Amenable Women, By Mavis Cheek

That other Tudor girl, Anne of Cleves, gives hope to a wonderfully appealing heroine
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This remarkably cheerful and wise novel begins with a funeral. The late Edward Chapman fancied himself as a towering intellect and a fully-fledged Renaissance Man. Handsome, swaggering and only slightly hampered by ignorance and bigotry, he suffered never a doubt as to his own ineluctable genius. In the end, as his widow placidly reflects, it was hubris that got him. A middle-aged, latter-day Icarus, he set fire to his own hot-air balloon and crashed into the river, thus triply killing himself by plummeting, burning and drowning.

His unglamorous and unexpectedly liberated wife, Flora, is the superbly frank heroine of this exhilarating book. Edward had been a glorious house-plant, she decides, which took a great deal of effort to keep glorious. In the course of clearing out his belongings, she discovers his liaison with pert little Pauline Pike, a Brownie leader. His already tarnished halo takes a further battering – as does the pretty pink Pike.

But to their highly emotional only daughter, Daddy remains heroic. Partly to placate her, Flora decides to take on his unfinished – well, scarcely begun – masterwork, a history of the village. The cornerstone of this research is a stone, set into a wall of their garden, which commemorates Henry VIII's divorced fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. She it was whose destiny was forever to be unfairly dismissed as the Mare of Flanders. Here the novel takes an unexpected turn and begins to ship a freight of (currently very fashionable) Tudor history.

Little can be known or imagined about Anna, as Flora decides to call her, that is not revealed in the subsequent pages. It is both enlightening and convincing stuff. But Cheek decides, whimsically, to relay all her researches by allowing the famous Holbein portrait a voice of its own. Anna speaks directly to Flora and, when Flora has left the gallery where her likeness hangs, to the other Tudor women among whom she is housed.

This is not completely successful. As popular history, it works: as part of a dynamic, witty novel, it is distracting. However, we don't linger long with those old queens. Anna serves, ultimately, as an exemplar to all her successors, real and imagined: whatever people think of your looks, she says, diplomacy and gentleness can bring you great comfort. Amenable women, in other words, can have enjoyable lives.

There's so much to be treasured in this book: Cheek's sharply sketched minor characters, such as the postmistress ("a bit of a tartar, who would ration commemorative stamps at will"); her lightly scattered and little-known (to this reviewer anyway) literary references and her acutely perceptive aphorisms. Her concise, ironic and zeugmatic style is a sustaining joy on every page: you want to read whole paragraphs aloud to anyone who'll listen. And you don't want it to end.