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Book Review: The Tudor Throne

By (December 18, 2011) No Comment

Keeping Up with the Tudors

The Tudor Throne

by Brandy Purdy

Kensington Books, 2011

Brandy Purdy’s earlier Tudor novel, The Boleyn Wife, was a spiky, memorable fictional meditation on that most distasteful of Tudor-era hangers-on, the vile Lady Rochford. It was part of the contemporary glut of Tudoriana (sparked by Phlippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, sustained by Jonathan Rhys-Meyer’s oddly spellbinding performance in Showtime’s The Tudors, and given an enormous tenth-round revival by Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall), and that’s both a good thing, in that it floats boats that might otherwise have stayed grounded, and a bad thing, in that it floats every last punt and dingy in sight, regardless of how seaworthy they are. Good entries run a significant risk of getting lost in the crowd, as I worry The Boleyn Wife might have been.

That same worry is intensified a bit when it comes to Purdy’s follow-up Tudor fiction, The Tudor Throne, because this book deserves to stand out (it helps that the cover of the US version, done by Kristine Mills-Noble and Trish Cramblet, is so simple and eye-catching, although the more sentimental cover of the UK edition – titled Mary & Elizabeth – is equally inviting)(Hell, even the author’s name is made just a touch more inviting). In the interval since reading The Boleyn Wife, I duly hunted down and read Purdy’s The Confession of Piers Gaveston, about the meddling little schemer who helped bring King Edward II to ruin, and although it’s one of the best fictionalizations of Edward II I’ve ever read (it’s tough to beat Marlowe, but I remain surprised no stops-out Wolf Hall-style epic has yet been written about Edward in English), it’s clear that Purdy is in her element when writing about the Tudors.

Two specific Tudors, in this case: Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and his rightful queen, Catherine of Aragon, and Elizabeth, Henry’s daughter with his turbulent second wife Anne Boleyn. The Tudor Throne‘s narrative is divided between the two half-sisters just as the country’s throne seemed to be once both their dread father than their half-brother Edward VI were dead. It’s a neat device, and Purdy handles it perfectly, shifting tones between her two main characters in order to show both how like and how unlike they are. Mary’s world is the more stately, the more florid, the more prone to what we’d now consider gothic fantasies – which Purdy wonderfully evokes, following Mary from the reality of her midnight ride from Hunsdon to London when she hears that Edward is dying. She encounters a silent, cloaked figure blocking the road, and he hands her a note taken straight from Sir Walter Scott:

The king is dead.

Turn back NOW!

Your are riding into a trap.

Northumberland lies in wait for you.

His son Robert is leading an army to arrest you.

Prepare to fight for your throne.

Do NOT let them take you!

God save Queen Mary!

And we see her in the dark transports of bitter jealousy over the Continental carousing of her husband Philip of Spain, by turns aroused in her dreams at the memory of him, obsessive in gossip-collecting about him (“They said he was busy dancing in Antwerp … they said he had developed a passion for masked balls …” until you want to tell her to just stop), and vengeful:

I wept and howled and screamed like a madwoman and took a knife to his portrait. “God often sends bad husbands to good women!” I raged as I slashed it to ribbons. Then I sat on the floor for hours, weeping with remorse, as I tried to piece it back together again.

And if Mary’s segments are good, those narrated by Elizabeth are downright captivating, giving us a psychological portrait expertly filtered through the sensibilities of a pre-psychological era. This is an Elizabeth just as tormented as her sister, but far more blunt (and every bit as obsessed with pictures, as I suspect Purdy herself is, given how richly visual her books are):

But I wasn’t just Great Harry’s red-haired brat; I was Anne Boleyn’s daughter too. I have seen her portrait hidden away in musty palace attics, and when I look at myself in the mirror, only my flame-red hair, and the milk-pale skin that goes with it, are Tudor. All the rest of me is Anne Boleyn – the shape of my face, my dark eyes and their shape, my nose, my lips, my long-fingered musician’s hands, even my long, slender neck.

This is an Elizabeth who’s both ardent and deeply suspicious of ardor, for what she views as good reasons:

Lust kills, as does the loss of it! After his passion for my mother burned out, it was easy for my father to condemn her, a woman he had no further use for, to make way for another. Desire is the antechamber of Death.

By far the most creepy, effective element Purdy works into The Boleyn Throne is how haunted this version of Elizabeth is – literally. She’s no virgin, nor does her fear of lust keep her from experiencing it, but much like Henry, she pays a price every time. After the death of Katherine Parr, for instance, Elizabeth is visited at the most awkward of moments:

Over his shoulder, in the steam rising from my abandoned bath, I thought I saw Kate’s ghost take shape, mournfully mouthing these words of wisdom and warning: “Never give your heart lest it be betrayed!”

And the book’s eeriest moment – just begging to be filmed, although it would take a braver director than Hollywood currently has – comes when Elizabeth is making love to Robert Dudley and suddenly sees the ghost of Thomas Seymour leering over Dudley’s shoulder as he presses down on top of her. It vividly conveys the mental world the Tudors occupied, a place of guilt and sorcery, where the dead were never very far removed from the living and the supernatural was right next door to the visible. That world is far too often scrubbed clean by modern outlooks in most Tudor fiction, but it stalks the pages of Purdy’s books in all its horrifying immediacy.