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Two Anne-Adjacent Books: The 48 by Donna Hosie (2018) and Fatal Throne (2018) by Jennifer Donnelly et al.

Neither of these books casts Anne Boleyn as its central figure, but she’s an important character in both, so naturally I wanted to read them. Results were mixed.

It’s hard to come up with a more flat-out fun and melodramatic idea than a secret society of time travelers tweaking history in order to produce a better modern day, and whose next mission takes them to the court of Henry VIII. This is what made The 48 so disappointing; of course there are plenty of stories which don’t quite live up to their original inspirations, but this one was so poorly executed that I couldn’t help wondering if this secret society had put all their brainpower into time travel and not had any intellectual firepower left over for what to do when they achieved it, because even by the standards of melodrama, these are astoundingly witless people.

To fill in the background: the 48 are a small group of time travelers who selectively alter history in order to bring about a better future (or present, depending on your perspective). They were founded in 1945 after the Hiroshima bombing — time-travel, as it turns out, was a fortunate byproduct of the Manhattan Project experiments. It’s not clear if any of the members are outside recruits or if they’re all the children of older members; the twin heroes, Alex and Charles, are the children of members, but vague references to academy training and students washing out makes it sound like outside recruits might also exist. There are only 48 members of the 48, but fortunately for the academy students new positions are always opening up because once a member turns 48 they get the Logan’s Run treatment, because too much time traveling is hard on the body and they’re aging out of the spying-and-changing game. This prescribed death was in fact the fate of Alex and Charles’ parents, which is why they’re twenty-one-year-old orphans. It rapidly becomes clear to the reader, if not the characters, that killing off their aged-out members should have destroyed this organization by the mid-1960s at the latest; not only are they ungratefully destroying people who could help them plan missions in potentially familiar territory, they’re also, apparently, losing the only people who have time to read any history books. This is painfully evident in the premise of the mission upon which Alex and Charles are about to embark: to prevent Jane Seymour from marrying Henry VIII. And why would they do this? In their own words: “She was a devout Catholic, and her death as queen would see a resurgence in the Catholic faith in England as people mourned for the `sainted’ wife who gave them hope after the toxic years of Anne Boleyn’s reign.”

Charles and Alex are not doing this because of adherence to the Protestant cause — or at least, not directly. They’re doing it to hasten the extinction of organized religion altogether, as “all religions had — or eventually would — become a catalyst for conflict among people. For humankind to endure, we were told, the religious past had to be changed…. My brother and I were but two of hundreds. In our case, we’d been sent to ensure the continuation of the Reformation ushered in by Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn.”

This, pretty early on, was where the book lost me, and although it read it all — several times, in fact — I couldn’t muster up much more interest in it, as the premise was just so ridiculous. Alex and Charles claim that they’re great lovers of history, but if that were so, surely they would know about the Pilgrimage of Grace, and that England was unravelling religiously well before Jane Seymour’s death — to say nothing of the fact that, regardless of the religious opinions of his mother, Edward was raised to be firmly reformist. The 48’s religious eradication project is made even more confusing when we learn later on that they assassinated Prince Arthur in 1502 (because covering up future murders with Henry VIII as king would be easier … well, that kind of makes sense) and also that they killed Catherine of Aragon in 1536, which for smooth religious transitions was about ten years too late. Were they not able to get at her circa 1525?

Anyway, in pursuit of their weirdly pointless mission, Alex and Charles travel back in time to the Tudor court, disguised as Charles and Alexander of Cleves, minor German princelings, with fellow 48 member Aramis pretending to be their father. And as it turns out, another 48 member named Alice has been sent there as well — which was not part of the plan at all, and is Charles and Alex’s first hint that something is awry within the 48 organization as well as outside of it. They suspect malfeasance by The Grinch (a woman so nicknamed because frequent time-travel has left her skin greenish — it’s not the healthiest thing) but meanwhile they have to make inroads into court by befriending Jane Seymour and Lady Margaret, another lady in waiting who thinks that the “sons of Cleves” are far more inviting matrimonial prospects than the wealthy old fart her father has lined up for her at home.

