The Queen of Subtleties

The Queen of Subtleties

by Suzannah Dunn

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A tremendously vivid, page-turning and plausible novel that depicts the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn, the most spirited, independent and courageous of Henry’s queens, as viewed from both the bedrooms and the kitchens of the Tudor court.Everyone knows the story of Anne Boleyn. Henry VIII divorced his longstanding, long-suffering, older, Spanish wife for a young, black-eyed English beauty, and, in doing so, severed England from Rome and indeed from the rest of the western world. Then, when Henry had what he wanted, he managed a mere three years of marriage before beheading his wife for alleged adultery with several men, among them his own best friend and her own brother.This is the context for Suzannah Dunn's wonderful new novel, which is about – and told by – two women: Anne Boleyn, king's mistress and fated queen; and Lucy Cornwallis, the king's confectioner, an employee of the very highest status, who made the centrepiece of each of the feasts to mark the important occasions in Anne's ascent. There's another link between them, though: the lovely Mark Smeaton, wunderkind musician, the innocent on whom, ultimately, Anne's downfall hinged…Suzannah Dunn has all the equipment needed for literary-commercial success: wit, a mastery of dialogue, brilliant characterization, lack of pretence, and good humour. The Queen of Subtleties adds to that mix a wonderfully balanced, strong story; Dunn has plumped for a fascinating retelling of one of the most often-told, most compelling stories of our islands' history. In doing so, she's turning from contemporary stories to historical fiction. The result is sensational.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780007373437
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 04/28/2011
Sold by: HarperCollins Publishers
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 416,179
File size: 399 KB

About the Author

Suzannah Dunn is the author of eight previous books of fiction: Darker Days Than Usual, Blood Sugar, Past Caring, Quite Contrary, Venus Flaring, Tenterhooks, Commencing Our Descent and most recently Queen of Subtleties. She lives in Shropshire.

Read an Excerpt

The Queen of Subtleties

Anne Boleyn

Elizabeth, you'll be told lies about me, or perhaps even nothing at all. I don't know which is worse. You, too, my only baby: your own lifestory is being rewritten. You're no longer the king's legitimate daughter and heir. Yesterday, with a few pen-strokes, you were bastardized. Tomorrow, for good measure, a sword-stroke will leave you motherless.

There are people who'd have liked to have claimed that you're not your father's daughter at all, but you've confounded them. You're a Tudor rose, a pale redhead, whereas I'm a black-haired, olive-skinned, coal-eyed Englishwoman as dark as a Spaniard. No one has felt able to suggest that you're other than your father's flesh and blood.

You won't remember how I look, and I don't suppose you'll ever come across my likeness. Portraits of me will be burned. You'll probably never even come across my handwriting, because my letters and diaries will go the same way. Even my initial will be chiseled from your father's on carvings and masonry all around the country. And it starts tomorrow, with the thud of the sword to my bared neck in time for my husband's public announcement of his forthcoming marriage. As his current wife, I pose a problem. Not such a big one, though, that the thinnest of blades can't solve it.

I want you to know about me, Elizabeth. So, let's start at the beginning. I was born at the turn of the century. And what a turn, what a century: the sixteenth, so different from every one before it. The changes I've seen. Gone, quite suddenly, is the old England, the old order of knights and priests. England used to be made of old men. Men born to their place, knowing their place. We Boleyns have always prided ourselves on knowing just about everything there is to know about anything, with the exception of our place.

I was born in Norfolk. My mother is a Howard. Her brother is the Duke of Norfolk. I was born in Blickling Hall. I've no memories of Norfolk, but I'm told that the land is flat, the sky high and wide. So, from the beginning, it seems, I've had my sights on the horizon. The climate, in Norfolk, is something I've heard about: blanketed summers and bare, bone-cracking winters. Inhospitable and uncompromising, like the Howards. If the world had never changed, that would have suited the Howards.

Something else I've heard about the Howards: that the Duke, my Uncle Norfolk, has the common touch. At first, it seems a strange thing to hear about the last man in England to have owned serfs; but in a way, it's true, because, for him, business is everything and he's unafraid to get his hands dirty. No airs and graces. Land and money: that's what matters to a Howard. My uncle has never read a book, and he's proud of the fact. Ruthlessness and efficiency: that's what matters. He'll clap you on the back, one day; stab you in it, the next. No hard feelings, just business as usual. Never trust a Howard, Elizabeth, not even if you are one. Look where it got me, sent here to the Tower by my own uncle.

But I'm a Boleyn first and foremost. My father didn't have the Howard privileges; he's had to make his own way in the world. And he has; oh, he has: cultured, clever, cool-eyed Thomas Boleyn. England has never seen the likes of him. For a start, he has a talent al-most unknown here: he speaks French like a Frenchman. Which has made him indispensable to the King.

