Lady in the Tower
As historical novels go, especially those concerning British royals, Jean Plaidy certainly covered a lot of ground. Over her lengthy writing career (she also wrote as Victoria Holt, Phillipa Carr, and Elaine Hibbert), most significant royal historical figures were included in her writing. Her books are mainly known for their extremely thorough research, and the inclusion of juicy details about favorite monarchs that spice up otherwise oft-told stories, as well as a more staid writing style that speaks of an earlier era of historical fiction.
Plaidy’s The Lady in the Tower recounts the story of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry the Eighth and begins with Anne in the Tower, recalling her life’s story as she awaits certain death. She goes over the events of her childhood in France, where she was sent as a handmaiden to King Henry’s sister, who was to marry the old and decrepit King of France despite the fact that she was in love with the Duke of Suffolk. Anne’s formative years were spent in France, learning to speak French with a native accent, learning to dress in her own inimitable style and to live and behave at a royal Court. In many instances, Plaidy has Anne tell us things that she couldn’t have possibly known at the time, saying, “Later I heard that…” This was one of the things that didn’t work for me; for although it is thoroughly researched and written, the style is often contrived and heavy-handed.
Anne catches the eye of King Henry, and as they are alone she decides to play a game and pretend she is unaware he is the King. During this first moment Henry is impressed by her outspokenness and later on he comes to value her virtue, which she tells him she is holding out for the right man. She tries her best to avoid him, and in this Plaidy tries to portray Anne as being the unwilling victim of the King’s desire. Years pass during which Anne holds his desire for her at bay while Henry tries to move heaven and earth to procure a divorce so he may be free to marry her. The continual tension and frustration of these years are skillfully evoked by Plaidy, though she continually makes Anne out to be less involved than one would imagine her to be. When Anne realizes the power she has over Henry, she begins to appreciate her position and only then does she really strive to become queen.
The well-known events of Anne’s life are all recounted. So too are the pitiful figures of Henry’s first Queen Catherine and her daughter Mary, and their neglect and betrayal at Henry’s selfish hands as he schemes to be with Anne so that England might have an heir. The latter half of the book largely centers around the break with the Church of Rome, as the Pope excommunicates Henry for divorcing Catherine, sister to the all-powerful Emperor Charles, and Henry’s decision to set himself up as the Head of the Church of England. This part of the story is well fleshed-out and refreshed many of the old details of the story for me.
The story of the demise of their relationship is excellently told. Plaidy writes it so that after their marriage, Anne falls out of favor due to her outspokenness and unwillingness to show humility to a King who has always previously tolerated her outbursts. Anne also comes to realize that it was not merely lust that motivated King Henry to pursue her so persistently, and at the cost of a break with the Church of Rome. She sees that it is his selfish desire to be rid of an old, unfertile Queen so that he might have a son, and to capture a woman who has played hard to get – and who is the life and soul of the Court. When she begins to miscarry son after son, even the presence on one healthy daughter, the charming Elizabeth, is not enough to save her.
Where this story falls down is the portrayal of its protagonist and narrator, Anne. I’m afraid that, as far as I’m concerned, Plaidy’s novel comes in a poor second to another, more recent book on the same topic: The Other Boleyn Girl by Phillipa Gregory. Gregory’s book makes no bones about the fact that Anne schemed to oust Catherine, and was up to her neck in the Court intrigues while Plaidy’s portrayal of a hand-wringing, regretful Anne was rather unconvincing and didn’t make the entire best of such a meaty character. On the other hand, it has to be mentioned that Gregory’s habit of bending facts to suit the story holds no place in Plaidy’s tale, which definitely has a ring of truth.
To sum up, there is not much wrong an author can do in basing her book around such a juicy and incredible tale. The ability to look through the windows of time at the motivations of such all-powerful figures, and to see their weaknesses and failings, makes for a fascinating read. What this book lacks in melodrama and excitement, it more than makes up for in accuracy and a well fleshed out tale. The Lady in the Tower is worth a read, if only to get all the facts.