Various conspiracies, adventures, and betrayals ensue, all in a court that seems weirdly empty of people (to say nothing of the fact that all the people in it seem to be pretty easily fooled). Cromwell is silky and malicious and suspects the brothers of not being what they seem, and later gets a chance to show his penchant for torture. Lady Margaret is rebellious and wants to marry for inclination as well as duty. Jane Seymour is sweet and sincere. Anne Boleyn is cold as ice, very stylish, and has extremely black eyes. A courtier named Marlon is there to make an emotional connection with Alex and to show us that not everyone in the 16th century was straight. In all my rereadings, I never quite understood the ins and outs of the ending and who was conspiring against whom, except that the older members of the 48 turned out to be bad, and Alex and Charles decided that changing history to eradicate religion was a bad idea after all and people should be free to make their own choices and not be manipulated by a shadowy time travel agency. Unfortunately, the book isn’t bold or coherent enough to set them to undoing all the previous assassinations they’ve committed, so we’re deprived of a chance to see Arthur living past his time — or Catherine of Aragon dying before hers.

Fatal Throne also has an engaging concept; a different author writes the story of each of Henry VIII’s wives, and a seventh writes post-wife interludes in the voice of Henry VIII. This avoids a lot of common pitfalls — certainly you won’t read this and think how weird it is that Catherine Howard has a lot of the same verbal tics as Jane Seymour — but leads to some other problems, mostly having to do with consistency. It’s not clear how much detail the authors were given about their assigned characters initially but while they’ve all clearly done their research, they would have had to read a wide variety of books, not all of which agreed with each other. Inevitably, this leads to weird, clashing moments like the one where Anne Boleyn, in her chapter, describes Jane Rochford as good friend and loving wife to George, and six years later Catherine Howard is remembering how Jane betrayed Anne and George by testifying against them. It’s possible this was some sort of Rashomon-style device but it seems more likely that the two different authors had different opinions about Jane Boleyn’s involvement in Anne’s death and either didn’t realize it or weren’t able to come to an agreement. Of course, there are many disparities which make sense — Jane Seymour’s recollection of her interactions with Anne Boleyn naturally cast a rather harsher light on the latter than Anne’s own recollections!

Each short story follows a general pattern: it begins at a pivotal moment in the woman’s life (Catherine of Aragon about to marry Arthur, Katherine Parr getting word that she’s on the brink of arrest, Anne Boleyn in the Tower, etc) and then pulls back the camera, so to speak, to show us the wider context and let her tell us about her early life, how she got to this point, and what happens afterwards. It’s very much to the credit of these authors that someone who knew nothing about Henry VIII’s wives could read this book and come away with a pretty good basic idea of each of these women’s biographies; squeezing an entire, complex life into a short story is not easy. Less successful, perhaps inevitably, are the interstitial chapters written from Henry’s point of view — since these chapters are less about his own life than his reactions to his various wives and the issues that were the centers of their own lives, he comes across less as a powerful, if monstrous human being and more like a two-dimensional psychotic in a murder mystery telling you his motives between chapters as he’s hunted down by the detective.

Now I was head of the English Church — no more foreign interference by the Pope — and it was entirely my right to dissolve the monasteries in my own kingdom and seize their property for the Crown. The Pope should never have defied my wishes, for now I took out my revenge on each and every shaved-headed English monk I kicked out and sent to pasture. My will cannot be bent or broken … My bully-boy Cromwell displayed the accounts and I sat on my horse above him. Servants of the Crown were burning books and fraudulent artifacts.

