Long enamored of the Tudor dynasty, particularly the reign of Henry the Eighth, the subject of Weir's latest historical novel is a welcome addition to the English king's obsession with suitable women to provide an heir to the throne. Though an unlikely match for the often volatile Henry, Anna of Kleve is one of the choices with whom I am least acquainted. Without a preconceived notion of this ill-fated bride, Weir's novel is particularly interesting.
Newly widowed, overweight and suffering chronic health problems, Henry is forced to extend his search for a wife to the furthest reaches of the globe, none of Europe's most eligible matches willing to become Henry's fourth wife. From a small German duchy, 24-year-old Anna of Kleve is Henry's choice, the king deceived by the flattering portrait painted by Hans Holbein.
While the King is past his prime, he is grateful to have put the business of betrothal finally behind him. The young woman soon to meet her groom has secrets of her own. Though not a beauty, she has nurtured dreams of romantic love since a girlhood. Steeped in the rules of propriety, a dutiful daughter with a fanciful heart, she has the rich imagination of a romantic unhampered by reality. She allows herself to hope that a loving marriage and children await her with the powerful English monarch.
The tale is written from the perspective of Anna, a young woman summarily rejected by her waiting groom, unassailably convinced he can never love her. What can be more unbearable than the overt rejection of the man she is meant to wed?
Though Anna bears the secret burden of her youthful mistakes, she is not helpless, learning the intricacies of her new role as queen and managing as best she can the difficulties she faces in the bedroom. She manages by developing a close relationship with her spouse, who cannot hide his aversion to his new bride's body and is unable to complete the marital contract. All too conscious of the fates of Henry's former wives, Anna tempers his impulses to toss her aside and distance himself from the wife he cannot bed.
After much counseling, Henry finds a palatable solution, turning Anna from wife to "sister", allowing husband and wife to avoid a more unpleasant denouement. Thus does Anna of Kleve avoid the dangerous landscape Henry's wives travel and take her place in Tudor history.
As one of the lesser queens among King Henry's complicated choices, Anna does not inspire much curiosity or inspire the jealousy of his court. From a small, less important country, this "sister-queen" could be thought forgettable. But Weir delves deeply into a naive young woman's limited experiences and dutiful expectations, revealing a steady character who leaves her home and family, perfecting the art of survival in a foreign country. Thrust into an immodest court that judges harshly and sneers at her traditional garb so carefully prepared by her mother for presentation to the court, Anna does not disgrace her family, or prove unequal to the challenge before her. She endears herself to a man careless of his wives' fates, building a new life on the ashes of an ill-starred marriage and a reputation for loyalty.
Anna of Kleve becomes one of the memorable stories in Weir's series of the women Henry the Eighth weds. These women's histories and their fates are testaments to the power of patriarchy firmly established in European kingdoms, women at the mercy of the powerful men--and their courts. Only the most wily and ambitious are able to achieve success, and that both limited and transient until Elizabeth the First finally claims the throne of England.