We Boleyns have lived a very different life from everyone else, in this country; from everyone else under these heavy English skies, in their musty old robes and gowns, slowly digesting their stews. I lived in France from when I was twelve until I was twenty. I grew up to be a Frenchwoman, I came back to England as a Frenchwoman. There are women in France who are strong, Elizabeth, because they're educated. Unlike here, where the only way to be a strong woman is to be a harridan. Imagine how it was, for me, to come back. For years, I'd been thinking in French. In France, anything seems possible, and life is to be lived. Even now, stuck in the Tower, a day away from death, I'm alive, Elizabeth, in a way that most people here haven't ever been and won't ever be. I pity their bleak, groveling little lives.

Forget Norfolk, Elizabeth; forget the Howards, and old England and Catholicism and creaky Blickling Hall. Think Hever: the castle which we, the Boleyn family, made our home. Mellow-colored, grand, and assured. Perhaps you'll go there, one day. I grew up there.

I was a commoner, but I became queen. No one thought it possible, but I did it. I supplanted the woman who'd been England's queen for nineteen years, a woman who'd been born "the daughter of the Catholic Kings." Her royal blood, her regal bearing, her famed grace and benevolence were nothing against me, in the end. She was a fat old pious woman when I'd finished with her. And England was changed forever. It had to be done. I got old England by the throat, and shook it until it died.

Forget the ex-wife, for now, and let's start instead with men. Because the story of my life -- and now, it seems, my death -- is largely a story of me and men. I like them. They're easy to impress. I like male openness, eagerness. When I came to the English court, twenty and fresh from France, I fell in love with Harry, Lord Percy. Nothing particularly unusual in that. Women did it all the time. What made the difference was that Harry was in love with me. Twenty-two-year-old Harry Percy: that lazy smile; the big, kissable mouth. He dressed beautifully ...

