Wednesday, November 16, 2011

At The Mercy of the Queen - A Novel of Anne Boleyn by Anne Clinard Barnhill

At The Mercy of The Queen: A Novel of Anne Boleyn. St. Martin's Press. January 2012. 448 pp. pbk. ISBN #: 9780312662134.

Lady Margaret Shelton, or Madge as she is known throughout the novel, arrives at the Court of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Madge is 15, close in age to Anne, who is soon to wed Henry. For Henry's late Queen has been put aside, Henry has formed his own Church of England after splitting with Rome over his soon-to-be-Queen Anne. It's a dangerous time for all but the King, who revels only in a reign that gathers more and more wealth from the old Church, delightful food and drink, and of course his voracious sexual appetite now focused solely on Anne. But this novel is as much about Madge as it is Anne Boleyn. For Madge's fortune is explicitly tied to the ups and downs of Henry and Anne's relationship. And all too soon, there are more "down" moments!

Anne and Madge are enigmas, one minute displaying piety and virtue and the next speaking about the most outrageous forms of lovemaking, etc. For neither, quite obviously, is sure of how to gain and keep love. Both are slow to realize how a word spoken impetuously can cascade into dramatic scenes that could cause banishment or even death. Madge is betrothed to a loathsome Sir Norris while she madly falls in love with another man of no real consequence in Henry's Court, Arthur. Anne urges Madge on, as her own romance with the King waxes and wanes, decreasing as she gives birth to a girl and then proceeds to miscarry other babes, including one who would have been the long-sought-after Prince or heir to Henry.

At one point, the Queen will sacrifice the virtue of Madge in order to regain her husband's fancy, a plan that quickly falls apart as Henry suspects the "French" techniques of love as beyond debauchery and obscene. Ironically, the other members of the Court, outside of Cromwell and Jane Seymour, have little place in this tale, even Anne's brother, George.

Having read many, many accounts of Queen Anne Boleyn, this reviewer didn't expect to be so enthralled with another account of same, but Anne Barnhill has managed to craft a thrilling, human, and inspiring portrait of two characters who really did so little to deserve admiration, beyond their obvious physical beauty and charm, but who manage to have readers rooting for their success, even when one knows the end of the story for Anne.

Well-done, Anne Clinard Barnhill! Anne Boleyn is much more likable and probable in your depiction. This is a graceful, spicy, terrible, and totally engaging novel!

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