Book Review: Amenable Women
Mavis Cheek, Amenable Women. Faber and Faber Ltd, London, 2008 (Pbk)
I first became aware of Amenable Women by reading a short review in Sydney Morning Herald of 30 August 2008. From the description it sounded like The Daughter of Time on Anne of Cleves (the fourth wife of Henry VIII), which indeed would be an accurate description. In both novels, a present day person investigates a person from the past, who had mostly been portrayed in a negative light, and comes to find them much more positive.
My first encounter with Anne was a long time ago in art class at school, when we were asked to analyse Holbein’s famous portray of her. Our art teacher told us that Anne was a very intelligent woman and, except for the last, was the only one of Henry’s six wives who managed to outlive him. Before reading this book, I had a quick check on the internet of what is known about her and found her mostly described as an uneducated, stupid, and ugly ‘Flanders Mare’. This is said to be the term that Henry used for her (although that claim has been questioned). So I was delighted to find that the Anne I met in Amenable Women was the one my art teacher had described, an intelligent woman who gets what she wants in her own quiet way.
The modern day protagonist of Amenable Women is Flora, whose husband Edward has recently died. Edward had thought of himself as brilliant, a perception shared by many in his community. At the time of his death he was working on a local history, which Flora decides to finish. In his notes Flora comes across Anne, supposed to have lived occasionally at the local manor, whom Edward dismissed as the “exceedingly ugly Flanders Mare”. As her charming husband referred to Flora as “Bun Face”, she immediately feels a certain solidarity with Anne and sets out to find out more. Edward had also mentioned a “date-carved stone set in the remains of the original estate boundary walls” with the date 1557 (the year of Anne’s death) on it, although it seems to have been carved only about 40 years later. Unsurprisingly, Edward had found the stone as uninteresting as the person it is connected to.
During her research Flora travels to Paris to see Anne’s portrait in the Louvre. Here she comes across a rather haughty tour guide re-iterating the old clichés about Anne (plain, dull Flanders Mare). Now Anne herself decides to get involved. She seems to feel a kindred spirit in Flora and the reader can hear her telling Flora (and thus us) her side of her story. Soon after, the portrait is taken to England to form part of an exhibition, where Anne meets her stepdaughters Mary and Elizabeth and all three reminiscence about their history. This is a somewhat weird but clever device of the author to show Anne’s side of her history as well as the relationship between these three women.
By the end of the book, Flora has found an explanation for the mysterious stone and also has a re-match with the haughty tour guide from the Louvre. This misjudged queen reclaims, at least in the context of the book, the recognition of her main qualities pragmatism, dignity, modesty and wisdom.
Amenable Women manages to combine scholarship with humour and a fascinating story. It was high time that Anne should be rescued from the negative clichés, of which conventional history about her is made up. Until her first encounter with Henry, Anne was considered handsome, intelligent and good company, who had picked up English fast. Only when Henry decided he didn’t like her, the official tone changed and she became ugly and slow-witted. But what about her side of the story? By the time of their marriage, Henry was hardly the handsome king she might have been led to imagine, but rather a fat, gross and old man (he was her mother’s age). He must have come as a tremendous shock to her. And as for her being stupid, well, the fact that she managed to keep her head on her shoulders and get a very generous divorce settlement out of Henry speaks for itself.
This fictional introduction to Anne of Cleves encouraged me to find out more about her.
Fraser, A., The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Phoenix Paperback, 2003, pp.351-433
Norton, E., Anne of Cleves – Henry VIII’s Discarded Bride. Amberley Publishing, 2009
Saaler, M., Anne of Cleves: Fourth Wife of Henry VIII. The Rubicon Press, 1995
Warnicke, R.M., The Marrying of Anne of Cleves: Royal protocol in early modern England. Cambridge University Press, 2000
Note: This is an adapted version of my review originally published in the Ricardian Bulletin (June 2010), pp 28-29