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Amenable women, by Mavis Cheek
You don't have to be beautiful to have a good grasp of feminine wiles
Thursday 17 April 2008
According to popular history, Henry VIII divorced his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, because she looked like a horse. In her 13th novel, Mavis Cheek, a writer with a soft spot for old nags, grants the ex-Tudor queen a long overdue makeover. Not a historical novel in the traditional mode, Amenable Women combines Anne's story with that of a modern widow, Flora Chapman. After her husband's funeral, Flora sets about reading his half-completed history of their village, Hurcott Ducis, once home to Anne of Cleves. Annoyed by his pedantic style, and increasingly dismissive references to the "Flanders Mare", Flora decides to make the project her own.
The more Flora learns about the dead queen, the greater the empathy she starts to feel. Like many plain women married to handsome men, Flora is well aware that her own marriage has long been the subject of local gossip. So when she accidentally unearths posthumous evidence of her husband's affair with local Brownie leader, Pauline Pike, Flora's public humiliation feels complete.
Part revenger's comedy, part revisionist history, Cheek's sardonic send-up of English village life is every bit as frisky as her earlier satires of metropolitan types. In the novel's funniest chapter, Flora pays her dead husband's mistress a morning visit – only to be horrified by her rival's Victoriana-style nightdress, swaying macramé, and penchant for potpourri.
Pursuing investigations of a more professional nature, Flora packs her bags for Paris. Coming face-to-face with Holbein's portrait of the "daughter of Cleves" in the Louvre, Flora is struck not only by the princess's demure good looks, but the diplomatic skills of a woman wise enough to negotiate a swift and secure future away from the Tudor court.
Amenable women may be passed over by history but they know how to escape the tyrant's axe, and go on to enjoy the jewels, manor houses and wine cellars of a really good divorce settlement.
This wouldn't be a Mavis Cheek novel without a hint of romantic comedy, and back in the 21st century Flora – failing to emulate her heroine's dignified example – develops a decidedly undignified crush on the local solicitor. Although Flora's affair doesn't always sit comfortably alongside the novel's more sombre historical narrative, Cheek's vignettes of thwarted mid-life lust are sharply executed. Flora may not be the prettiest girl on the block but, like Anne, she soon learns how to keep her head.
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