Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Brief Gaudy Hour by Margaret Campbell Barnes

The enigmatic Anne Boleyn comes to life in this charming, brilliant portrayal by acclaimed British novelist Margaret Campbell Barnes.

The infamous love of King Henry VIII and the mother of Queen Elizabeth I, Anne Boleyn undertook a rocky journey from innocent courtier to powerful Queen of England. A meticulous researcher, Margaret Campbell Barnes immerses readers in this intrigue and in the lush, glittery world of the Tudor Court. The beauty and charms of Anne Boleyn bewitched the most powerful man in the world, King Henry VIII, but her resourcefulness and cleverness were not enough to stop the malice of her enemies. Her swift rise to power quickly became her own undoing.

The author brings to light Boleyn's humanity and courage, giving an intimate look at a young woman struggling to find her own way in a world dominated by men and adversaries.
Anne Boleyn is one of those historical figures that a lot of people would think they know enough about. If you have read even just a smattering of Tudor novels, then you will know that she was one of the main reasons why Henry VIII wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon, that she failed to deliver the King the thing he most desperately wanted in the world (a son) and yet was mother to one of the great monarchs of English history, and that she was beheaded when the King's attentions moved on to another young lady of the Court, who just happened to be her cousin.

That is, of course, a very flippant summary of Anne Boleyn's life. My point is to demonstrate that it is easy to think that there isn't actually much new to learn about Anne Boleyn - that the stories have already been told. I don't in any way think of myself as a Tudor expert, but I have read a number of books about Anne Boleyn and the other Tudors. It was therefore something of a surprise to realise that there were aspects of Anne's life that I hadn't really read or thought much about before.

One of the major points of differences between this and other Anne Boleyn fiction that I have read was Anne's reasons for first of all holding a very frisky king at arm's length. Several times I have seen the reason giving for not becoming Henry's mistress earlier in their relationship as almost being a case of 'treat him mean, keep him keen', but the reasons given within this novel seemed to me to show a progression from a fairly happy young lady, to a woman determined not to be cast aside as her sister was, to a Queen that many Londoners hated, to a lonely figure almost abandoned when her fate was to be meted out.

We meet young Anne as she has been summoned to Court by her ambitious father, anxious that his daughter should be given the honour of attending to King's sister as she heads to the French court. Anne causes quite a stir in the French court. She is beautiful, accomplished and extremely flirtatious whilst always being careful not to cross the line into being anything other than a chaste young woman. Whilst there though she is witness to the loving, romantic and some could say risky love shared by the King's sister, Mary, and one of his closest advisers, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. Anne vows that she too is going to have her own great love story!

This decision alone is enough to leave a trail of disappointed men, most specifically Tom Wyatt who has long loved Anne and would willingly have married her. Needless to say when Anne does find love, she falls hard and fast, and when that love is thwarted by two men, she becomes determined to gain whatever revenge she can, without minding terribly that those two men are the most powerful men in the country.

Whilst Anne's rise to prominence in Henry's affection is very fast, her acquiescence to him is one that takes quite some time, but her demise seems to be even faster again. With the number of loyal friends and retainers dwindling and even some members of her extended family abandoning her, the woman who is condemned to death is quite brittle, almost a victim of her own scheming and plotting and bitterness.

There was one character which didn't quite feel right and that was Anne's stepmother, Jocunda. Whilst her role within the story was fine, and there are other books around which use an assumption that Anne's had a stepmother, it does seem to be something that most historians agree was not actually fact.

Given that this novel was originally published in 1949 (albeit about to be republished by Sourcebooks) a reader would be forgiven for expecting to see some anachronisms in terms of the language and the style of writing, but I really didn't notice many. I was drawn into the story and absorbed from beginning to end, closing the book with a heartfelt sigh of satisfaction. I have seen this book mentioned as a favourite of several readers of historical fiction, and I can certainly see why.

Thanks to Sourcebooks for sending me this book for review.

Cross posted at Historical Tapestry


  1. Thanks for the review - this one sounds pretty good. I am currently reading another one of the author's books (My Lady of Cleves) which I am enjoying.

  2. I saw this book at Target yesterday and was intrigued. I even took a picture of it with my cell phone so I wouldn't forget about it. lol

    I just assumed it was a new release. Interesting. I'll have to put it higher on my list!


  3. Awesome review! I just added it to my TBR!

  4. I loved this when I read it in my teens and am so pleased they are finally republishing it! I also loved My Lady Of Cleves by the same author, it's a much more sympathetic look at Anne of Cleves' life than you will have ever read before.

  5. Apparently My Lady of Cleves is being rereleased later this year! I will definitely be keeping an eye out for it.

  6. I am now reading the book and it is great! Nice review by the way!

    PS is that picture taken in The Netherlands??

  7. Yes, I believe it is of Rotterdam.