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Anna of Kleve, The Princess in the Portrait


Anna of Kleve, The Princess in the Portrait

If you’re a Tudor history nut like me, you probably thought King Henry VIII’s fourth wife was called Anne of Cleves. Turns out, according to Alison Weir --- an eminent historian as well as a novelist --- that the English anglicized and/or garbled her name and that of the small German duchy she came from. She’s really Anna of Kleve, and that’s the title of the latest in Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series.

Henry met her on what might be called The Blind Date to End All Blind Dates (Royal Edition). Online match-ups being unavailable in the 1530s, he had Anna’s portrait painted by Hans Holbein, so he could see what he was getting into. But when Anna arrived in England in 1540, the king seemed not to like his fiancée’s appearance --- perhaps the reality didn’t match the visual preview --- and the marriage was never consummated. Ironically, Henry himself, in the (considerable) flesh, hardly resembled his idealized portraits. Anna was shocked when she finally met this “monstrosity,” this fat man with a smelly infected leg. The deception, it seems, went both ways.

By this time, Henry was adept at getting rid of wives he no longer wanted, and the marriage was annulled after only a few months. In ANNA OF KLEVE, THE PRINCESS IN THE PORTRAIT, Weir tries to sort out what happened behind the scenes to explain this dismaying turn of events.

She begins her story in Kleve in 1530, when Anna was still a teenager, and imagines her being seduced by a handsome cousin, Otho, and bearing a child. Flash-forward to her uneventful wedding night with Henry VIII: Was the king impotent? Although only in his 40s then, his health was poor. Or could he tell from observation that Anna was not chaste? His previous wives, after all, had been pregnant a total of 11 times, and as Weir points out in her Author’s Note, “He must have known the difference between a female body that had borne children and one that had not.”

"Some historical novelists use description superficially, like window dressing; in this book, it’s intrinsic to the story."

Whatever the reason, he put Anna aside, claiming that her childhood engagement to a duke was never properly dissolved. The truth, of course, was that Henry, besotted with his fourth wife-to-be, Katheryn Howard, was in a rush to marry again. He did, however, need Anna’s brother and other German princes as allies in the notoriously unstable European political climate of the day, so he couldn’t just dump her. Besides, he became fond of her as a friend.

Anna lived well at first, for Henry gave her several lucrative properties and often sent gifts of money and jewels. In Weir’s telling, Anna’s former swain, Otho, was part of her household, and they became lovers again in later years, even bringing their son --- reared by foster parents in Kleve --- to England. Her situation, compared to most women, was fortunate: “From a humiliating bondage, she had suddenly been liberated to a life of luxurious freedom; she was, for the first time, her own mistress.”

But then, as now, an independent female like Anna made people nervous. Gossip swirled around her. After Henry executed his fifth wife, there were rumors that he would take Anna back. Less flatteringly (and more dangerously), she was suspected of Protestant sympathies. Although a lifelong Catholic, she was raised in a household that revered the Christian humanist Erasmus, who kept his distance from Lutheranism but criticized the Church. She was spied on, her loyalty questioned, her correspondence examined. Ultimately, unlike the luckless wives before her, she had a quiet life and a private death, but she never quite found the contentment she deserved.

Alison Weir’s novels have authenticity to burn, but you read her for rich historical insight, not dazzling prose. The writing in ANNA OF KLEVE is dutiful but undistinguished. A smattering of German words and phrases is a clunky device for indicating Anna’s early struggles with English. Her rapturous one-night stand with Otho is straight out of some bad romance novel. The dialogue is stilted and the pace often unnecessarily slow.

It becomes positively glacial during the latter half of the novel, for most of Anna’s post-marriage life was apparently taken up with monetary difficulties, inflation having made her royal allowance inadequate. Household economics don’t make very juicy reading, plus the reader can’t help feeling that Anna could have been a lot thriftier. The over-the-top excesses itemized here --- lavish food, clothing, furnishings --- are worthy of Crazy Rich Asians.

And yet, to give Weir credit, it’s in these vivid, credible details that ANNA OF KLEVE really shines. Some historical novelists use description superficially, like window dressing; in this book, it’s intrinsic to the story. The accounts of what German and English royals wore and ate each day, how they worked and prayed and traveled and wrote, point up the contrast between the culture Anna grew up in and the Tudor court she joined in her 20s. For example, the trousseau she brought with her, initially composed of gowns and headdresses in the German fashion, was stodgy, if sumptuous. But Henry sent an English tailor to Kleve to prepare a second set of English-style clothes for his future queen. Although at first Anna felt “half naked” in these low-necked creations, soon she came to appreciate their charm and comfort.

This shift typifies Anna’s whole fascinating evolution from provincial innocent to commanding, sophisticated woman. Weir really makes the reader feel how much the young German bride had to learn, practically overnight (a whole new language!), while at the same time maintaining her public composure. Above all, she had to figure out how to handle the tempestuous, unpredictable king and negotiate the perilous maze of Tudor politics and religion. The stakes were high, literally life or death, but she kept her cool --- and her head.

Even though Anna’s body seems not to have lit King Henry’s dimming fire, you can’t help feeling that he was an utter fool not to stay married to this loyal and sensible woman.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on May 31, 2019

Anna of Kleve, The Princess in the Portrait
by Alison Weir

  • Publication Date: May 5, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 1101966599
  • ISBN-13: 9781101966594