Margaret Campbell Barnes’s works have often cropped up in historical fiction lists, but this is the first book of hers that I’ve read and I’ve been very pleasantly surprised. Although My Lady of Cleves was first published in 1946, it doesn’t feel remotely prim or dated: only a certain elegant restraint hints at its age. It feels very much like a Norah Lofts story in that sense. Yes, it’s yet another Tudor historical novel, but Barnes rings the changes by focusing in on the least familiar and most appealing of Henry VIII’s many mistreated wives: Anne of Cleves. With grace, generosity and gentle humour, she gives this much-maligned woman her moment in the spotlight and pays tribute to the quiet pragmatism that allowed Anne to do what none of her five sister-queens managed: to keep both Henry’s affection and, more crucially, her head.
When Henry VIII’s ambassadors arrive in the little Flemish duchy of Cleves, they cause a distinct flutter. It seems incredible that a great European king should be taking an interest in so modest a place, but here’s the proof: he has sent his court artist, Hans Holbein, to paint the two sisters of the Duke, Amelia and Anne, so that Henry can make his choice between them. (Yet they’re realistic: they know perfectly well that Europe is running short of princesses willing to marry an ageing, fat, short-tempered uxoricide.) No one has any doubts what will happen. Pretty, vivacious Amelia will win the beauty contest without any trouble. But then something happens. Holbein sees something in her sister Anne that no one else has troubled to notice: an inner beauty, a kind of calm and peace and competence. His liking for this modest princess makes its way into his miniature portrait and, before anyone can truly process what has happened, Anne is on her way to England with a train of servants and a king’s eager summons calling her on.
What happens next is well-known. At Rochester, the eager Henry comes in disguise to get a first glimpse of his new bride. Horrified by her strong build and unfashionable clothes, he dubs her with an epithet which has dogged her down the centuries: ‘the Flanders mare’. From that moment, Anne’s great match is doomed. Petulant and immature, Henry sulks about his wife, unable to appreciate her calm, loyalty and capability in the face of that one damning first impression. Anne herself struggles to endure a marriage in which her husband is openly chasing her lady-in-waiting Katherine Howard from day one. And when, after a mere six months, Henry’s officials come to Anne with an extraordinary proposal, it seems that she has failed in her one purpose in life. Or has she? Might the ultimate rejection actually turn out to be the ultimate route to freedom?
Campbell Barnes creates a wonderfully evocative picture of Tudor life: not so much the great palaces with the conniving courtiers, but a smaller scale world (though still grand), full of warmth and friendship and making the best of things. As Anne makes a new life for herself at Richmond, Campbell Barnes shows us the double nature of her unique position. She is able to control her own household and to live as she pleases – a rare gift for a Tudor woman – but on the other hand she is restricted from filling the roles that would most suit her – as wife and mother – by her unprecedentedly awkward position. Both triumphant and tragic, she comes across as immensely sympathetic, soothing and the kind of person it’d be rather nice to sit down and have a cup of tea with.
I know nothing about the historical Anne, so I can’t judge to what extent Campbell Barnes has allowed her own affection to colour her protagonist. It would be interesting to get some thoughts from someone better versed in the period; but her characterisation feels true and plausible… except, perhaps, the frisson with Hans Holbein, which feels like an author’s opportunistic addition. A very warm, gentle book, and well worth reading if you fancy trying out some Tudors without the ample bodice-ripping. Now, of course, I should look into the other things that Margaret Campbell Barnes has written. Any suggestions?
(Unfortunately I can’t find a photograph of Margaret Campbell Barnes anywhere on the internet. The photo used on Goodreads and other sites actually shows Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll. If anyone knows of anywhere I can find a picture of the author, do let me know!)