Brief Gaudy Hour by Margaret Campbell Barnes
Originally published 1949
Sourcebooks Landmark, 1st printing, 2008
Genre: historical fiction
Synopsis & Review: Young, lovely Anne Boleyn follows her younger, lovelier sister Mary to the court of Henry Tudor and Katherine of Aragon. While Mary becomes the king’s mistress, Anne endears herself to the Princess Mary, going with her to the French king’s court where she learns and perfects the arts of the courtier. Witnessing both her sister Mary’s fall from grace as the king’s mistress and subsequent marriage, as well as the Princess Mary’s arranged first marriage and second passionate elopement, Anne is determined to seek happiness in marriage. When she meets and falls in love with Henry Percy of Northumberland, it seems as though her dreams might come true; after all, though they are both promised to others, theirs is an eminently suitable match, and the lovers swear to uphold it. Only Henry Tudor is watching, and he too desires the pretty, vivacious Nan Boleyn. At a word from the king, Cardinal Wolsey separates Anne from her lover so that Henry Tudor might step into his place. From there, Brief Gaudy Hour follows pretty little Nan Boleyn as she becomes The Concubine, The King’s Whore–all while keeping Henry at arm’s length for years until he is free to marry her. Anne carries her family and friends with her to dizzying heights of power, but her time as Queen of England is short, and nothing will stop her once she tumbles from grace.
Published in 1949, Brief Gaudy Hour suffers from some dated information on Anne Boleyn. Since then, academic studies have proven and disproven various myths about her, particularly those of the sixth finger and the mole on her neck (disproven!). It is also now commonly believed that she was the younger of the two Boleyn sisters, rather than the elder (an element ignored even by current authors; I’m looking at you, Philippa Gregory). A notable omission is the lack of any reference to Anne’s stint as a maid of honor in the Netherlands. Barnes also adds the character of a stepmother, Jocunda Boleyn, for no apparent purpose, since Elizabeth Boleyn died after Anne did. But regardless of such inaccuracies from the perspective of modern scholarship, Brief Gaudy Hour ranks as one of the most engaging novels of Anne Boleyn.
Barnes spends the first half of the novel carefully constructing Anne’s personality and depicting events that would shape it. She concentrates on Anne’s relationships: with her family, her friends, and her many admirers, as well as her lover, Henry Percy. The effect of this is to create a most attractive and likable portrait of Anne as an affectionate, clever, and loyal young woman, a gambler and flirt by nature, but devoted to her friends and family, hardly the ambitious, manipulative shrew so often depicted. This is in direct contrast to the Anne created by Gregory in The Other Boleyn Girl, who is very nearly a caricature of malevolence and selfishness (I have to interpret that novel as a Cain and Abel story like Amadeus in order to tolerate it.) That isn’t to say that Barnes’ Anne is a perfect, simple creature, far from it. Barnes’ Anne is vain and ambitious, but her ambition develops as events do in a realistic and understandable fashion. As she loses her lover, she loses part of herself, and recognizes how much crueler she is without the softening influence of love. Her vanity is hardly remarkable either, as what young girl has not an iota of vanity?
In particular, the relationships between Anne and her two lovers are skilfully drawn. Her love for Henry Percy is , a more convincing depiction than is usual; Barnes evokes an authentic feeling of first love, and the changes it imposes upon the lovers. Later, with Henry Tudor, Anne experiences genuine feeling for him, though on a different level from her relationship with Percy. The king’s response to Anne, too, is more richly drawn; she analyzes his character and habits, and their relationship is understandable as it grows and changes. Anne too, is considerably altered throughout the novel, but Barnes has her conscious of changes in her personality, and often evincing an inner life quite different from her public persona. She is not a cardboard cutout moving mechanically through the paces of history, but instead a living, breathing young woman who exults at her triumphs and suffers her failures, right up until she kneels before her French executioner.
Despite its age, Brief Gaudy Hour holds up well against more recently written novels; Barnes creates tension and an aura of sensuality and desire without ever being explicit, and creates engaging characters in a well-researched, detailed background. Periodically, Barnes is a bit heavy-handed with the foreshadowing and irony that comes from knowing how the story turns out, but it does not detract overmuch from the whole effect of the novel. Though there is an occasional turn of phrase that comes across as faintly ridiculous, the language is not overly purple, and the dialog between characters is very natural. Despite some inaccuracy as a result of the time in which it was written, Brief Gaudy Hour stands the test of time as a well-written, beautifully detailed novel that captures the spirit of an era and of an enigmatic, quicksilver young woman.
When I was very young, in elementary school, one of my older sisters told me about Anne Boleyn: how she was a Queen of England, how the King loved her beyond all reason, how she was six-fingered, and how she was beheaded by the very King who loved her. From then on, I was hooked on all things Anne Boleyn–and by extension, Tudor. I began reading both fictional (Margaret George) and non-fiction (Ives, Starkey, and Warnicke) accounts of her life and times, and they remain a major interest to me today. Of course, I also learned that the stories my sister told me weren’t quite accurate, but they did reflect popular misconceptions.
I was intrigued by the evocative title when perusing Amazon one evening a few years ago, and added the then out of print book to my wishlist as something that might be fun to read. One night last week, I was tipsily going over my wishlist, and decided to check Ebay for copies of several books on it. I was lucky enough to find this recent reprint (as well as four other novels that you’ll soon read about). After ordering, however, I realized that Margaret Campbell Barnes also wrote The King’s Bed, a Ricardian novel of which I have a poor opinion. Nervously anticipating another such overwrought and highly unlikely story, I was pleasantly surprised to find such a well-crafted, lucid gem of a Tudor novel instead. I will definitely be looking up more of Barnes’ early novels when in need of diversion. Highly recommended for fans of historical fiction and Tudor fiction.
Cover: Really quite good. Uses a traditional portrait of Anne Boleyn, but only from the mouth down to the hands, making it more mysterious and alluring, and centering our attention upon her sensual mouth and the famous B necklace. Gold gilt filigree edges the right side, mimicking the trim of her gown, and the title script is in a suitably antique font. Intriguing and representative of the novel.
Then sure the King must forgive them. And if he didn’t? Mary, at least, would never suffer at his hands. Living with her might mean giving up for a time all the fun and fashion and flattery of palaces, all the excitement of this newfound power with men, all her success. Anne’s mind ranged regretfully over these hard-won things that had come to mean so much to her. In any other mood the thought of losing them would have swayed her more. But today it was not her head, but her heart, that was involved. The primal part of her that loved Jocunda and stirred to the beauty of a Kentish garden. Anne did not love easily. The circle of her dear ones was small; but she had learned to love with loyalty. And, essentially, she was a gambler. After all, everything might turn out well. Caught in the right mood, Henry might possibly have granted them permission to marry anyway. If one had the courage, it was always worthwhile challenging life. Anne kissed Mary’s hand, made her obeisance to the Duke, and said she would stay.
12 June – 16 June