28th January 1547.
It is almost midnight and the cream of the English nobility hold their breath as King Henry VIII prepares to face his God. As the royal physicians wring their hands and Archbishop Cranmer gallops through the frigid night, two dispossessed princesses pray for their father’s soul and a boy, soon to be king, snivels into his velvet sleeve.
Time slows, and dread settles around the royal bed, the candles dip and something stirs in the darkness … something, or someone, who has come to tell the king it is time to pay his dues. The Kiss of the Concubine is the story of Anne Boleyn, second of Henry VIII’s queens.
As with all who love the Tudor period of English history, I know Anne Boleyn’s story and know that there is likely never going to be any new or earth-shattering information that will change her story. So, why keep reading her story again and again? The answer is very simple, every now and again I run across a re-telling of Anne’s story that reignites my interest in her, her story and, her legacy. Judith Arnopp’s The Kiss of the Concubine has done just that for me.
The Kiss of the Concubine begins in 1521 when Anne is just a teenager living in her father’s home at Hever and her sister Mary is King Henry VIII’s mistress. Raised to prize and protect her virtue, Anne understands that her sister Mary is ruined and that she (Anne) will never place herself in such a position. To be any man’s whore is to be ruined and to have no future; to be the King’s whore is to be ruined entirely. At such a tender age, Anne Boleyn can’t even begin to imagine the course her life will take and just how completely ruined she will truly be when all is said and done.
As we all know, Anne Boleyn not only catches the eye of King Henry VIII but becomes intimately involved in a grand romance that is not consummated until just before Anne is married to the King and sitting beside him as the Queen of England. For seven long years, Henry courts Anne openly and fights the Church in Rome to set aside his marriage to Catherine of Aragon thus paving the way for his marriage to Anne. To say that the road to the throne was long and arduous doesn’t even come close: Anne and Henry, in their bid to be together not only piss off the Pope (more than one, in fact!) but alter the way the entire country worships. These two people, in an effort to be together (and satisfy their shared lust if we’re being fair) break with centuries of tradition in order to legitimize and justify their relationship. Setting aside and in some instances killing those who oppose them, Anne and Henry forge ahead in their endeavor and for a very brief moment in time, all is right with the world. Anne finally marries the man she has grown to love, Anne’s daughter is recognized as the heir to the throne and, England’s separation from Rome becomes official and complete. Did it never occur to the poor girl that once she had everything she wanted she would still have to fight to hold on to it all?
Though Arnopp certainly doesn’t introduce anything new in her version of Anne’s story she does allow Anne to tell her own story. The Kiss of Concubine is certainly based on the historical accounts of Anne and her life but is also a fine blend of that history and fiction. Arnopp has had to imagine how it is that Anne would have perceived the events in her life and then create a dialogue and interactions to match. While many authors have a tendency to portray Anne as a conniving and heartless woman bent only on achieving her own pleasures and goals, Arnopp has taken a different approach entirely. Arnopp has given Anne a voice that is strong and capable in many instances yet wholly uncertain and vulnerable in many, many other instances. Arnopp gives us an Anne that struggles for most of her life with the uncertainty of her situation, the uncertainty of her King’s love and, the uncertainty of the world around her. She relies heavily on her brother George, and trusts that the men who have fought for she and Henry’s cause will support her to the end. Unfortunately, for George, Anne and, many, many others, Anne’s trust is sadly misplaced at nearly every level and to her great disbelief she is replaced in Henry’s heart, his bed and, beside him. As Anne tells us in her “own” words she believes in Henry to the bitter end. Sadly, Anne goes to her death loving a feckless man who betrayed her mind, body and soul.
The Bottom Line: Arnopp has given us a unique perspective on the life of Anne Boleyn and for myself I found the voice given to Anne by Arnopp to be quite fascinating. Despite knowing Anne’s story and how it all turns out, I found her “voice” to be most convincing and throughout the read I found myself routing for her and hoping desperately for her success. But alas, even Arnopp cannot change the history nor save the head of the doomed Queen. Of particular note in this read is the demeanor and character of Henry VIII as seen through Anne’s eyes. Rather than a strong and confident man, Anne “tells” us that Henry was a man who constantly wavered in thoughts and opinions just as much as he wavered in his feelings toward his Queens. In many ways both Anne and Arnopp remind us that Henry’s quest to produce a male heir so consumed him that he treated his wives and Queens as nothing more than toys who, when they lost their luster or could not give Henry what he most desperately wanted, he tossed them aside. In all, a fine read with a perspective not often seen in this genre.