When Knighthood Was in FlowerFebruary 22, 2011
When Knighthood Was in Flower, by Charles Major, was the #9 bestselling book of 1900. On one hand that was a relief, because it would have been horrifying to find that it sold better than To Have and To Hold or Janice Meredith, both of which were, you know, good. On the other hand, it’s worrying to think that this book was a bestseller at all, since it’s kind of terrible. Actually, I can’t think of anything I liked about it. Or, I don’t know, the title is okay, I guess. If by “knighthood” you mean “being fickle and selfish.” And there’s one sort of entertaining bit in which Charles Brandon imagines going to New Spain and pining for Mary Tudor: “I shall find the bearing of Paris, and look in her direction until my brain melts in my effort to see her, and then I shall wander in the woods, a suffering imbecile, feeding on roots and nuts.” I don’t know what kind of success he’d have with the roots and nuts, but believe me, he’s got the suffering imbecile part down.
Other than that, though — no, sorry, including that, the book is pure drivel. It pretends to be a history of the romance between Mary, the real-life sister of Henry VIII, and Brandon, the 1st Duke of Suffolk, told by their close (fictional) friend Sir Edwin Caskoden. Major/Caskoden insists right up until the end of the book that the few small differences between his account and that of the contemporary chronicler, Hall, are all Hall’s fault, and Caskoden’s story is corroborated by other sources, but it’s complete nonsense. Major seems perfectly happy to change the manner of Brandon’ father’s death, make Brandon younger than he actually was, ignore the two wives and two daughters Brandon had before marrying Mary and the wife he married immediately after her death, and completely alter the character of Brandon’s position at court, and really, that’s fine. It’s fiction. I’m just annoyed picks out one small difference from the historical record and pretends that everything else is accurate when it very obviously isn’t.
But even that wouldn’t particularly bother me if Major’s version of the story wasn’t so stupid. Or if there were any characters in the book with whom I could sympathize for more than a page at a time. Or if Major didn’t hate women so much, although, to be fair, I don’t think he realized that he hated women. He’s just all into chivalry, which means he has no confidence in their intelligence, abilities, courage, or honor. I mean, there’s this bit where Mary is in disguise as a man, only her “utter femininity” is so undeniable that the disguise doesn’t really work, and a fight breaks out between those who want to rip her clothes off, and those who think it sucks that Brandon should have to defend her all by himself. Twenty men are wounded, and according to both the characters and the narration, this is totally Mary’s fault, because women just can’t help breeding mischief. That’s my biggest problem with so-called chivalry: “Let’s do things for women because they’re great,” quickly becomes “let’s do things for women because they can’t do things for themselves,” and from there it’s pretty easy to get to, “women have no good qualities (except maybe chastity) so aren’t we awesome for being so protective of them.” Not to mention the inevitable corollary — that women who aren’t chaste are utterly without worth and might as well not even be people, although that particular situation doesn’t come up in this book. You know a book is bad when all I can come up with to say in its favor is, “Hey, at least there’s no slut-shaming.”
Books like this make me angry, as you can probably tell. But I would probably have been willing to go with Major’s premise — that Mary is the embodiment of practically every bad quality there is, but that it’s okay because she’s beautiful and chaste — if I had found anything in the book that I liked. But Major alternated things that upset me with things that exhausted me, made his characters change their minds every two pages, contradicted himself within the space of a page more times than I could count, and made the entire cast of characters completely hateful. On page 358 he says, in character as Caskoden — who is supposed to be in love with someone else, although sometimes I forgot about that when he was indulging in his favorite hobby, gushing about the princess — “I fear you are weary with hearing so much of Mary.” Sure I am. But he could have said the same thing with equal truth by page 35.