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Book Review: My Lady of Cleves by Margaret Campbell Barnes

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Margaret Campbell Barnes' My Lady of Cleves was already thirty years old the first time I read it when I was in high school. Thirty-five years later, the book has been reprinted, and it stands the test of time. It was the historical novel that made Anne of Cleves my favorite of Henry VIII's wives. That hasn't changed.

After the death of Jane Seymour, Henry Tudor, Henry VIII, was urged to take a fourth wife for the sake of diplomacy. Since many of the available women in Europe were not interested in marrying him, Hans Holbein was sent to Cleves, in Flanders, to paint miniatures of the two princesses. Anne was the older sister of the Duke of Cleves, and not considered the beautiful one, but Holbein found depths and hidden beauty in her. In painting that miniature, he sealed her fate. The English negotiated for Anne's marriage to the king.

Anne of Cleves was not prepared for marriage to a middle-aged man, a man who was already forty-eight and fat. Henry was not prepared for marriage to a woman who was large-boned and bigger than his beloved Nan Boleyn. Before she was even married, Anne was thrust into a world of political intrigue. And, Henry, who couldn't see beyond Anne's clumsiness and and lack of skill at English, fell in love with Katherine Howard before the wedding to Anne. The marriage was doomed from the beginning.

However, Barnes portrays Anne as a practical woman, appreciated by the English people, and, eventually even by Henry. It was too late to save their marriage, but Anne saved herself, and, in many ways, saved Henry's children, Mary, Elizabeth and Edward, from their own isolation and neglect. My Lady of Cleves shows a side of Henry VIII that is not ordinarily seen, the man who was aware of his own aging. And, most of all, it introduces the reader to a woman who grew into a strong, formidable figure.

In recent years, historical novels have seen a surge in popularity. Books such as Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, and Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl were popular book club choices. Margaret Campbell Barnes' My Lady of Cleves would make an excellent selection as well. It's a novel that stood the test of time.

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