Margaret Campbell Barnes – Brief Gaudy Hour Book Review

The infamous love of King Henry VIII and the mother of Queen Elizabeth I, Anne Boleyn undertook a rocky journey from innocent courtier to powerful Queen of England. A meticulous researcher, Margaret Campbell Barnes immerses readers in this intrigue and in the lush, glittery world of the Tudor Court. The beauty and charms of Anne Boleyn bewitched the most powerful man in the world, King Henry VIII, but her resourcefulness and cleverness were not enough to stop the malice of her enemies. Her swift rise to power quickly became her own undoing.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, being the first older historical novel (first published in 1948) that I’ve read on the Tudors. Margaret Campbell Barnes back catalogue was reprinted by Sourcebooks in 2008. After finishing this novel I can see why, this easily outshines a lot of contemporary offerings.

You might be surprised that a lot of novels on Anne Boleyn are written from another characters point of view, from ladies-in-waiting to fools, to other historical figures. You will not be surprised, if you’ve heard of Anne Boleyn that is, that most novels (and some historians) paint her as a scheming shrew. Barnes seems to have flouted these conventions.

Instead we get a refreshingly human portrayal of one of the most enigmatic women in Tudor History, following Anne from her childhood at Hever right up until her execution.

On the historical accuracy side, the actual timeline of events is a bit muddled, and we skip about six years. The fictional liberties are not outrageous (considering the actual source material available at the time) and develop the plot reasonably.

There are some major points in this book that impressed me. Firstly the strong relationships between Anne and her friends and family, and notably her brother George and her sister Mary. There is a great passage where George promises to give Anne a copy of the (then first) English translation of the bible, providing a catalyst for her love of the new religion.

The author doesn’t gloss over the fact that Anne was deeply religious and was a central figure in the beginnings of the Reformation. It’s not touched on extensively, but enough to remind people that Anne as Queen was interested in bettering religion and education and helping the poor. And I think enough historical novelists conveniently forget that.

The fact that women had no power over their own destinies and were at the mercy of their families and husbands is really driven home here, she presents the very realistic situation that Anne was in regarding her first betrothals and how she was handled after she caught the King’s attention. Anne herself is portrayed as a beautifully complex character. She is of course full of the fire, passion and fierce intellect she is famous for, but we also see the very young and vulnerable side of her that is so often neglected.

This is nicely written, well-paced and detailed, and an enjoyable read. Recommended.

Rating: ★★★★☆