“In order to take her mind off Henry’s coming and the approaching hour she went on trying to fix each day’s incidents chronologically in her mind as she had not been able to during the emotional whirl of living them. She preferred to have things unequivocally clear– even the sequence of events leading to her own shattered pride.”
In Margaret Campbell Barnes’s My Lady of Cleves, Anne of Cleves is one of three sisters to the Duke of Cleves. She has always known her place in the family. Her sisters are the beauties and she is content to be the one who has always held things together. She makes sure the household runs-supervising the cooking and mending, always making lists and remembering things for people like medicine and supplies, and visiting the sick. Quiet and observant Anne values that people come to her when they want to unburden themselves and talk about their troubles.
Henry VIII, ever in search of a bride, sends his emissaries to Cleves, where he hopes to form a political alliance, to paint portraits of the two unmarried daughters. Anne’s mother knows that Anne is capable of running a royal household, but it is Amelia who is prettier, more lively- the one who can be spared. But when royal artist Hans Holbein sees and paints who she really is, it is Anne who is chosen on the strength of her beauty to be the next Queen of England with all the inherent intrigue and dangers that it might entail.
I loved reading this book; I was so engrossed in it that I finished it in a day! Barnes succeeded in taking a woman, who for the most part has been a footnote in the history of Henry VIII’s wives, and molded her into a complex and compelling woman who always faced her challenges with dignity and grace. Hers was a difficult situation which was complicated by the fact that she was not completely fluent in the language of her adopted country, but it was a wonderful thing to watch her learn, grow and come into her own even as she learned painful lessons and had to make sacrifices in her decisions. Even in briefly knowing the details of her story and what awaited Anne, I was totally connected and rooting for her the whole way through.
I was absorbed with these characters and their stories. There were no caricatures here. Each person is presented as the complex and multi-faceted individuals that they are. Barnes’ portrayals are so clear and beautiful. You clearly see Henry in his monstrous self-delusion and selfishness but you also see him as haunted by the decisions that he has made, and as the thoughtful and courtly gentleman that he was and can be when it suits his purposes. The conflict and strain which are handmaidens to both his daughters are apparent as they grow up in the uncertainty of his love and their changing status in the kingdom. Mary is more thoughtful and nurturing, while Elizabeth is a child wanting love and affection but also guided by her ego and will.
Another strength of this wonderful novel is the lush descriptions of life in Henry VIII’s England and what life was like at the castles. All the plots and sub-plots were woven with the richness that left nothing to the imagination as to what they were wearing and eating, and the rituals of the people and of the court. This was an exquisitely visual novel. The sub-plots were thoughtful and while I know that some are speculation, they were also probable. If you like good fiction I would definitely check this one out. If you like historical fiction then this is a must read.