Reviewed by: George Bernard
Author: Susan Brigden
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Price (RRP): £30
Gentleman, courtier, diplomat and, most remarkably, poet, Thomas Wyatt died of a fever at the age of 39 but had also come perilously close to losing his life on two earlier occasions. He was briefly held in the Tower in May 1536 on suspicion of having been among Anne Boleyn’s lovers, and again in January 1541 on suspicion of being less than fully loyal to Henry VIII when on embassy to Charles V, Holy Roman emperor.
Wyatt’s verses are hauntingly allusive, often making reference to deep but unrequited love, fears of betrayal by supposed friends, and the challenges of serving, and advising, Henry, a monarch who demanded total allegiance.
Susan Brigden’s biography is an attempt to bring together what we know about Thomas Wyatt from letters, and especially diplomatic correspondence, and what his poems can be taken to reveal. As with her earlier books she proceeds by evocation, building up, quotation by quotation, a vivid impression of how Wyatt felt, whether unhappy in love or frustrated at the impossible demands of his master, who expected his diplomats to persuade European rulers of the justice of his divorce and of his royal supremacy over the church.
Brigden’s is a distinctive voice that holds the attention throughout. It is easy to imagine her reading her book out loud by candlelight in the atmospheric setting of Hampton Court Palace. Her labours in the archives have been prodigious, and her endnotes show her to be well-read in the current literature. Acknowledgments to the “powerful vision” of one scholar and the “persuasive” interpretation of another are readily made. But Brigden’s evocative approach makes it harder for her to deal in her main text with different interpretations. She gives, for example, an account of Anne Boleyn’s fall, and the endnotes fairly cite the books and articles by historians who have engaged in what Steven Gunn has called “trench warfare” over the matter. However, she does not attempt to give reasons why she takes the view she does and rejects others.
And at other times Brigden does not take a definite position, simply quoting but not making it altogether clear whether she is endorsing what is in the quotation.
If there is a single overall message it is just how difficult it is to capture Wyatt. “Following the flickering lights that seemed to lead towards Thomas Wyatt, sometimes we may have been led astray,” Brigden muses; “in friendship, as in so much else, Wyatt was elusive”. We are, instead, invited to respond emotionally to the author’s evocation of his tribulations. As she puts it: “Picture Wyatt. He is alone in his chamber, writing in his poetry manuscript, writing and rewriting… thinking on the deepest questions of human will and divine grace”. It is more Hilary Mantel than Geoffrey Elton, and very different from the sustained analysis perceptively offered by Greg Walker in his chapters dealing with Wyatt in Writing Under Tyranny (2005).
Yet Brigden’s biography, which begins with a vigorous justification of her insistence on quoting Wyatt’s verse and letters in their original spellings, is nonetheless unquestionably a scholarly study, at its best in considering Wyatt’s paraphrasing of the Penitential Psalms, and it deserves to be read on its own terms.
George Bernard is professor of early modern history at the University of Southampton. His most recent book is The Late Medieval English Church: Vitality and Vulnerability Before the Break with Rome (Yale University Press, 2012)