Quick Review (read on for full review)
A richly woven story that captures the complexities of a turbulent period in English history and the real people who lived through them. Poignant and moving at times, this is one of the best books I have read set in Tudor times. 4 / 5
Summary (from back of book)
‘All eyes and hair’ a courtier had said disparagingly of her – and certainly the younger daughter of Tom Boleyn lacked the bounteous charms of most ladies of Court. Black-haired, black-eyed, she had a wild-sprite quality that was to prove more effective, more dangerous than conventional feminine appeal.
The King first noticed her when she was sixteen – and with imperial greed he smashed her youthful love-affair with Harry Percy and began the process of royal seduction…
But this was no ordinary woman, no maid-in-waiting to be possessed and discarded by a king. Against his will, his own common sense, Henry found himself bewitched – enthralled by the young girl who was to be known as – THE CONCUBINE…
And the tunes had all been merry or sad in a pleasant way, sad like the scent of cowslips or violets when you were grown up and picking them for practical purposes, the cowslips for wine, the violets to crystallise, and to smell them reminded you of how eagerly you had gathered them just for themselves, when you were a child.
(The Concubine by Norah Lofts, pg 44)
He said, ‘I have been thinking about the English. You know them. Do you understand them?’
‘No. Nobody does. They do not even understand themselves. Of all people they are the most unpredictable – and the most hypocritical. Their King is typical of them all.’
(The Concubine by Norah Lofts, pg 80)
I’m not surprised at how well-written and engaging this story is. I’ve read some of Norah Lofts other books; the ones that come to mind are The King’s Pleasure and Eleanor the Queen, both of which I enjoyed immensely. The Concubine is certainly as good as those two examples.
We all have our favourites, I think, when it comes to the wives of Henry VIII. Anne Boleyn is not one of mine, though I do find her story an interesting, if sad one. A little ironic too, given how hard she worked to make it to Queen, only to fall as far as anyone possibly could a couple of years later. So perhaps a story about Anne Boleyn might not at first glance seem like my cup of tea…and yet, the era and in the people who lived in it / through it are fascinating.
This story oozes historical fact and description, and where it is lacking due to no contemporary evidence or records, the author is quick to point out where she became inventive:
“I do not say that this is how it happened; I only say that this is how it could have happened.” Your Author.
Each chapter is prefaced with a quote about that chapter’s subject matter; many are written at the time, others written by later historians. These help settle the fiction in amongst the fact so that the story reads as fluid and seamless between what we know occurred and what might possibly have.
And, it is not only from Anne’s POV that we are given her story, because all she is and all she does affects a great many people around her, as well as further afield. There is of course, Henry himself, Catherine of Aragon, relegated to Dowager Princess of Wales, Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell, Mary Boleyn…the list goes on. This doesn’t serve to complicate the story, though you might think it would. What it does do is give the reader the fullest possible picture of what is going on in and around the main areas of activity.
The characters and personalities of the main players in this story are well-presented. Anne is portrayed as very smart and very clever – which, by all accounts she very much was. I’m not sure I completely agree with what is given as her primary motivation for setting her on the road to becoming queen – her forcibly broken engagement to Henry Percy by persons higher up the power chain. Why? Because if she didn’t actually want to become queen, she had ample opportunity – years – to get out of it.
As for Henry, he was also an intelligent man, able to understand and put across highly academic arguments when it came to some of the biggest issues of the day, namely religion. And some of that intelligence comes through in the book, but it is often overshadowed by another side of his personality: his desire to get what he wants. It’s sad that this comes at an extraordinary price; sometimes by shaming, humiliating and ruining those who cross him, at other times only a person’s death will satisfy him. And it’s a price he’s willing to make others pay for his ambition. His character in the book is very believable; of course, he doesn’t see himself in such negative terms but rather as a victim of others mistakes and schemes.
We all know what happened in the end to Anne Boleyn, but that doesn’t make the final chapters of this book any less moving or poignant. The Concubine was an engaging, compelling read, that I recommend to those who are interested in the life of Anne Boleyn or those who enjoy fiction set during the Tudor period. I’m hoping to get around to reading Alison Weir’s Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession soon, and am looking forward to see how she presents Anne, perhaps even comparing the two portrayals.
Note: A little bit of shameless publicity here. If you are interested in The Tudor period, I wrote a Tudor ghost story centred on Anne Boleyn and Catherine of Aragon, for a competition last year, placing joint second. If you would like to read it (it’s free!), follow this link. Don’t forget to let me know what you think to it…