The wives, perhaps because they’re not put in the position of constantly reacting to all the misdeeds we’ve been reading about, come off more naturalistically, but given the compressed nature of the stories they all inevitably end up having to monologue a bit about things they would take for granted, and tell associates and friends things everybody would already know. Anne Boleyn’s story, written by Stephanie Hemphill, doesn’t do better or worse than the others in that regard. In the classic manner, it starts with Anne in the Tower, and between intercut flashbacks of events like her coronation and her time with Elizabeth (with whom Anne speaks in French, giving us a hint about where Elizabeth’s youthful linguistic talents may have originated) she’s mostly speaking to the unsympathetic servants-cum-spies who attend her in the Tower as she reflects on how she ended up there. This is a very modern Anne — pointing out to her ladies that she had no choice about the king’s pursuit and was bound to be the villain no matter what she did.

”I tried everything I could to dissuade His Majesty … yet every action I took to escape his advances was misinterpreted. If I returned his gifts, people called me manipulative. If I ignored him, they said I tormented the King and toyed with his affections. If I spoke to him, I did so out of selfish ambition. Mean Anne Boleyn, the conniving serpente francaise. I had been back little more than six months when I felt forced to leave the court a second time.”

She goes as far as to say she prayed for death when she was ill with the sweat because “I thought death a better fate than to sleep with the king,” but rather jarringly goes on to say immediately afterward that “The truth was, we had fallen deeply in love.” Later, she takes the very twenty-first century approach of laying the blame for England’s rupture with the Pope on Catherine of Aragon — “All she had to do was say the marriage was invalid and become the Princess Dowager, and England would have remained a Catholic nation” — and after her aunt’s shocked exclamation of “You should have refused!” responds with “I should have refused King Henry the Eighth?” as if it’s self-evident that this is impossible, even though obviously her predecessor managed it, albeit to her cost.

It’s difficult to understand Anne in this incarnation, as while the events in her life are straightforwardly told, the perspective on them is extremely modern-day and tailored to what a modern reader might be expected to admire. She doesn’t encourage a married man’s pursuit and in fact is disgusted by it, but she marries Henry because she loves him, as to a modern reader marrying for more practical motives might come across as cold. She blames Catherine of Aragon for not pretending to believe her own marriage was invalid (that phrase “All she had to do” is a very modern slip — unsympathetic as Anne may have been, she must have known how humiliating this would be to the daughter of a Spanish royal house who believed her marriage to be ordained by God). And yet, despite Catherine’s example, Anne cannot really defy or contradict Henry until virtually all hope is lost and she’s already in prison. Anne talks as though she’s a defiant, independent thinker, and yet at the same time castigates her predecessor for going against her husband and says, essentially, that anything unattractive she herself did was because Henry can’t be opposed. It’s hard to decipher whether this is meant to show how Anne justifies her own actions to herself or whether it’s simply an awkward attempt to make her as sympathetic as possible to a modern reader — except that an Anne whose every action and attitude is sympathetic to a modern reader can’t exist without being confusing and contradictory.

By far the best story in the book is that of Anne of Cleves, written by Jennifer Donnelly. Perhaps it seems contradictory to say that her story is the best because it invents the most, but that’s only partially the case. Anne’s story, like the others, begins at a critical moment in her life — in this case, when she begins her final decline from the illness that killed her (implied to be uterine cancer, but since she can’t be sure, neither are we). She can’t venture very far from her room, and in her waking hours she reminisces about her life to the country-bred servant girl who’s attending her — a girl who genuinely would have to have many of the story’s intricacies explained to her, so the exposition is more gracefully handled than most. In Anne’s sleeping hours the memories return through dreams. All throughout, Anne is struggling to decipher what the fragmented memories she’s experiencing and recounting are trying to tell her — because she’s convinced that there’s something she hasn’t yet done with her life, that something is missing, and that her dreams are the key to it. The answer she finds to this self-set riddle is not earth-shattering but feels exactly right. And this is what makes Anne’s chapter stand out — like all the other wives, she’s looking back on her life from the perspective of a key moment, but unlike the others, who are confined to talking about the problems they confronted in the past, Anne is also confronting and solving a new problem in the present, and it accounts for the small moments in her life, as well as the splendid ones that would have been considered worth recording. The book is worth picking up for this story alone.

