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Jane Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford: So Sweet A Maiden?

I wrote my first post on Jane Boleyn’s afterlife in fiction five years ago — a blink of an eye, really, when you consider that she had spent multiple centuries being pilloried both in fictional and non-fictional works. At that point, Julia Fox’s biography Jane Boleyn: The True Story Of The Infamous Lady Rochford, which revealed the series of small mistakes and scholarly errors which had confounded Jane’s biography for so long, had already been in print for five years, but had had little apparent effect on novelists. At the time, I wrote that “with the newly-uncovered blanks in her life, you would think that novelists would leap at the chance to remake her in a way — not heroic, as nothing of what survives of her suggests heroism, but at least not overtly treacherous — that could make the Boleyn story quite different, but so far most of them have managed to restrain themselves.”

That the book had no obvious immediate effect on novels isn’t surprising — after all, it takes time to plan and write one, and furthermore, this one book, however conscientiously researched, was up against hundreds asserting the exact opposite of what it said; even the most dedicated writer isn’t going to be able to read literally everything, and a writer who is centering her story around Anne Boleyn will naturally reach for the excellent work of Eric Ives and his many predecessors. Also, as has been apparent with many other books which upended, or attempted to upend, received wisdom about Anne Boleyn’s story, it takes time both for new messages to seep in and old ones to fade away. People read older books, and the newer books which repeat what the older ones said — this is why characters like Anne’s stepmother, who was mistakenly invented by Agnes Strickland in the mid-nineteenth century and whose existence was conclusively disproven by Philip Sergeant in 1923, continued to appear both in nonfiction biographies and novels throughout the remainder of the twentieth century and even into the twenty-first (I’ve seen her appear as late as 2008, in Luther’s Ambassadors). Retha Warnicke’s hypotheses about Anne’s fellow victims being secretly homosexual/bisexual and her last baby being deformed took a good ten or fifteen years to find their way into her fictional existence, but they got there. Eric Ives’ hypothesis about Cromwell engineering Anne’s fall to prevent her thwarting him in his plans for monastic funds, while it didn’t make much of a ripple when the book was first printed in 1986, has been appearing steadily since the book’s revision and reissue in 2004. I’m pleased to see that Fox’s book finally appears to be making an impression.

I Am Not Who I Am

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Anne Boleyn by W.S. Pakenham-Walsh (1921)

If you’ve read a book about Anne Boleyn by W.S. Pakenham-Walsh, it probably wasn’t this one — he’s much better known for his later book, A Tudor Story (1963) in which he described his attempts, throughout the 1920s and 1930s, to meet Anne and her circle with the assistance of mediums. How convincing the resulting transcribed seances are must be left to the individual reader, but I was intrigued by his mention of a play he had written earlier and his wish to write a sequel containing the new information he had learned from the spirits. He never said whether the play had been printed and for a long time I thought it had not been, until I was fortunate enough to discover that it had been published in 1921 under the obnoxiously unsearchable title of Anne Boleyn. (A word to anyone interested in writing about her — I own fourteen books with this title and there are more out there. If you don’t want your book to get buried under all of these in search results, don’t choose this title.)

The proposed second play was never written — he said that he “did not feel equal to it”, which is unfortunate, since that play would undoubtedly have included the mystery of “Send”, Danahan the maid, Lady Rochford’s anger at George stemming from false allegations of infidelity, and numerous other unique elements. Still, this early play gives us valuable insight into Pakenham-Walsh’s conception of what Anne Boleyn and her circle were like, and what information he brought with him initially to his seances. It’s a relatively old-fashioned story — his Anne is definitely a throwback to the coerced, high-minded Annes of the nineteenth century, and has little in common with the Anne of The Favor Of Kings (1912), to say nothing of the many hyper-intelligent, scheming, adventurous Annes who would begin coming down the pike after The King Waits (1918). This is an Anne who flees from power to the extent of literally leaving her fate up to a game of “He loves me, he loves me not.”

The Decision Of The Flower

Four Valentines From Henry VIII

Valentine’s Day is upon us once more, so I took the liberty of writing a few personal ads on behalf of that perennial eligible bachelor, Henry VIII — each ad, of course, suited to the style of the publication he was submitting it to. Let us pause for a moment of silence in memory of the unfortunate women he actually had the chance to meet.

