Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Queen of Subtleties by Suzannah Dunn

In "The Queen of Subtleties" author Suzannah Dunn offers a new take on the old tale of Anne Boleyn. The story is told in alternating first person narratives interweaving the stories of two strong-willed, plainspoken women: Anne Boleyn, second of the six wives of Henry VIII, and Lucy Cornwallis, the hardworking royal confectioner. The link that binds them is Mark Smeaton, the naive, lovestruck lute player who would end his young life on the scaffold as one of Anne Boleyn's alleged lovers. And taken together, the two narratives give us both an inside and outside, and an upstairs and downstairs, perspective of the royal soap opera that was Henry's reign.

On the eve of her execution, Anne Boleyn takes up her pen to school her daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth I, in life's hard lessons and to tell her the true story of her life; Anne is canny enough to know that Henry would like to eradicate all trace of her and, if she is remembered at all, posterity may vilify her.

Though many readers have been very vocal in their criticism of the author's use of distinctly modern language, including slang, in a novel set in Tudor England, in my opinion, though I did find it distracting, and at times rather jarring, I think it was a brave move; the style suits Anne Boleyn's bold, vibrant, no nonsense personality. This is a woman who boasts more than once "I don't do anything by halves." She doesn't pull her punches and she isn't always nice; she calls Catherine of Aragon "Fat Cath" and is just as cruel and callous to others she dislikes. And in this frank, direct, brisk language that doesn't mince words, Anne Boleyn tells it all, her rise and fall, as she saw and lived it, from the cradle to the threshold of the grave.

When he sets his sights on Anne, Henry's first move is to leave a sugar rosebud on her pillow. He proceeds to woo her with gifts of sugar and marchpane (marzipan) and, of course, jewelry. The sweets are the work of Lucy Cornwallis, the royal confectioner, an artist with sugar. It is she who creates the elaborate subtleties (candy sculptures) that grace the royal table to commemorate every triumph, holiday, or any special event deemed worthy of celebration.

Shy, young, sweet-natured, sincere Mark Smeaton is fascinated by these edible artworks and ventures into the confectionery kitchen at Hampton Court to meet the woman who makes them and to see how it is done. Lucy is surprised, but is nonetheless drawn to the curious youth, and begins to look forward to his visits to the kitchen. She doesn't realize until her shallow, gossipy assistant, Richard, tells her that Mark Smeaton is the wunderkind musician of the Tudor court.

Despite his fame as the "Angel-Voice" of the court, Mark Smeaton is in reality a lonely boy, a dreamer, secretly and chivalrously in love with Anne Boleyn. "She's true to herself," he confides admiringly to Lucy, aptly observing what an unusual, and also lonely, thing this is to be at a court where everyone is two-faced; they say one thing while thinking another. With his head in the clouds and his eyes dazzled by the vivacious Anne, Mark never realizes that Lucy has tender feelings for him; he sees her only as a confidante whose warm, cozy kitchen is a haven from the glittering, busy, bustling world of royal intrigue upstairs.

In the end, while not the book it might have been had the author steered a safer course regarding language, and made the tale of Lucy Cornwallis and her doomed infatuation with the lovestruck Smeaton the focus of the novel, like one of Ms. Cornwallis' entrancing edible centerpieces, "The Queen of Subtleties" is still an interesting read for those who are able to get past the discordant modern tone and the slang that strikes such a sour note.


Susan Higginbotham said...

Great review! I've never read this; I may try it someday.

Wendy said...

Wonderful review - I'm currently reading the book and wondered also about the language, although it fits in very well with Anne's personality.