Two Modern Tudors

Wife After Wife by Olivia Hayfield (2020) and The Dead Queens Club by Hannah Capin (2019) are briefly reviewed together for two reasons: first, because while Anne Boleyn features prominently in them (and in the second is the key to the central mystery of the book) she is not the lead character or the main focus of the story, as all six wives, in various guises, are featured in both books. The second is that both are modernized updates — stories that could be said, until a month ago at least, to be “set in the present.” Suffice it to say that they are now set in the very recent past. Both updates succeed in their own way — the second more than the first, as it pulls off the astounding feat of successfully modernizing Catherine of Aragon — and both are excellent diversions for anyone who may be seeking indoor entertainment in the near future.

Henry VIII: Media Mogul And Teenage Sociopath

Anne Boleyn by Thomas Fielding (1838): A Lost Play

On December 27 1838, the New Orleans Times-Picayune published a notice, nestled in amongst ship arrivals and the results of horse races. That evening at the St. Charles Theater, it announced, “will be performed a new historical play never acted, called ANNE BOLEYN, founded on a period of the reign of Henry 8th of England.” As for the author, the announcement said simply that it was “written by a gentleman of this city.” A few days later, the paper had identified the author as “Mr. T. Fielding” — a man who, despite the paper’s initial coyness about his name, could have had no reason to wish to remain anonymous; during the three previous years he had made numerous appearances in the columns of the Times-Picayune as Thomas Fielding, an actor affiliated with both the Camp Street and St. Charles Theaters. On December 29, the Times-Picayune, while reporting that Fielding’s “new and successful piece drew another good house last night and is to be repeated this evening,” also had a short review that was, in its own way, ominously prophetic.

After an extended commentary on plays that fail to hold the interest of audiences but find success later “in the closet [drama]” due to their beauty of language, the anonymous reviewer writes:

And this is the only fault we have to find with Ann Boleyn. As a literary production it has the strongest claim to our favorable notice. There is a degree of nerve, conception and arrangement in this new tragedy which lifts it above the great number of our modern plays; while the language is poetic, powerful, and vigorous. When we commenced this article it was our intention, notwithstanding the smallness of our sheet, to have made some extracts corroborative of our opinion; but not succeeded in procuring the MSS. we must content ourself with saying that Ann Boleyn is a composition exhibiting a power capable of a yet higher flight of dramatic authorship.

The anonymous reviewer’s failure to secure the MSS must have seemed like a small matter at the time, but closing in on two hundred years later one can only regret exceedingly that he was unlucky in his efforts, because nobody since then has found it either. Thomas Fielding’s Anne Boleyn, quite possibly the first Boleyn drama to be first written and performed in the United States, appears no longer to exist. It is a ghost play, its shade appearing in newspaper reviews, theater notes, and, most sadly of all, in the surviving probate documents for Thomas Fielding, who died less than a year after the premier of his first and only play.

“The Vacant Succession Of Thomas Fielding”

Third by Q. Kelly (2011)

There’s a good idea buried in Third — one articulated by the character Helen Franklin, a modern-day history professor who, like many real ones, has discovered an Anne who strongly resembles herself. “Helen’s theory, or rather, her wishful thought, was that Anne was a lesbian trying to make her way in a ruthless, heterosexual world.” Unfortunately, the world in which we see the lesbian Anne emerge is not hers but our own; kidnapped by an unethical scientist who’s discovered time travel, a few years later she finds herself in the unwilling custody of the now-deceased scientist’s daughter, Helen Franklin, and her sort-of estranged wife, Yalia Yamato. Helen teaches history and is obsessed with the Tudors. Yalia is a cop who accidentally shot a six-year-old during a hostage standoff and as a result is starting to have doubts about having children — hence her estrangement from Helen. They both have serious doubts about the ethics of the situation, but since Anne is already here, along with the chatty, amoral Benjamin Franklin and one other mystery time traveler known only as TT0, they haven’t really got much choice. Fascinating ethical and historical questions arise and are promptly swatted away as the three women get distracted by their evergreen lust for each other, and by the end all we’ve really learned about Anne is that she enjoys sex toys and looks good in a Starbucks apron.

