’s one of the most dazzling literary debuts since This Side of Paradise – indeed, it raised the bar for dazzling literary debuts so high most first-time novelists can’t stand to look at it. It’s the story of a harried, hopeful young single mother named Sibylla and her odd, prodigiously gifted son Ludo, a monster autodidact whose intellectual appetites quickly outstrip even his mother’s high expectations:
Early March, winter nearly over. Ludo still following scheme I do not understand: found him reading Metamorphoses the other day though he is only up to Odyssey 22. Seems to have slowed down on Odyssey, has only been reading 100 lines or so a day for the past few weeks. Too tired to think of new places to go, where is there besides National Gallery National Portrait Gallery Tate Whitechapel British Museum Wallace Collection that is free? Financially in fairly good position as have typed Advanced Angling 1969 – present, Mother and Child 1952-present, Horn & Hound 1920-1976, and am now making good progress with The Poodle Breeder, 1924-1982. Have made virtually no progress with Japanese.
The irony threaded through even that brief passage (with the texts Sibylla is typing for money silently commenting on her efforts to raise Ludo on her own) is choice, and it’s on display throughout the whole of this novel, which delights and surprises and ultimately moves with its strangeness and stanzas of staggering virtuosity. If Open Letters Monthly had been around in 2000, this is exactly the kind of book I’d have hoped Sam Sacks or John Cotter would decide to review.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009)
If this last title seems familiar, it should: not only did I give it rapturous praise over at Open Letters Monthly, but I was the very first person anywhere in the world to pronounce it brilliant, long before its publication, long before it won its shelf of awards: when two bits of it were excerpted in the Penny Press, I confidently predicted it might well end up being the best Tudor novel ever written – and I did all that despite the fact that its author is a woman!
Very few of the novel’s characters are – this is mostly a man’s book (with the very notable exception of the odious Anne Boleyn), featuring one of the most brutishly masculine main characters in recent fiction: Thomas Cromwell, the mysterious street lawyer Henry VIII came more and more to rely upon to do his dirty work, a character virtually all Tudor fictionizers have almost automatically chosen to portray as a plain-and-simple villain. In Wolf Hall, we don’t think of Cromwell that way, even though he’s ruthless and dangerous. We see him being underestimated by every grandee in the land (except for one devastatingly sharp moment with the king, where Cromwell learns the unpleasant lesson that having a Tudor estimate you accurately is most definitely NOT a pleasant experience), even when, as with the old Duke of Norfolk, they know they’re underestimating him while they do it:
“I spoke to the king for you and he is also content. You will take his instructions in the Commons. And mine.”
“Will they be the same, my lord?”
The duke scowls. He paces; he rattles a little; at last he bursts out, “Damn it all, Cromwell, why are you such a … person? It isn’t as if you could afford to be.”
He waits, smiling. He knows what the duke means. He is a person, he is a presence. He knows how to edge blackly into a room so that you don’t see him; but perhaps those days are over.
“Smile away,” says the duke. “Wolsey’s household is a nest of vipers. Not that …” he touches a medal, flinching. “God forbid I should …”
Compare a prince of the church to a serpent. The duke wants the cardinal’s money, and he wants the cardinal’s place at the king’s side: but then again, he doesn’t want to burn in Hell. He walks across the room; he slaps his hands together; he rubs them; he turns. “The king is preparing to quarrel with you, master. Oh yes. He will favor you with an interview because he wishes to understand the cardinal’s affairs, but he has, you will learn, a very long and exact memory, and what he remembers, master, is when you were a burgess of the Parliament before this, and how you spoke against his war.”
“I hope he doesn’t think still of invading France.”
“God damn you! What Englishman does not! We own France. We have to take back our own.” A muscle in his cheek jumps; he paces, agitated; he turns, he rubs his cheek; the twitch stops, and he says, in a voice perfectly matter-of-fact, “Mind you, you’re right.”
Like many people in this splendid, bottomlessly re-readable novel, Norfolk finds himself casting around searching for a reason to validate the visceral dislike he feels for Cromwell. In this case, the duke (whose spindly body Cromwell has already taken in with a glance) pounces on Cromwell’s admission that he himself had once been a soldier:
“I was a soldier myself.”
“Were you so? Not in any English army, I’ll be bound. There, you see.” The duke grins, quite without animosity. “I knew there was something about you. I knew I didn’t like you, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Where were you?”
The duke whistles. “Wrong side, lad.”
“So I noticed.”
The fast-paced bounce of this dialogue is maintained throughout the book, which is similar to The Lathe of Heaven in being a genre-buster, something you can hand to even the most adamantly anti-historical fiction reader, confident that the book will hook them. I’ve never known it to fail, which certainly hasn’t been the case with any of Mantel’s earlier books. This one is a bolt from the sky, it’s so good.
And there you have it! Eight great novels – by women! The cosmic scales of justice are re-balanced, although how they could ever have been un-balanced I don’t know. After all, the field of fiction is almost thoroughly dominated by women. Against our paltry Tolstoy, Thackeray, and Fielding, women have a dozen giants right off the tip of the bat – a preponderance so great it’s only become seriously endangered since the late 20th century, when the proliferation of make-weight MFA programs with delusions of cultural oppression began graduating legions of utterly talentless female degree holders, thus muddying the waters almost opaque for genuinely promising young women like Tea Obreht.
