Amenable Women by Mavis Cheek
|Amenable Women by Mavis Cheek
|Category: Literary Fiction
|Reviewer: Sue Magee
|Summary: An intertwining of the stories of recently-widowed Flora Chapman and Anne of Cleves, fourth wife of Henry VIII delivers a wise, amusing and eminently readable book. Highly recommended.
|Date: April 2008
|Publisher: Faber and Faber
Ten days ago I found myself in Trafalgar Square with an hour to kill. The Tudor Room at the National Portrait Gallery beckoned and I sat and looked at the Ditchley Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. It was thought to have been painted to commemorate an entertainment which Sir Henry Lee gave to celebrate the Queen's forgiveness of his relationship with his mistress, Anne Vavasour. In the quietness of the room I found it easy to think back through Elizabeth's turbulent life and then to her father, the vainglorious Henry VIII. Had I known that this book would be waiting for me when I returned home I might have looked more carefully at some of the other portraits and listened to their stories too.
Flora Chapman had never been a beauty and she'd lived all her married life in the shadow of her husband, Edward. He was feckless, infuriating and seemingly loved by all and particularly by his daughter Hilary. Others might, in truth, have called him ignorant and bigoted. His death in a bizarre ballooning accident – he plummeted to earth in a burning balloon and landed in a river, thus ensuring his death three times over – left his widow in a strange state. Not bereft, as might have been expected, she had a strange sense that there were possibilities ahead for her.
Initially it had been Flora who was interested in history but as with everything else it had been taken over by Edward and at the time of his death he was involved in writing the history of Hurcott Ducis, the village where he and Flora had lived since their marriage. Their home was on the site of a house occupied by Anne of Cleves, the fourth wife of Henry VIII. Partly to placate her grieving daughter (distraught but marvellously able to bemoan the fact that there is no inheritance for her) Flora says that she will continue the work (only just) started by Edward.
Despite opening with a funeral this is a surprisingly cheerful book – in fact there are parts which are laugh-out-loud funny. It's also very wise. Flora finds herself drawn to Anne of Cleves – or Anna as she calls her – in sympathy at the way that she was dismissed as 'the Mare of Flanders'. Flora was always stung by the fact that Edward referred to her as 'bun face'. She sets about placing Anna in her rightful place in history and in the course of her investigations finds out more about Edward than she needs to know and a great deal about herself. She realises that Anna, like herself, was an amenable woman and even without glamour and beauty such people can have a good life.
I found the early part of the book a little heavy on exposition about Anne of Cleves but this might be because the Tudors is one period of history with which I can claim any great familiarity. One thing which did surprise me was that I enjoyed the 'voice' given to Holbein's portrait of Anne. Normally I would have found such a device rather twee but it was well-handled and meant that a Queen dead for some four hundred years played a real part in the story.
The research behind this story is impressive – few works of fiction come with such a bibliography - but other than in the early part of the book it's delivered with a light touch. Fact and fiction is seamlessly interwoven and the story – particularly the historical part – is compelling and convincing.
Surprisingly Flora, the heroine of the novel, doesn't dominate and allows some crisply drawn minor characters to emerge. I expected to enjoy this book, for it to be one which would make me think. What I didn't expect was that I would find it a real page-turner and which will bear rereading before too long.
I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag. We also have a review of The Lovers of Pound Hill by Mavis Cheek.
For another book where the widow finds herself without quite as much grief as would be expected you might like to try Benny and Shrimp by Katarina Mazetti. If you'd like another book where art plays a major part we can recommend The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean.
You can read more book reviews or buy Amenable Women by Mavis Cheek at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
You can read more book reviews or buy Amenable Women by Mavis Cheek at Amazon.com.
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