Friday, September 5, 2008

Being Conspicuous

Once when I was in high school, I walked through the doors of the local Dairy Queen with a couple of my friends and then turned to them and shouted "DON'T DO ANYTHING TO BE CONSPICUOUS!" As I remember it, they dissolved in giggles and the few people in the store turned back to what they had been doing.

Every once in a while I'm seized with an urge like this. The urge rises whenever I order a coke in a restaurant and the server says sweetly "will pepsi be okay?" "NO!" I want to shout. "JUST BRING ME WATER, THEN!"

When we were first driving around in our rental car this summer, the kids and I were searching for a radio station. We found a rap station just as I was turning off for the house where we'd been catsitting, in a neighborhood where all the neighbors waved as we came and went and lots of preschoolers were playing on the yards and sidewalks. The urge came over me to roll down the windows, and so we drove up to our catsitting house with rap blasting out of the windows of the rental car. My kids, who have always begged for a reprise of the Dairy Queen line, wanted to put the windows back up. Sometimes it's hard to be conspicuous.

The heroine of Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl is the character who has not been conspicuous in history, Anne's younger sister Mary. She tells the story entertainingly, as a good courtier should, and it's fun to fill in the gaps between what you know with Gregory's version of what could have happened behind the scenes.

There's the occasional bit of anachronistic feminist philosophizing from Mary, especially with regard to the position of Queen Katharine:

"I was near to delighted laughter because Katherine of Aragon was speaking out for the women of the country, for the good wives who should not be put aside just because their husbands had taken a fancy to another, for the women who walked the hard road between kitchen, bedroom, church and childbirth. For the women who deserved more than their husband's whim."

But mostly Mary presents herself as a woman who is not terribly intelligent, much less charming and witty, as Anne is. At one point during Anne's time as queen, the king walks with her:

"'Your married life seems to suit you, Mary,' he said intimately as we went down the stairs, half of the gentlemen of the chamber following us. 'You are as pretty as when you were a girl, when you were my little sweetheart.'
I was always wary when Henry grew intimate. 'That's a long time ago,' I said cautiously. 'But Your Grace is twice the prince you were then.'
As soon as the words were out of my mouth I cursed myself for a fool. I had meant to say that he was more powerful, more handsome now. But, idiot that I was, it sounded as if I was telling him that he was twice as fat as he had been then--which was also appallingly true.
He stopped dead on the third stair from the bottom. I was tempted to fall to my knees. I did not dare look up at him. I knew that in all the world there had never been a more incompetent courtier than I with my desire to turn a pretty phrase and my absolute inability to get it right.
There was a great bellow of sound. I peeped up at him and saw, to my intense relief, that he was shouting with laughter. 'Lady Mary, are you run mad?' he demanded.
I was starting to laugh too, out of sheer relief. 'I think so, Your Grace,' I said. 'All I was trying to say was that then you were a young man and I a girl and now you are a king among princes. But it came out...'
Again his great shout of laughter drowned me out, and the courtiers on the stairs behind us craned their necks and leaned down, wanting to know what was amusing the king, and why I was torn between blushing for shame, and laughing myself.
Henry grabbed me round the waist and hugged me tight. 'Mary, I adore you,' he said. 'You are the best of the Boleyns, for no one makes me laugh as you do. Take me to my wife before you say something so dreadful that I shall have to have you beheaded.'"

Mary desires little more than to mother her children and live with a man who loves her. She succeeds in her desires, in the novel, and escapes London after her sister Anne's beheading because she is not conspicuous enough to make anyone look for her. She is a proper woman of her time, or so it seems, keeping her head down and seeming to obey all the men in her life.

Mary is the central character in three novels: Court Cadenza (later published under the title The Tudor Sisters) by British author Aileen Armitage, Karen Harper's The Last Boleyn and The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory.

Gregory's novel will make any woman want to go out in public and laugh as loudly as I did the other night in an Indian/Greek restaurant, where two dark-haired men stared at me as if to say "in my country, you would be forced to be quieter."


lemming said...

Gregory has successfully set back the efforts of historians by several decades.

I say this as someone who wrote a 25 page paper on romance novels.

Jeanne said...

So what about her novels "sets back" (isn't that appropriate??) historians? The ananchronisms? The imagined back stories? The tendency to show new ideas as results of love entanglements?

lemming said...

Oh that, plus that she only presents one interpretation for actions which could be very easily attributed to more than one.