Brief Gaudy Hour (Review)

Labels: A Lighter Touch

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Brief Gaudy Hour: A Novel of Anne Boleyn
Margaret Campbell Barnes, 1949
382 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
September 2010

What a feast of Anne Boleyn works the last decade has offered—starting with Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl in 2001 and ending with Alison Weir's The Lady in the Tower in December 2010. Type "Anne Boleyn books" into Amazon and see how many pop up on the screen. Our appetite for the doomed queen is insatiable.

Brief Gaudy Hour
was there before any of them—in 1949. It's had a resurgence in popularity as of late, along with a nifty new cover. We should all look so good at 61.

Barnes gives us a sympathetic version of Anne—an alluring beauty who dazzles two European courts, French and English, with her lively wit, keen intelligence and remarkable grace. Imperious and a schemer, to be sure, but not the grasping monster of Gregory's book.

A young, innocent Anne finds her love for Harry Percy thwarted—by the King (who already has his eye on her) and by the powerful Cardinal Wolsey (who has other plans for young Percy). The two are separated. It is Anne's desire for revenge—on Wolsey and on Henry (by denying him the very thing he wants most, entry to her bed)—that goads her ambition.

In time a sadder, matured Anne comes to self-awareness of her failings. She sees and regrets, in particular, her cruelty to the ailing Queen Catherine and Princess Mary. In them she recognizes a strength and dignity—and abiding love for Henry—absent in herself. But repentance comes too late; the birth of her daughter and still-born boy leave Henry—still—with no male heir. And his roving eye has now alighted on Jane Seymour.

Sixty years on, Brief Gaudy Hour is still terrific—easy to read, richly detailed and thoroughly absorbing (marred occasionally by soap opera-ese). Wonderful discussions can be had over this portrayal of Anne Boleyn, comparing it to other works you might have read. Is she victim—or tragic heroine brought low by fate and her own inner flaws?

See our Reading Guide for Brief Gaudy Hour.

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