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I adore reading and learning about all things historical, especially Tudor and Elizabethan times. Having exhausted the offerings from my favourite historical fiction authors, I decided to branch out and read some historical fiction by an author I'd never heard of before, Margaret Campbell Barnes , and chose 'My Lady of Cleves' as the first of her books to read , as Anne of Cleves is a figure I know a little about, but who often is mentioned in many historical works only briefly. I looked forward to learning more about the woman .
Henry the VIII has been single for two years since the tragic death of Jane Seymour, the wife who bore him a son . Having only the one male heir, and two useless daughters he's already declared bastards, the pressure was on him to remarry to provide more male heirs and greater stability for England.
The trouble is, when you've been married three times, one of those marriages ending in the execution of Anne Boleyn on trumped up charges of incest,adultery, and witchcraft, and another marriage resulting in a devoted wife ending her days in loneliness and poor conditions, you're unlikely to be considered a catch! Not that Henry knew understood this - he even wrote to France requesting that ladies of noble birth line up for his inspection, a suggestion the King of France refused .
With choices dwindling, the search for a wide turned to the small Duchy of Cleves, which, although small had many powerful connections, and could help protect England against the dual threat of Spain and France. The two unmarried daughters of the household were painted by Hans Holbein, and Henry chose Anne as his new wife .... but sadly, when they met, things didn't go to well, prompting Henry to declare his new wife a 'Flanders Mare'.
Henry has also become besotted with one of Anne's servants, Katherine Howard, and so determined once again to rid himself of an unwanted wife at any cost! What would happen to Anne when her husband, one of the most powerful men in the world, tires of her when the marriage has barely begun?
The Book tells the story in the third person, with different characters making up different scenes, although the majority of the book centres on Anne herself, there are brief passages detailing events going on in the kingdom around them.
Anne is portrayed as a middle daughter who never had any reason to expect a grand marriage - she was neither the brains nor the beauty of her family . However, the book goes to great lengths early on to demonstrate that although Anne may by no means be the best educated young woman, she was nevertheless capable, kind, maternal, and had an abundance of common sense, the latter of which probably being the thing that eventually gave her safety, in that she sensibly agreed to the demands of Henry and managed to come off well financially into the bargain .
Henry is shown to be hot tempered and changeable, prone to losing his temper, but just as easily won over by kindness, wit, and feminine charm. I think this is actually a good way for him to be portrayed, as many books tend to place him as a brutal, bullying man, or as a complete victim, and it's nice to have a more balanced view.
We also get to see his many weaknesses and his own self doubt, and the way his ailing health limited his lifestyle and made him very jealous of younger more capable men .
Hans Holbein is presented as Anne's romantic interest, and I do like his character. He's not actually someone I know an awful lot about, but his character is shown as being caring and understanding of Anne's predicament.
Other characters in this book include the princesses, and their personalities in this book show how certain events may have influenced the people they became in later life.
With this being a work of historical fiction, it's a book that takes the known facts and weaves a bit of imagination in between where the facts are not known . I think with a character such as Anne of Cleves, a certain amount of this is needed, as unlike other of Henry's wives, she really wasn't involved in many scandals, and not a great deal of clear facts remain .
Most of the book,as far as I can tell, is pretty factually accurate , although I have to say I couldn't really find out much evidence of Hans Holbein beings Anne's lover, potential or real, or even of any great friendship between them . I suspect he may have been used to illustrate the unusual predicament Anne found herself in - single , but without a chance of marriage, in a land far from home.
Also, in the book the marriage seems to have been consummated, although the facts show that Anne actually testified that the marriage had not been. The non consummation of the marriage was one of the key factors in the anullment, as well as an alleged pre contract .
One of my biggest gripes with the book is that it ends rather abruptly with the death of the king. While I understand that this would have resulted in Anne being less in the limelight, she lived as a member of the royal family, and a devoted aunt to the three young royals until her death, and I think at least a short couple of pages summarising the rest of her life (even as an afterward rather than as part of the story) would have been a nice addition to the book.
Overall though, I enjoyed the book . It is not as scandalising and exciting ad some other more modern writers, however this book, written in the 60's originally, stands up well against many modern works . I think it was, for the most part, pretty accurate, and was certainly an interesting read.
4 stars .