Historians have long debated exactly what about Anne of Cleves was so distasteful to her husband, Henry VIII of England. After all, the portrait that inspired Henry to send for her as his fourth bride shows a comely enough woman - not beautiful, but pleasant to look at, with heavy-lidded eyes and a serene countenance. Yet Henry infamously proclaimed "I like her not" after meeting her and quickly obtained an annulment.
Margaret Campbell Barnes proposed an ingenious solution to this historical conundrum in her novel, My Lady of Cleves. Hans Holbein, the court painter sent to Germany to capture Anne's likeness, fell in love with her and painted what he saw: A beautiful soul who had captured his heart.
Until Holbein's arrival, Anne lived a placid, uneventful life in the duchy of Cleves. Anne and her family all believe Henry will pick her attractive sister, Amelia, to be his bride, and all are shocked when Henry instead sends for Anne.
Touched by Holbein's exquisite miniature of her, and awakened to a belief in her own inner beauty, Anne returns the painter's love, but because of their differing stations in life, their passion can never be consummated.
The novel follows Anne to England where, determined to please her family by making a success of her royal marriage, she works hard to learn the English language and court customs. After her rejection by Henry, she fulfills her domestic urges by becoming a trusted friend to his daughters and by efficiently managing the large income and household Henry awards her for her compliance with the annulment. Barnes shows how Anne became perhaps the luckiest of Henry's wives; not only did she keep her head, she lived out her life as an independent woman who always had a place at court as a sort of honorary Tudor.
Barnes portrayed Anne as an attractive, intelligent, practical and warm-hearted woman not deserving of the insult hurled at her by Henry of "Flanders mare." As the story progresses, Henry's nobles and finally, Henry himself, come to recognize her worth.
Barnes's novel had a warm, cozy feeling to it as it told the story of a royal wife neglected by history - not as stubborn or principled as Catherine of Aragon, nor flashy and tempestuous as Anne Boleyn, nor youthful, silly and reckless as Catherine Howard. I enjoyed the opportunity to get to know Anne of Cleves a bit better through the lens of fiction. My grade: A-
My Lady of Cleves will be republished in September.