It seems there has always been an odd fascination with Tudor England, but in the last decade or so the interest in the Tudor Court has reached new heights. Rather than just an abundance of histories dealing with Henry VIII and his many wives, novels have taken over the shelves and that royal family line have even crossed over to television and film like never before.
With such a basis in history, those who choose to write about that time and those well known figures face a challenge: how do you tell the same story as everyone else in a way that’s distinctive and original? The turmoil of the Tudor Court during Anne Boleyn’s period of favor is easily the best known and therefore the most challenging, but that is exactly the basis for Suzannah Dunn’s 2005 The Queen of Subtleties: A Novel of Anne Boleyn.
So what is Dunn’s unique twist? A dual narrative with Anne narrating to her daughter, Elizabeth, the night before her execution and a second narrative from another class altogether, Lucy Cornwallis, the royal confectioner.
Everyone knows that Anne Boleyn was the mother of Elizabeth I, but there always seems to be a disconnect and Dunn does a good job of bringing the two together again. She works to humanize Anne Boleyn who is usually treated as conniving and self-absorbed, only interested in her own ambitions. What Dunn manages to do is balance that side of Anne Boleyn with a woman in love and with plans honestly meant to better her country. Anne’s narrative chronicles her rise and fall, from first being noticed by the king through her final night in the Tower.
Alongside Anne’s narrative is that of Lucy working in the king’s kitchens during Anne Boleyn’s final tense year as Queen of England. Creating elaborate sculptures of sugar and displays of sweets, Lucy doesn’t expect she has anything more in common with the king, queen, and their court than the desserts she carefully crafts. But the confectioner and the ill-fated queen Lucy Cornwallis allows Dunn to depict another side of life during that time. Most of the novels are told from within the court and the opinions of common English citizens are alluded to but rarely told in the first person.
There are a few weak spots in the novel, but not with the plot. In a note regarding the few acknowledged historical inaccuracies, Dunn states that, “Diminutives of names have been used to avoid confusion (between, for example, the many Henrys and Francises, Marys and Elizabeths).” It’s good that she included an explanation because I had been wondering why she’d done that. Though it was a choice clearly intended to assist the reader, I actually found it to be more confusing. Perhaps if they were more distinctive through personality, it wouldn’t have been necessary.
It also looked like an artificial attempt at demonstrating the intimacy of the court but instead highlighted the other informalities or phrases with more modern associations (I doubt, for instance, that it was Dunn’s intention for readers to imagine Anne saying, “what’s up?” the way it was said in the old Superbowl commercials but that was the first thing that popped into my mind).
Overall, I’m intrigued to take a look at the other two other novels Dunn has written since The Queen of Subtleties that also center around Tudor England: The Sixth Wife and The Queen’s Sorrow, both published in 2008.