The Queen of Subtleties. Copyright © by Suzannah Dunn. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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The Queen of Subtleties 3.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
Cariola on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Oh, dear, another dud by Suzannah Dunn. I have to say that this one suffers more from dullness than, like The Confession of Katherine Howard, absudity. But apparently anachronisms, particularly in terms of language, are her forté, as she uses them irritatingly in all of her novels. I'm not exactly sure why she interspersed Anne Boleyn's story with that of Lucy the confectioner. I guess we were supposed to draw some kind of feminist analogy from the fact that both were 36, liked sweets (which included "subtleties"), and had the hots for the much younger Mark Smeaton. Blech.There are so many much better novels about Anne out there; don't waste your time on this one. I have one more of Dunn's books on the shelf, The Queen of Sorrows, but I think three strikes and she's out for me. I'll probably give that one away unread.
juglicerr on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I had supposed when I opened this book that the title "Queen of Subtleties" would be applied to the two narrators in different senses: to Lucy Cornwallis as the pastry chef and Anne Boleyn as a plotter. There is no subtlety whatsoever to the portrayal of Anne. There is none in the interweaving of the two narrations, either. They don't necessarily match in time or theme, so I suppose that Dunn simply chopped up the two stories based on page numbers or to avoid writing seques. The Lucy Cornwallis sections could have been completed into a very interesting historical novel. Since Lucy, like most of the common people of the time, sided with Catherine of Aragon, this could have made a very interesting counterpoint to Anne Boleyn's tale. One of the things that is most fascinating about it is the look at behind-the-scenes at the palace, not the world of the courtiers, but of the common people who did the real work of running the place. Particularly interesting is the informal look at the relationship between them and Henry. I feel somewhat cheated to after all I have read about the Tudors, I didn't know that Henry played cards with his cellerer (and lost!) until I read this. Readers with an interest might want to read Joan Glasheen's The Secret People of the Palaces: The Royal Household from the Plantagenets to Queen Victoria, which is rather dry (a lot of it is simply lists of offices) but contains a number of interesting anecdotes as well. All the King's Cooks: The Tudor Kitchens of King Henry VIII at Hampton Court Palace by Peter Brears should obviously be right on point. Unfortunately, this promising piece is never completely developed and is paired with a flat, simplistic account of Anne Boleyn. This is supposed to be written on the eve of her death, intended for her daughter Elizabeth, but I regard it as a complete failure. It simply doesn't ring true as an account of someone looking backwards, worrying about how their child will think of them, knowing that they are to die the next day. Only at some of the points when Anne is actually thinking about her daughter is there any nuance to her character, reflection, or any sense of leave-taking. Otherwise, she is always shrill, literally and figuratively, crude in all senses of the word and utterly without character development. Anne, as seen by Dunn, apparently had no inner life and insight into herself and other people, which I think is the point of a novel. Otherwise, one can simply read an encyclopedia article. There is no point recounting this oft-told tale unless the author has something more to offer than this flat, simplistic account. Or if this is how she wants to present Anne Boleyn, maybe she should have told the story from the point of view of Mary Tudor, Henry and Catharine's daughter. For better Anne Boleyn novels, I'd read The Concubine by Norah Lofts or Brief gaudy hour,: A novel of Anne Boleyn by Margaret Campbell Barnes. At this point, I believe Eric Ives' The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn is considered the best biography; I also like Marie Lousie Bruce's Anne Boleyn.. The language of this section is deliberately (according to the notes) modern and jarring. apparently in intentional contrast to the Lucy Cornwallis section. I am not normally a stickler for historic accuracy in language, absolutely accurate language would difficult to read, but this is painful. I can only suppose that Dunn means the contrast to signify that England would have been a better, gentler place without Anne Boleyn. I can't imagine what else she thinks it accomplishes. Only for the VERY dedicated historical novel reader.
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I really enjoyed this book for the mere story of it. I was not completely familiar with the Boleyn story, nor much of that time period and I did not have trouble following the main story line at all. Like I said, I enjoyed reading this. I usually try to find books that I can read a few times before getting rid of them. This is not one that I see myself reading again for a very long time, if ever. However, I should say that I have suggested (and loaned) it to a few of my friends and family who also found it enjoyable.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I liked it. Anne's voice rings clearly. The reader knows her as a complete person with all the warts and foibles that that entails. Even Henry, as presented through Anne's eyes, is a complete peson. The book was interesting. Interspersing the confectioner's story with Anne's makes it even more plausible. A very interesting way to learn and enjoy history.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I didn't like the book. So why the five stars? Because of the manner in which it was written. Taking a 16th century piece of history and having the characters call each other 'Frankie', 'Billie', 'Becky', 'Maggie', etc, is definitely a different way of presenting this time period. I kept expecting Anne Boleyn herself to come out in Valley Girl Speak! I couldn't square myself with the way it was written, finding it just WAY too different, but hopefully this style will introduce modern teens to the story and get them interested in The Tudors.
harstan More than 1 year ago
While Anne Boleyn is incarcerated in the Tower awaiting execution on phony charges of adultery because King Henry needs to rid himself of his queen to marry Jane Seymour, she scribes her memoirs so her daughter Princess Elizabeth will never forget her mother. Anne's personal account of her meteoric rise from commoner to queen and collapse to death row prisoner is tainted towards making her look good in her child¿s eyes............................. At the same time, Anne works her journal; her servant Lucy Cornwallis provides a less biased account of the major events that she observed that impacted the queen. Much of what unfolded occurred because the Catholic Catherine held marriage as a sacred act of God and thus refused to divorce Henry when he wanted to marry Anne. Henry delayed the divorce until he felt strong enough to defy powerful Spain, the Pope, and a popular queen until he named himself head of the Anglican Church. Anne marries her king, but her happy nuptials fail to last as people blame her for bewitching Henry and he holds her accountable for not producing a male heir.............................. . The chapters alternate quite cleverly between Anne defending herself and the more neutral Lucy who has no ax to grind. Thus fans receive a fabulous historiography fictionalized account of an individual whose relationship with a king changed how her country worshipped. Historical fiction readers will appreciate this delightful recounting by Anne, who remains somewhat stolid as events come around without remorse even towards Catherine and her daughter Princess Mary. The seemingly more accurate write-up is also enjoyable as the confectioner servant tells how she sees what happened. Combined readers get a taste of King Henry¿s pompous court............................. Harriet Klausner
theliterarymaven More than 1 year ago
I am normally very generous with book reviews, however, if I could give this book 0 stars, I would. This has to be one of the worst books I've read about Anne Boleyn and the Tudor period in general and I read a lot of books about that period. I don't normally care if a book strays a little from historical fact for the sake of a plot line. However, a lot of the history in this book is completely wrong and not only that, Anne Boleyn speaks like she's from the present day, as do the rest of the characters and it's jarring. I spent most of the time reading it wanting to scream at the author that they did NOT speak like that. One or two words wouldn't make a difference, but it's like that through the entire novel. It makes it very hard to take the book seriously as historical fiction. Honestly, I would never recommend this book to anyone. It was a struggle to finish it.
GTFL More than 1 year ago
I LOVE ANNE BOYLEN!!!!!! She is my fave of Henry the 8th's wives and i am so glad i found this book i could not put it down. U get to here about what is happening not just through Anne's eyes but Lucy eyes 2 and it helps u uinderstand nore how what is happening to the royals and thiere circle effects everyone around them.
Some ppl make Anne out to be a witch and a villian but when it is tiold through her u understand her situation more and what really happened
I would reccomend any book about Anne!!! and any of Henry's wives