Writing a fictional account of an actual historical figure is a tricky business, especially when your heroine is the most famous queen ever to be beheaded – Anne Boleyn. While Katherine Longshore’s Tarnish does a decent job supposing the events of a gap in the real Anne Boleyn’s history, her inability to deviate too far from the eventual reality creates a few problems in the delivery of the fictional story.
Young Anne Boleyn is the bullied outcast of King Henry VIII’s court. The women openly mock her odd French ways of acting and dressing, and her inability to think before she speaks often gets her into trouble with the men. She’s horrified by the prospect of marrying the boorish James Butler, an arrangement that will serve her family’s political ambitions but leave Anne to a hellish life in the wilds of Ireland. And whenever King Henry VIII enters the room, Anne’s world begins to hum, her fascination with the handsome king bordering on obsession.
When known womanizer and court poet Thomas Wyatt approaches Anne, she is surprised by his proposition. He vows that if she follows his directions, he can make her the darling of King Henry’s court. Men will want her and the women will, perhaps begrudgingly, allow her entry into their tight inner circle. While Anne refuses to actually engage in an affair with Wyatt, she allows him to mislead others into believing the two are physically involved. With Wyatt’s instruction on the ways of flirting, proper dress and behavior, Anne is pleased when she gains the attention she seeks.
But the already-married Wyatt cannot keep Anne from being forced to marry James Butler. In order to secure her own future, she agrees to a secret betrothal with another courtier, Henry Percy, even going so far as to seal the deal with her virginity in a clumsy, awkward encounter that she regrets immediately. When their engagement is revealed, Percy is forbidden to marry Anne, and she is exiled to the Boleyn’s country estate. Lonely and desperate to return to court, Anne is delighted when Thomas Wyatt visits her at Hever Castle, and their friendship deepens.
After more than a year passes, Anne is finally called back to court. She’s thrilled that King Henry now seems to notice her; indeed, he was the one who facilitated her return. However, Anne comes to learn some secrets about Wyatt that both break her heart and force her to decide what is more important, love or her own independence.
Longshore does a great job conveying the boredom that I would expect from an idle life spent at court, where the whims of the king dictate everyone’s actions, and she weaves real people into this fictional world with ease. Too, this story gives us a politically astute Anne Boleyn with no small need for vengeance against those who have wronged her in the past, a woman so determined to be true to herself that she gave up the promise of a great love for even the smallest chance of entering the royal circle.
However, through the first two-thirds of Tarnish I didn’t know quite how I felt about the book. I kept waiting for something to happen. I didn’t necessarily like Anne, nor did I believe in the romantic relationships that I was being sold. Part of my difficulty was a lack of interactions between Anne and Thomas Wyatt. They spent little time together, at least on the page, and their encounters tended to be argumentative and volatile, with Anne alternating between disgust over Wyatt’s innuendos to swooning over his poetry. Also, for as much as Wyatt was helping Anne become the darling of the court, the result of his influence never came across to me. Other than a card game in which Anne shows her snarky wit and bests the men at the table, we never got any scenes of Anne dazzling the courtiers or becoming the most sought after person of the royal social scene.
Perhaps afraid that Anne would come off as a power-obsessed royalty groupie, Longshore seemed determined to establish up front that Anne had strong feelings for King Henry from the moment she first met him. Not only did this weaken my belief in any true love she might have felt for Thomas Wyatt, but Anne comes across as rather fickle. One minute she is walking with King Henry, glorying at his nearness and the feelings he brings out in her. The next minute she is kissing Wyatt, mentally professing her love for him even if she won’t speak the words out loud. I was never able to lose myself in the tragedy of Anne forsaking the love of her life because I kept being assured that she is so dazzled by King Henry. There simply was no sacrifice on her part.
More interestingly to me is Longshore’s depiction of a time when virginity and sexuality were the only things of value that a woman possessed. Anne guards her maidenhood like Fort Knox because of its supreme worth in negotiating the best possible future for herself. She is well aware that her family sees her sexuality as just another bargaining chip towards its own political aspirations. Anne’s father punishes her for giving away her virtue too cheaply to Henry Percy, yet he encourages her to use King Henry’s attraction to her to gain status at court. Her sister, Mary, the king’s current mistress, comes across almost as a sex slave, kept in her rooms where the king visits her, knowing that as soon as he tires of her, she will be tossed aside and always branded a whore. Even Thomas Wyatt’s plans to elevate Anne socially rely on the illusion of Anne as the consort of an infamous rake. Through all of this game playing, Anne comes to know that she wants to be valued for her intelligence above all else, a truly revolutionary goal for a woman of that era.
By the end of Tarnish, our fictional Anne has been positioned on the trajectory that the real life Anne Boleyn took. The players who will appear in her ultimate downfall have been placed like pieces on a chessboard, and the seeds of her relationship with King Henry VIII have been planted. If you are a fan of the Phillipa Gregory books that depict life in the Tudor court, Tarnish provides another, albeit a bit bland, look at what might have been going on behind all of the pageantry.