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My Lady of Cleves Unknown Binding – 1945
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This is a wonderful work of historical fiction of one of the lesser known wives of King Henry VIII, Anne of Cleves, who was a young Flemish princess of the Duchy of Cleves. When Jane Seymour, wife number three, died shortly after giving birth to the future King Edward VI of England, counselors to King Henry VIII urged him to marry again for reasons of state. As this vain monarch was by this time a bit of a hard sell, given the fact that his first three wives had died unhappy deaths and he was no longer young, fit and handsome, pickings were slim. His Lord Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, urged upon him an alliance of political expediency between Cleves and England, in hopes of buttressing England's new found Protestantism, as Cleves was a Lutheran stronghold.
King Henry VIII provisionally agreed, provided that one of the two princesses of Cleves, Anne or Amelia, was to his liking. So, he commissioned renowned court painter, Hans Holbein, to go to Cleves and paint miniatures of these two princesses of Cleves. When Han Holbein arrived in Cleves, he painted miniature portraits of both Anne and Amelia. While Amelia was the more superficially attractive one, Hans Holbein saw something in Anne that transcended physical beauty, and, being the artist that he was, his vision transposed itself onto the miniature portrait that he painted of Anne, creating a portrait of exquisite sweetness. When King Henry VIII saw it, there was no question but that Anne of Cleves would be his fourth wife.
Unfortunately, when they met, Anne did not live up to his expectations, referring to her in pejorative terms as a great "Flanders mare". Anne was on the tall side, a large-boned and buxom woman, while King Henry VIII had a penchant for petite, slender women. Moreover, coming from a strict Lutheran duchy, Anne had none of the expected accomplishments that were de rigueur for the Tudor Court. Anne could not sing, dance, or play a musical instrument, nor was she particularly well educated in scholarly pursuits. Her education had been of a more pedestrian nature and geared to more housewifely pursuits such as the running of a household.
Consequently, Henry and Anne were like oil and vinegar, never really able to come together as one. From then on, Anne's life as Queen of England was to be one of humiliation. Henry made no secret of his dissatisfaction and worked to disengage himself from this marriage, as he liked her not. Although Henry looked to cast Anne aside and had already set his sights on wife number five, the beautiful teenager, Catherine Howard, who was one of Anne's own ladies-in-waiting, Anne continued about her business with dignity. Henry's children loved her, as did many who would come in contact with her, as she had none of the affectations or grasping and jaded behavior associated with those who populated the Tudor Court. She was a straightforward, intelligent, and kindly woman who was not given to being anything other than what she was.
When the issue of divorce reared its ugly head, Anne, ever practical, reluctantly agreed and in return received several estates and palaces, a handsome pension, and the dubious distinction of ever more being known as the King's sister, taking precedence over all except for the King and the King's children, and any future Queen. She would go on to live her own life. Of course, the author gives this story a fresh spin, weaving in a secret attachment that Anne of Cleves and Han Holbein shared for each other. It is this deep and abiding platonic love that would sustain Anne through her deepest and darkest hours in England. The author also gives an eye-opening twist on the post-divorce relationship of Anne and Henry.
This is simply yet another terrific work of historical fiction by this author. She expertly weaves a colorful tapestry of fact and fiction against the backdrop of the splendor of the magnificent Tudor Court, creating a three dimensional story around some of the most interesting personages in history. This book takes the reader on a spellbinding journey through the life of Anne of Cleves. It continues her story through two more wives, Catherine Howard and Katherine Parr, and the death of King Henry VIII, whom Anne herself would outlive by about ten years. This is a book that will thoroughly engage and entertain the reader. It is of particular interest since there is a paucity of books on the story of Anne of Cleves. Bravo!
It's dated. Badly.
I'll leave comparisons to the end because it's unfair to immediately throw in other author's names. But suffice to say I found a lot of problems here. If it were not a novel about the relatively unwritten about Anne of Cleves it would have been two stars. However I enjoyed the chance to finally read from the perspective of the jilted Flemish Princess. She's a character I've been interested in for some time, always searching for small details about her. Not least because her marriage was the ultimate downfall of my favourite historical personage - Thomas Cromwell.
Campbell Barnes does a fair job of attempting to capture the confusion and fear running like a vein through Anne's marriage. However her portrayal of Anne, I think, is overly flattering. As is her depiction of a whole host of characters. In contrast to that her thoughts on characters such as Cromwell and Wriothsley were wholly negative. Therefore there is very little moral grey to her characterisation, which I think is so important in a novel about the Tudor court. Everyone played along a blurred line there, no one announced their loyalty to anyone but the King. Yet the moral compass of characters here is more fitting for a fairytale than an attempt at reliving reality.
I also thought a lot of the flow was lost as, with each changing chapter, time jumps differed hugely. A month passes, a year. Huge chunks of married life are missed out. In my case one of the things I was most looking forward to was interactions with Anne and Henry, both during their marriage and after it. Instead I was accosted by a fictitious flirtation between Anne and Hans Holbein. I didn't mind this too much, romance sells and without that authorial interjection Campbell Barnes would have struggled with childless, divorced Anne. However I would have preferred less obviousness between Holbein and Anne - personally it struck me as a little forced.
Historical accuracy did many leaps from the window, departing completely from any semblance of reality. When I saw scenes reminiscent of the TV show The Tudors I had to smile. Perhaps Neil Jordan read this novel when writing about the marriage of Anne of Cleves? However in a world post The Other Boleyn Girl, I am well used to vast departures from historical accuracy and, whilst I sometimes wish the author had done just a little more research, I can largely accept it in a novel borne of fiction.
Saying all of this I did, to an extent, enjoy reading. It was a light read and, whilst it lacked the historical depth and sharp characterisation of Jean Plaidy (I told you name dropping was coming) I thought that, for the time it was written (1946) this is a well enough way to dip your toes into the Tudor world and experience it through she who was perhaps Henry's luckiest Queen.