THE QUEEN OF SUBTLETIES
By Suzannah Dunn. Morrow. 288 pp. $24.95
Novelists and dramatists have long been drawn to the story of Henry VIII and his six unfortunate wives. No wonder. It's got the lot: intrigue, passion, high policy. Because its consequences were so severe, and its issue so significant, Henry's second marriage, to Anne Boleyn, is the one that has inspired the most retellings.
The tale is gripping. A king, grown weary of the state marriage contracted in his youth and longing for the male heir that his aging queen cannot provide, turns to a dark-eyed English beauty with whose sister he has already sired a son. But Anne Boleyn, unlike her sister, will not settle for the role of mistress, and the monarch must refashion the very fabric of his realm to accommodate his desire and her ambition. Yet when he has severed ties with Rome, reformed the church in England, sent many to their deaths and finally married, he tires of his bride within three years and has her beheaded on unlikely counts of adultery.
Fascinating as it is, this story is well-known to the point of triteness. A writer needs a compelling slant or a new vision to justify adding to the groaning piles of fiction already lying thick on this well-trodden ground.
British author Suzannah Dunn attempts an original approach in The Queen of Subtleties, her first novel to be published in the United States. She employs two narrators: Anne Boleyn, awaiting execution and writing the story of her life to be read at a later date by her daughter Elizabeth; and Lucy Cornwallis, the king's confectioner and creator of the sculpted sugar "subtleties" that provide centerpieces at court feasts and tempt the monarch's famous appetite. This is a promising structure, and the voices are pleasantly various. Anne Boleyn, of course, is entirely self-serving in her account of her own rise and downfall. Lucy Cornwallis is an unbiased source, a kind of below-stairs Everywoman, who remains loyal to the spurned Queen Catherine while admiring aspects of Anne's strong personality and pitying her eventual plight. Dunn has created Lucy Cornwallis from a mere name -- the only female name in the lists of the royal household's 200 kitchen staff -- and does a good job of evoking her tradeswoman's pride in her unusual craft.
Her story, alas, just does not have the heft of Anne Boleyn's, and the lives of the two women intersect in only a most contrived way. Lucy falls for Mark Smeaton, the new queen's musician, and believes her affections returned. In fact, young Smeaton is infatuated with the queen and sees Lucy only as a safe and caring older confidante. This misunderstanding is poignantly rendered from the disappointed woman's point of view. Smeaton ultimately suffers for raising his eyes above the kitchen by being accused -- and executed -- as one of the queen's partners in adultery.
While the voices of Anne and Lucy alternate, they narrate from different points in time, so that the effect is often a jarring distraction as the reader is forced to reorient within the story. For example, Lucy's account of the night of Catherine's death comes almost a hundred pages before Anne's account of the same event. In between, the narratives weave back and forth, with Catherine long-buried one minute and very much alive the next.
Dunn has written seven previous books of contemporary fiction. This is her first venture into a historical subject, and she has made the rather odd decision to retain modern idiom and give not the slightest nod toward the rich language of Tudor times. To me, this is an opportunity lost, and it undoes much of the good work done elsewhere in creating a sense of the court, the kitchens and the royal barges. Much of the pleasure of historical fiction comes from how well the author evokes the strangeness of another time and place, and Dunn has sacrificed this. Henry has a "crush" on Anne; he wants his courtiers to "skedaddle." It is not as if the authentic documents on which she could have drawn are written in Chaucerian Middle English. Her period is just a half-century removed from Shakespeare; her royal protagonist, Henry, wrote songs that are still in the repertoire of modern schoolchildren. Our ear is attuned to the speech of the period and accustomed to enjoying it.
Worse, Dunn deliberately fictionalizes where fact is far more engaging. In 1526, at the height of his unrequited passion for Anne, Henry appeared in a jousting costume embroidered with the words "Declare je nos," which translates as "Declare I dare not." For no good reason Dunn makes the motto "No Comment." Elsewhere, she changes the name of Anne's dog, called "Perky" from the French "pourquois" because of his quizzical expression, to the bland and uninteresting "Pixie."
The Queen of Subtleties offers certain satisfactions for those who find this story and period compelling. But by deciding to deprive herself of so many aids to authenticity, Dunn has failed to create as subtle a confection as she might have. *
Geraldine Brooks is the author of "Year of Wonders" and the forthcoming novel "March," to be published in early 2005.