The Concubine was published in 1963. The reader must remember that as they read Lofts’ novel; feminism was in its infancy, and women were still struggling to break free from the 1950’s era gender role ideals and the sexual revolution had yet to occur. Lofts does however successfully portray Anne as a woman, a mother, a wife, a sister; wholly human. She is not the champion of the Reformation nor is she the strong educated and opinionated woman that many now consider her. Perhaps in the end Lofts, by staying in the middle ground, has provided a more accurate account of Anne Boleyn as she really was. Like all women she possessed good and bad qualities, showed extreme kindness and loyalty and made her share of mistakes.
Lofts’ novel takes the reader through Anne’s life from her first taste of love with Henry Percy through her relationship with Henry, her coronation and ultimately her execution. Henry Percy and Anne’s relationship with him is a central theme for Loft. It is this relationship and the disappointment of its demise that are Anne’s motivator throughout the novel. This reader enjoyed the depiction of Henry Percy, not as a weak drunken man who betrayed Anne, but as a tortured soul – a more accurate representation in my mind. However, the use of the relationship as the driving force of Anne’s life took away her strength and power that so many admire. I attribute this to the time the novel was written and therefore do not criticize Lofts’ account because of it. In fact, I found Loft’s notion that Anne, who had blamed Wolsey entirely for the demise of the blossoming courtship until the days before her execution when she realized that King Henry was the motivating force and therefore in her quest for revenge on Wolsey she had miscalculated and underestimated Henry and in for this she paid the ultimate cost of her life itself.
As a historian I question Lofts’ use of Anne’s stepmother so centrally to her account. History suggests that Anne’s mother was alive throughout her daughter’s life; dying after her children’s execution. Additionally, I didn’t like the interjection of the “dose” of poppy syrup that was liberally administered to Anne by her maid, Emma Arnett. Again, especially at the time of her execution when Anne showed such dignity and courage, Lofts’ account robs Anne of her strength by attributing her courage to poppy syrup.
Ultimately this reader would recommend The Concubine. Norah Lofts is a talented writer and her account is rich with humanity. Do not expect to find the Anne as we think of her today, rather put that aside and enjoy the novel for itself. I believe that most readers will enjoy the account. Ultimately, my love of historical fiction is a quest of exploration. I read to reconsider long held opinions and to have new theories brought to mind. In this way good historical fiction should make the reader think and consider other possibilities and explanations and ultimately move the reader to research and investigate the ideas put forth. The Concubine, though published forty years ago, successfully interjects new possibilities into the study of the reign of Henry VIII and for this reason alone it should find its way to your reading list.