I’ve been reading some historical fiction over the last couple of days, but as two of the books I reviewed were for The Historical Novels Review, I can’t post those reviews here until they appear in print. (By the way, if you haven’t been to the Historical Novel Society’s website, check it out—it’s well worth a look.) I did, however, finish My Lady of Cleves, by Margaret Campbell Barnes.
My Lady of Cleves was published in 1946; it contains a dedication to “the women who lost the men they loved in the fight for freedom.” For a sixty-year-old historical novel, it’s held up remarkably well. Barnes's prose is uncluttered and easy to read, nothing purple or fusty about it.
Barnes’s characterization of Anne of Cleves is interesting and refreshing. Though there doesn’t seem to be much reason, historically, to take Henry VIII at his word in describing her as a “Flanders mare,” she’s often treated as such by novelists. Here, Anne is attractive, though not in the style that appeals to Henry, and she’s even given romantic yearnings for none other than Hans Holbein. How accurate this is I have no idea, but as the relationship isn’t depicted as having an effect on history or as giving rise to any offspring, I can live with it. Anne’s a capable woman who longs for children of her own and who satisfies her maternal instincts by mothering Henry’s brood. At the same time, she’s no saint; jealous of Hans Holbein’s mistress at one point, she takes the opportunity to sleep with Henry VIII, now on his fifth wife.
My Lady of Cleves is an appealing story of a woman who makes the best of a bad situation. There seem to be used copies readily available; pick one up if you’re a fan of Henry VIII and his womenfolk.
Meanwhile, I’ve taken a detour from historical fiction for a few days to read a new book by James Maguire called American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of World Nerds. It’s an entertaining nonfiction book about, as you guessed, the National Spelling Bee and the young contestants who enter it. It contains an interesting history of spelling bees in America, a brief history of the development of the English language and its American version in particular, profiles of contestants, and a look at the competition itself. If you enjoyed the documentary Spellbound a couple of years back—I did—you’ll probably like this book. (Years ago, I won a sewing box for winning my fourth-grade-class spelling bee. For some reason, I felt obliged to use the box for its intended purpose. Poor Barbie never had so many sack-like garments as she did the summer after fourth grade.)
Finally (yes, I pressed the “ramble” key on my keyboard tonight), at last I broke down and ordered Michael Hicks’s biography of Anne Neville, queen to Richard III. I’ve heard negative things about the book, but from sources biased heavily against Hicks, so it’ll be interesting to see for myself what it's like.