Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Linda Reviews: Kiss of the Concubine by Judith Arnopp

Kiss of the Concubine
by Judith Arnopp, a review by Linda Root

My acquaintance with Anne Boleyn has developed over sixty years, from the time I was a romantic teenager enthralled by the movie Young Bess. I was sufficiently captivated by Elizabeth Tudor to want to know more about her disgraced mother, and over a lifetime of voracious reading, I have devoured a small library’s worth of  histories seeking the real Anne Boleyn.

This has been a landmark year for Anne and me, what with Susan Bordo’s excellent award winning analysis, The Creation of Anne Boleyn, and one would think that my personal Anne would have been put to rest. Thus, when I volunteered  to review Kiss of the Concubine, I wondered why I was so anxious to explore another fictionalized account of Queen Anne when I already knew her intimately. Thus I made a vow to approach Judith Arnopp’s book as if Henry Tudor’s second wife was a total stranger and I was a fledgling Tudorphile. Reading The Kiss of the Concubine  from that perspective, I am delighted to report that there is a new historical novel about Henry VIII’s most sensationalized queen worthy of a spot on the reading list of anyone who appreciates meticulously researched and artfully crafted historical novels, whether new to the queen’s story or anxious to revisit it from a different point of view—her own.

The relationship between Anne and Henry, as Judith Arnopp paints it, is intriguing and complex.  It is not ‘love at first sight’ that grows less arresting with the passage of time. Like fine tea, it took some time to brew. Judith’s Anne is not a beautiful woman, but she is a bright one and every bit as capable of manipulation as Henry.

The Anne in the paintings is not a beauty, but she is sufficiently captivating to warrant a second look. High-born men like Henry Percy and romantics like the poet Tom Wyatt had one thing in common—they were willing to take substantial risks to gain the lady’s favor. The king knew who she was, but he did not immediately recruit her for a bed-partner as he had her sister Mary. It was after several confrontations between the two of them that he noticed qualities more compelling than her looks— her confidence and wit. Those were the attributes that allowed this less-than-beautiful commoner to hold off Henry’s advances for seven years during which the king put aside his queen, his relationship with God and the Roman Church, and the status quo of the ranking nobility. In Judith’s book Anne plays him very well. Never naïve, she recognizes the risks, and on occasion looks wistfully back upon the days when Henry Percy and Tom Wyatt were leaping over hedge rows and falling at her feet for the pleasure of her company.

Ms. Arnopp places Anne in an accurate historical setting which exposes much of the character who has been maligned by historical novelists and historians in the past. She is a woman of an age when women were not supposed to adopt politically controversial causes or to influence events by employing means more direct than the lifting of the hem of a kirtle. Anne is indeed a seductress, but she is not subtle, and that makes  enemies of men like Woolsey, and later, Cromwell. All of those characters are significant in Anne’s story. Of the supporting characters, the one who plays a major role is Anne’s brother George, but he is not alone. His wife Jane, Lady Rochford, is one of the significant women in the story, and while she is no less jealous of her sister-in-law than in other accounts, she is viewed more sympathetcally, not just by Judith Arnopp, but by Ms. Arnopp’s Anne.  When Henry is encouraged to believe the worst about the queen, George’s behavior toward his sister gives credibility to the whispers of her enemies, both male and female. In Kiss, Anne and George truly love one another, but not carnally. There are hints in Arnopp’s novel that George would have overlooked the taboo, but not Anne. And in Kiss, as Anne becomes reconciled to the inevitability of her execution, it is not Henry whose support and advice she craves. It is George's.

As the author conveys in her end notes, she does not try to solve the mystery of just what occurred to turn Henry away from Anne so quickly. She acknowledges that there has to have been more than Anne’s inability to provide Henry with a son to precipitate so violent a change.  In The Kiss of the Concubine, Anne herself remains perplexed. Many historical novelists would have been tempted to answer that question with the same caprice as a parade of traditional historians have done,  either blaming it on infidelities of the queen or by laying it all at Henry’s feet and attributing it to his lust for the more obiesant Jane Seymour and an overdose of midlife crisis. By telling the story in the first person, the author sidesteps that temptation neatly. The reader can only know what Anne knows.
By choosing her subject well, Ms. Arnopp avoids some of the problems other fine writers have encountered in creating a historical novel through the eyes of protagonists who played major historical roles but did not come across as especially interesting in print. Arnopp’s Anne, like Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell of Wolf Hall, is intriguing enough to carry it off. 

It is interesting that in the fantasy scene that frames the story, Henry seems to be less afraid of death and the consequences of his excesses  and abuses, less terrified of the possibility that the Pope might truly hold the keys to Heaven’s Gate, than he is afraid of Anne, who dared to reach beyond her grasp, and at his death, is still reaching. Judith Arnopp’s Anne Boleyn reminds me of Stendall’s Julien Sorel in my favorite classic, The Red and the Black. Her crime, like Julien’s, is that she dared.

Reading Kiss of the Concubine is a fine precursor to settling in with a glass of excellent white wine and perusing an entire library shelf that tells Anne’s story less eloquently and less well than Arnopp’s whispering masked woman shown on the cover of her novel. And yes, Arnopp’s Anne dares to wear a mask. The rather ingenious scene that gives the novel its title and frames the story is not the essence of the book, although it adds to a reader’s pleasure. We never meet the obese tyrant who Henry becomes in his later years, and we are not tempted to speculate as to what impression Henry and Anne’s stillborn son might have had on the history of the Tudors had he breathed. The denouement of the Tudors is written by the childless queens Mary and Elizabeth and is not the story told in Kiss of the Concubine. Kiss, in essence, is a politically motivated love affair, fraught with pragmatisms which overwhelm the passions of the lovers.  We see Henry as Anne saw him. Just as Anne was Henry’s prize, Henry was Anne’s, and for both of them, winning comes with a price. Anne is not portrayed as a martyr, and she is allowed her human flaws. She is jealous and resentful, often judgmental and ambitious, but not arrogant.
For a reader who would like to know the woman who caused all the fuss and died in Fortune’s afterglow, I can think of no more entertaining way to meet her than in the pages of this well-researched and brilliantly written book.

Judith Arnopp

The Kiss of the Concubine by Judith Arnopp and edited by Cas Peace, is available on Amazon and at Amazon UK.

Linda Root is the author of four books of the Queen of Scots Suite, with a fifth pending. 


  1. This is a superb review of a very intriguing historical personality. I have read extensively fact and fiction re Ann Boleyn and think Mantel came close to what went on in the sequel to Wolf Hall. This is in fiction. I loved Eric Ives book on her also. Now thanks to this review I shall be reading Judith's novel also.

  2. Linda you've done it again, another superb intriguing review! Well done.

  3. Great review! I'm adding the novel to my ever growing TBR pile!