“You Want To Try A Three-Way Relationship Thing?”

The Early Years (1980), The Royal Suitor (1981) and Condemned (1981) by Linda-Dawn Reeve

“I adored my mother and I suppose because I was the youngest and because she had never really been well since my birth, I was closest to her.” Thus begins Linda-Dawn Reeve’s substantial trilogy — a little over six hundred pages — in which we’re introduced to an Anne who at first seems to be so typical of mid-twentieth century Annes that she could have been created from the distilled essences of thirty other fictional versions of her. The youngest daughter of Thomas Boleyn, she loses her mother at a young age (five) and is soon given a stepmother who, despite her fears, turns out to be kind and loving to her husband’s children. Young Anne is especially in need of affection, for despite her boldness she suffers from being teased about her minuscule sixth finger and the wen on her neck. She has a childish affection for Thomas Wyatt, who is much more serious in his intentions towards her, and her brother George is half in love with Thomas’s sister Margaret. When Anne is seven, her father manages to get her a place among Princess Mary’s attendants as she leaves to marry Louis XII, and after Louis’s death Anne attends the new Queen Claude and incidentally spends a lot of time with Claude’s sister-in-law Marguerite, learning to be witty and graceful and also that women can be as good anybody.

So far, so typical. But when Anne is brought back to England at the age of fifteen, the direction changes sharply — not the direction of the story, which of course can only be changed so much, but the direction of her development. Very shortly after her return, she meets the King at Hever, where he’s come to visit her sister Mary. The King is greatly taken by her and begins doing everything in his power to seduce her, although she rebuffs him and he apparently loses interest. And from that moment, Anne seems to be touched with a frost. The fifteen-year-old who is enjoying falling in love and charming people continues to be just that, even as she grows older and endures the winning and then losing of Henry Percy to Wolsey’s political plans and his father’s ambitions, and her subsequent rustication. In the traditional manner, she vows revenge on Wolsey, but it never seems to cross her mind not to believe in the sincerity of everyone else around her, to say nothing of her endearingly childish certainty that she should be able to manipulate any social situation into going the way she wants it to. And, most unusually of all, she ends up falling genuinely, obsessively in love with Henry VIII.

“I Am Really Very Fond Of Him”

Anne Boleyn: A Tale Of The Sixteenth Century by Anonymous (1843)

I found this short story in an old newspaper database — while it appeared in only one paper, the databases are obviously not complete, and from the note I imagine it was the sort of story which was widely reprinted (a lot of similar stories also appear in December and January, I would guess as filler entertainment for the Christmas and New Year’s season). The moral of is clear, and fairly standard for the time — how quickly fortune can change and how little people can rely on it. And while the story itself is a fairly standard narrative — the young Anne divided from her true love, Henry Percy, by the King’s lust for her — there are a few intriguing aspects.

“Let Us Fly From This Tyranny To A Lovelier Land, Where We May Cull The Flowers Of Life Together”

Anne Boleyn’s Sleeve by Juliana Gray (2013)

The first thing I noticed about this chapbook was its choice of verse form — blank verse, a form whose first known use in English was in 1540. It felt peculiarly appropriate for a series of poems about Anne Boleyn, even though she died a few years earlier — it gives the sense that she’s ahead of her time, but not excessively so, and gives us a thought of what might have been had Anne survived into the middle of the century or beyond. The poems are arranged in roughly chronological order — the fact that many poems are centered on a theme rather than a specific event (“Her Cravings” “Her Sister” “Her Coronation” and so forth — each one a small jewel of distilled emotion) keeps them from being perfectly chronological, as the subject matter of these will necessarily cover any number of years. But the center of the story is clear, indeed, Anne tells us what it is in the first poem “The End.”