But that’s a worry for another day – for right now, the universe is restored to order, and with luck Stevereads is restored to the good graces of all those of you who wrote in giving me dirty looks! I whole-heartedly recommend each of these woman-authored books, and I could easily double the length of this post with additional names, many of whom I’ve also praised on Stevereads in their own right over the years. So now perhaps the issue of my raging misogyny can be tabled, and I can return my attention to higher literary matters …
Our two books today are historical novels dealing with the same figure: Catherine Parr, the staid, prudish hickory stick who was the last wife of Henry VIII. Readers who have a nodding familiarity with Tudor history will likely be more familiar with any of the five wives who preceded this one – there’s the Rightful Queen, the Witch, the Mother of the Heir, the Dearest Sister, and the Slutty Girl – but by the time most people get to Catherine Parr, the whole point of keeping up with all the wives seems vitiated. What difference does it make what Catherine Parr was like, after all, if the whole gaudy show of it now moves to young Edward VI, and then on to Mary I, and then to Elizabeth I?
Blind spots like that are cat-nip to historical novelists. These writers correctly divine that often the most interesting things happen outside the bright spotlight of history – the key to effective historical fiction is to step just far enough outside that spotlight to let those interesting human details creep in but not so far outside that spotlight that you leave your readers groping around in the dark for something interesting. Set the entire story of Wolf Hall in the murky boyhood of Thomas Cromwell and you lose the background electricity of his interactions with the Tudor court. Set the climax to Gone with the Wind in the 1840s and you might have a pretty good book, but it wouldn’t glow with the light of burning Southern plantations.
So writing about Catherine Parr can be tricky. Historian Carolly Erickson takes perhaps the safer route in her 2006 novel The Last Wife of Henry VIII by using as its setting the whole of that lady’s life, the better to give us all the drama of that life’s intersection with last dying embers of Henry VIII’s insane personal life. Erickson’s book is extremely good (a bit ironic that both she and fellow historian Alison Weir have done their best recent work in fiction), and the Catherine she gives us might be a bit stiff and a bit haughty, but she ends up being all the more real for it:
“Ah, so pale,” said the sleek, moustachioed Duke of Najera as he took my hand to kiss. “I trust your majesty is not in poor health.”
“I confess that I am in indifferent health, milord duke,” was my response. …
“May we hope that this indisposition betokens the arrival of an heir?” His tone was polite and his words formal, but the question was overly bold, even rude. He presumed too much. Just because he was the emissary of the Emperor Charles V, and charged with a very important mission to our court, he imagined that he could ask me bold questions and ignore the ordinary rules of courtesy.
“Milord, you forget yourself,” said my friend and lady-in-waiting Kate Brandon, coming to my rescue. “The queen’s health is a matter of state and cannot be talked of lightly.”
A far riskier strategy is adopted by Susannah Dunn in her spectacularly good 2008 novel The Sixth Wife (not to be confused with the Jean Plaidy novel of the same title – and, um, about the same subject)(don’t even get me started on the subject of incomprehensible choices in book-titles…): in that work, Katherine (so Dunn styles her) Parr is neither in power or the teller of her own story – the latter task falls to that same Kate Brandon, here given magnificent life and voice by Dunn as the novel’s narrator. The book focuses on the stunning immediate aftermath of Henry VIII’s death, when his still-young widow stunned the court and the whole country by quickly marrying Thomas Seymour, brother to the realm’s new Lord Protector – and brother too to the mother of the realm’s new king, young Edward. Thomas Seymour had a feckless, headlong quality about him that seemed drastically at odds with Parr’s slightly beady-eyed calm; he seemed the very last person she might marry, let along marry impulsively. Again, catnip for historical novelists, most of whom (including Erickson) have assumed that the turn of events can only be explained if Seymour and Parr had been in love – and perhaps lovers – long before Henry took a liking to his prospective new queen.
Dunn (whose work I’ve praised before) skirts making such an easy, explicit explanation in favor of what is clearly one of her focal points as a novelist: the unpredictable, twisty ways of human emotions. Shortly after her Kate Parr reveals her marriage to Kate Brandon, the two of them go out riding, and when the former queen gallops away, Kate is left to wrestle with the whole mystery:
“He makes me laugh,” Kate yelled of Thomas as she thundered away from me.
I didn’t come back at her with, Yes, but my dog makes me laugh and I haven’t married him, have I.
Nor, Yes, but I make you laugh.
People underestimated Kate in one respect: kind but serious, was a lot of people’s opinion of her. Maybe it was as simple as that, it occurred to me as I trailed in her wake: maybe Thomas Seymour truly appreciates her.
Yes, but why marry him, and so soon?
Well, that was quite simple, too, in the end, it seemed. He’d asked her, she told me later. Marry me, he’d said: that’s what she told me. Marry me, marry me, marry me: he’d said it a lot. So that it seemed less and less ridiculous, presumably. Why not? he said. I’ve been away for years and you’ve been – well, you haven’t had an easy time of it for years, for your whole life, in fact, so … and then that smile of his.
Dunn’s book is the wiser book of the two emotionally, but it’s a decidedly 20th century wisdom. Erickson’s book is a more conventional historical novel (you’ll find no ‘milady’s in Dunn’s period fiction) but succumbs at times to the lure of the scenery. Many of the same characters come and go through these pages, and it’s fun to see how differently the two authors portray them – including the young Princess Elizabeth, who’s a monstrous enigma in Dunn and an enigmatic monster in Erickson. The exception seems to be Edward Seymour’s wife Anne Stanhope, who’s hated equally by both our authors – automatically making me wonder if somebody’s out there right this moment penning a Tudor historical novel in which a thoroughly sympathetic Anne stars as the oft-misunderstood heroine. I’ll keep an eye out at the Boston Public Library for The Lord Protector’s Wife.
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?