The Concubine by Norah Lofts
originally published 1963
Genre: historical fiction, fictionalized biography
Synopsis & Review: Anne Boleyn isn’t beautiful–she’s described by one contemporary as “all eyes and hair”–but she is graceful, witty, and oh so charming. And on her return from France, she catches the eye of Henry VIII, King of England. Though she is in love with Harry Percy, heir to Northumberland, and he with her, their love is broken up and the two separated so that the King might go a-wooing. Unlike any woman before her, however, Anne denies the King his desires, and in that moment, the seeds are sown for a revolution in England. For ten years she denies him, earning herself the sobriquet The Concubine, despite having refused to give in to Henry. And after turning England upside down to gain her, Henry would then wreak a vengeance upon her for those years of denial.
I read a lot about Anne Boleyn, fiction and non-fiction both, and one thing I have difficulty resisting is a new Anne Boleyn book. (Or Mary, Queen of Scots, too, but she’s less popular.) The Concubine isn’t new, published in 1963, but I hadn’t yet read it. I finally got around to ordering it from the Multnomah County Library after I read at Sharon Penman’s blog that it was her favorite Anne bBleyn novel. So of course, I had to read it for myself.
As an historian (yeah, check out that spankin’ new BA, folks!), I sometimes have difficulties reading historical fiction on subjects I’ve studied; I tend to try to compare the fiction to the non-fiction, and I get all perturbed. Norah Lofts does take some liberties in The Concubine, but I have reconciled myself with the thought that she did so to serve her artistic purposes. Plus, there have been many and varied changes in the historiography of Anne Boleyn since the book was published in 1963, and I can certainly forgive that. In other words, I will get over it. That being said, it is a very good novel of Anne Boleyn, and well-crafted, moving historical fiction.
Each chapter is headed by an epigraph from either a primary source or early biographical works, setting the tone and giving events within a little verisimilitude. The novel skips from place to place and time to time, each being clearly stated at the chapter’s start, so that though the POV constantly changes, readers remain aware of the timeline. The characters are mostly very well drawn, Anne Boleyn and her (fictional) stepmother Lady Bo, in particular. Anne slowly and convincingly changes from a young girl disappointed by love, to one disillusioned by men and power. Though she is a much-flawed person, Anne remains sympathetic throughout the novel, never descending into caricature. Lofts also creates a very convincing Henry, with a plausible explanation for his actions–though it is not mine. Overall, he demonstrates many characteristics consistent with his later, more tyrannical behavior; in a sense, any story about Anne is also the story of Henry’s evolution as a king.
Emma Arnett was an odd character, however, a servant placed to influence Anne to Lutheranism and away from the Pope. While not impossible, it seems that far more influence on Anne came from the humanism she encountered at Francis’ court. But, there I go thinking about this all wrong again. Bah! I did take exception to the constant drugging of Anne, though, as a weak plot point. Why on earth was it necessary to constantly drug her with opiates, thus sapping some of her self-determination?
It’s really a lovely book, beautifully written and extremely moving at times. Lofts’ handling of the relationship between Anne and Harry Percy was especially deft; while reading the novel, I was plagued by thoughts of what might have been. Would they have been happy if they had been able to marry originally? What if Mary Talbot had been able to divorce him on the basis of the pre-contract, could they have married then? Or would it have been better if Henry had died of his ulcerated leg before charges of treason were brought. Or if she had carried the last pregnancy to term? I always want to imagine her living, but then her story would have been so much less interesting. When I was younger, I was mostly consumed by her relationship to Henry, and how it had gone from obsessive love to enough hatred that he would have her murdered (politically sound though it was, in a way). But as I’ve grown older and seen my own relationships turn to indifference, or dislike, or even outright hatred, I understand that better. Now the might-have-beens of Anne and Harry Percy move me most, and it is testimony to the power of good historical fiction that they can inspire such feeling even in someone well-versed in the background.
There is a strain of melancholy throughout the book; I imagine it’s difficult to not write as though you don’t know what’s going to eventually happen, but Lofts uses a great deal of foreshadowing as well to color her narrative. It adds a piquancy, though, and leads to some beautiful passages about death and dying:
Their voices were steady; they could look at one another dry-eyed. They had stumbled, by chance, upon the oldest solace for the oldest of mankind’s sorrows–the decent laying away of the beloved dead.
I get all teary.
I don’t know that I could pick either The Concubine or Brief Gaudy Hour as better, but I will say that both stand head and shoulders above recent novels about Anne Boleyn, like those of Robin Maxwell and Philippa Gregory. A fascinating, worthwhile read.
Read also: Brief Gaudy Hour by Margaret Campbell Barnes, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn by Retha M Warnicke, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives, The Autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George, Green Darkness by Anya Seton
Cover: Detail from Cibot’s Anne Boleyn in the Tower. Pretty, but anachronistic. And the text clutters it.
Anne stumbled to her chair and sat down again, and though about death. It came to everyone. With your first death you began to die and every breath thereafter brought you nearer to the last. But in order to live at all people pushed that thought away, or otherwise life would be just a hopeless waiting. Death happened to other people, and would one day happen to you, but you didn’t face that truth; even at the end, the last desperate remedies, the last rattling breaths were all attempts to evade the truth, to stave death off.
[...] She sat for a long time, looking back over her life as it would appear when she stood before God to give an account of it. At the end she was comforted. God knew everything, the sorry little shifts, the self-seeking, the many faults, the sins: but He would know, too, and could be trusted to understand, that everything would have been different, she herself would have been different, if only they had left her alone and allowed her to marry Henry Percy.
31 August – 04 September