Remember, please, that this is a love story
though it ends, like so many stories,
with a good woman’s body in a box.

“A Queen Is Not Required To Explain Herself”

Anne Boleyn, Or, A Crown Of Thorns by Anna Dickinson (1876)

There have been a fair number of plays written about Anne Boleyn which never saw the stage, or saw it only for a brief time, but which nevertheless lived on in book form to be read by — and to influence — future Boleyn enthusiasts. Anne Boleyn, Or, A Crown Of Thorns by Anna Dickinson is a much rarer specimen: a play which saw many performances over a few years but which has never been published, although it got a great deal of (not always positive) attention from the newspapers and a number of actresses wanted to procure it for their own use. There is a long, complex, and ultimately somewhat sad story behind this, but briefly put, Dickinson — who had previously been a well-known abolitionist platform speaker, and for whom playing Anne was her first acting role — seems to have developed a strong attachment to her character, and although her acting was generally considered poor, she did not want anyone else to play her. Her possessiveness might even have extended to her own official copy of the script — the Library of Congress has two manuscript versions of the play, a fair copy in clear handwriting, and much scratched-out and amended rough copy. Only the rough copy contains Anne’s dialogue, the fair copy contains only dashes and a cue at the end of each piece of Anne’s dialogue, although all of the other characters have their dialogue intact. It’s not clear whether both versions were submitted by her together for copyright purposes, but if the fair copy was intended to be the “official” copy, her protectiveness towards the part extended far enough to prevent anyone else from seeing it even with the greatest amount of effort. Under these circumstances, it’s less surprising that the play does not seem ever to have been officially published. Dickinson’s quarrels with managers, her inability to act up the standards demanded by her own play, and her refusal to publish or sell the play to any other actress led, inevitably, to its disappearance. It survives now only in two handwritten manuscripts.

This is the more unfortunate because although it is far from the best ever written, the play is, in a few ways, shockingly ahead of its time. Its Anne is a paradoxical figure; determined to create her own fate and laughing at the idea of prophecy, yet ultimately hemmed in and destroyed by forces over which she has no control, never realizing that the choices she does have are all false ones, and that her fate has been predetermined. This predetermination is the work of none other than Thomas Cromwell.

“She has dug my grave – I leave you to dig hers in time to come”

The Chained Book by Emma Leslie (1879)

This is one of the earliest books about Anne Boleyn aimed specifically at children, and given that it was published in 1879 by the Sunday School Union, it’s not surprising that this earnest little novella puts the cause of serving and promoting Protestant orthodoxy well ahead of such considerations as character development, internal consistency, or historical accuracy. The chief aim of the book is to give children a simple, interesting story about the beginnings of the Bible in English, and how wicked men sought to stop it and good men sought to promote it, at which the latter group finally succeeded with some help from Anne Boleyn, who is the only person in the book with even a tiny bit of nuance to her character.

“God Will Accept Maidens’ Work, If No Better Is To Be Had”

Queenbreaker: Perseverance by Catherine McCarran (2016)

The first of a planned trilogy, this incredibly dense, weird, dark, and enjoyable book covers a startlingly short period of time — the six months between Anne Boleyn’s first being officially recognized as Queen, and the birth of Elizabeth. If this doesn’t sound like the amount of time that could produce almost four hundred pages’ worth of incident, lay your fears to rest; our protagonist, Mary Shelton, and the enormous assembled cast (the author provides a short guide to all the names at the beginning which I appreciated) manage to get both themselves and other people tangled up in so many intrigues and dangling on the edges of so many precipices that by the end the story felt downright rushed. They manage to accomplish all of this by being stone-cold sociopaths who will happily destroy a fellow maid of honor’s life if that means they’ll be able to walk one place further ahead in a processional line. And Mary Shelton, newly arrived from rural Norfolk, finds this state of affairs disconcerting — not so much because she disapproves of the cutthroat tactics of the others, but because she isn’t even close to their skill level. At least, not yet.

The Snake Pit