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The Queen of Subtleties - Suzannah Dunn

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

FOR her first historical novel, Suzannah Dunn chose as her subject the enigmatic Anne Boleyn, not least because “her rise, and the speed of her downfall, was extraordinary.” The result is The Queen of Subtleties.

But as well as Henry VIII’s second queen who, as we all know, was found guilty of treason following trumped up charges of adultery and incest and subsequently beheaded on Tower Green, Dunn has introduced a Lucy Cornwallis to the tale.

Which means Anne’s story unfolds, not only in her letter to her daughter Elizabeth, but also through the eyes of Lucy. But whereas the events pertaining to Anne are historically accurate – with three notabable exceptions (but more of those later) – those surrounding Lucy are entirely fictional. However, records do confirm that a Mrs Cornwallis worked as a confectioner in Henry VIII’s household although little else is actually known of her.

Linking the two, apart from the sugar sculpted ‘subtleties’ created by Lucy, is the young court musician Mark Smeaton who, though he worshiped Anne from afar was no less instrumental in her downfall. Poor naive Mark who paid the ultimate price.

For the most part, The Queen of Subtleties is well written and Dunn displays many deft touches with her imagery. What I do find extraordinary is the language she coined for her characters – for Anne in particular who, if Dunn is to be believed, sounds more like a fishwife than a queen.

I mean, would she really have told anyone to f*** off? I don’t think so and I can only presume that this, together with her use of diminutives, nicknames more suited to the playground than a royal court and misplaced contemporary vocabulary, is a misguided attempt to drag Tudor England into the 21st century.

That said, I did actually enjoy the book – partly for the same reason that prompted Dunn to write it, but also because I had hoped to learn something new of Anne. That I didn’t, ultimately didn’t seem to matter. Dunn’s Boleyn does, however, come across as, to use the modern vernacular, a bitch; a woman who would stop at nothing to get what she wanted. Even so, did she really deserve to die?

And Lucy’s story, although dismissed by some as superfluous, provides a fascinating insight into Tudor cuisine, in particular, to the refined art of sugar sculpting.

Finally, the three historical inaccuracies – the motto embroidered on the king’s jousting costume for Shrove Tuesday, 1526, was ‘Declare I dare not’, not ‘No comment’; it was Anne’s uncle, the Duke of Norfolk who broke the news of Henry’s fall to her, not Sir Henry Norris; and the aunt with Anne in the Tower was not the Elizabeth who had been Duchess of Norfolk, but another one. But why the changes?

Be that as it may, The Queen of Subtleties will no doubt satisfy lovers of historical fiction. Just don’t expect too much or you could be disappointed.