And now …

The New York Review Of Books

RECENT WIDOWER living in desirable London location, 46, with three beautiful children (one lovely, accomplished adult daughter and two little ones). It’s been years since I’ve been single, so I’m not sure how these things are done now, but I’ll give it my best shot. I work in a pretty intense industry and recently got a big promotion, and as they like to say, “Work hard, play hard.” I like nothing better than a few rounds of tennis followed by relaxing with a lute or spinet, and some in-depth discussion of the latest books. My interests are pretty wide-ranging — theology, musicology, and political science take first place (I even published a theological treatise some years back, and I understand if you haven’t read it). I’m not the type of man to turn up his nose at a good romantic tale and I enjoy dancing and boating. I place a high value on forthrightness and honesty. I’m imagining a fearless woman who loves music, dancing, reading, debating about the nature of the universe, the occasional glass of hippocras, and children — I’m open to the possibility of more. Let’s sail the sea of life together. bluffkinghal@gmail.com, NYR Box 61491

The London Review Of Books

“HE LACKS BOTH STRENGTH AND STAYING POWER” — that’s what my ex-wife said in court, but fortunately that problem disappeared when she did. Pudgy male, 46, saddled with stroppy teenage daughter, obnoxiously precocious preschooler, and howling infant, seeks any woman who will have him aged 18-40. Come for the whinging about old sports injuries and constant ranting about the Pope, stay for the desperately needed income from the property my old man left me, a nagging feeling of guilt about what it would do to the kids if you left, and possibly even a poorly-timed birth control failure. Constant compromise and eventual disappointment await you at box 11547.

Any Independent Paper, c. 1970 – 2000

SUCCESSFUL, TALL, REDHEADED WWM, 40s, enjoys art, music, books, politics, playing tennis and lute, sailing boats, road trips and the occasional journey abroad. Seeks lasting relationship and possibly children with woman who shares interests. KINDLY SEND PHOTO. Code: 1536

Legendary

WANTED: Somebody to have a living son with me. This is not a joke. Box 1511, Placentia Palace. You’ll get crowned after he’s born. Must bring own maids of honor. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.

The Raven’s Widow by Adrienne Dillard (2017)

“The river was as calm as I had ever seen it. Ordinarily the tide would have been wild by this time of year,” is Jane Boleyn’s first distracted thought as she’s escorted to the Tower of London after her arrest in November 1541. It’s an apt image, as it turns out. The story that subsequently unfolds is one of a woman who both by aptitude and training is tremendously averse to making waves, and who realizes too late that this won’t perpetually protect her against the waves made by other people. As Thomas More could have told her, ultimately there are no survivors, just some people who die today and the others who die tomorrow.

That’s Why I’ll Kill You Last

Queen Catherine Of Aragon: Noble Renown (Part 2)

Catherine of Aragon entered twentieth century fiction with her shining reputation intact — and what’s more surprising, she exited it in the same way. (Other Catholic mainstays like Thomas More wouldn’t be nearly so fortunate.) The last nineteenth century Boleyn novel that I’m aware of, My Friend Anne (1900) depicts a Catherine so saintly and kind that you have to wonder what kind of moral monster would contemplate leaving her even for a second. Our first glimpse of Catherine here depicts her “pac[ing] the room, wringing her beautiful hands, and uttering exclamations of distress and compassion in Spanish, or in English, which she spoke with much fluency …. `Alas, alas!’ she cried. `The poor creatures! hundreds starving; those would work, but cannot —! And the dear women — and the blessed little children!’”

I Wasn’t Born For An Age Like This

Queen Catherine of Aragon: Noble Renown (Part 1)

There have been a fair number of novels written about Catherine of Aragon (not surprisingly, every wife of Henry VIII has at least a couple) but while some of them are excellent — Norah Lofts’ The King’s Pleasure is my personal favorite— the fictional star turns taken by Catherine are dwarfed by the fictional works about her successor, in which the reader is introduced to Catherine only during the last and lowest third of her life, the period from 1522 to 1536. While these posts are about Catherine’s portrayal in Anne’s novels, and not in the ones centered around her, it is worthwhile to consider for a moment how strongly the two women’s stories resembled each other’s. Both were, of course, married to Henry VIII, both had a daughter with him, and both died rejected and largely unmourned after being thrown off for reasons for which they bore little to no responsibility. But Anne has endured and prospered as a tragic (albeit not always especially noble) heroine, whereas Catherine, although she’s had her fair share of attention (Shakespeare’s Henry VIII being the first major example) has been more often than not reduced to receiving a respectful but brief salute as a generic figure of a wronged wife, despite having an life trajectory that one could argue is equally as dramatic as Anne’s. The answer, I would guess, lies not in what happened during their lives but what happened afterwards, in particular with their daughters. Mary took the throne as Catherine hoped, but she lacked two important gifts that were given to her half-sister: political acumen, and time. Mary died before her forty-fifth birthday, but Elizabeth lived almost to seventy and to make sure England was well set in the political and religious course she had chosen. If Mary had triumphed, it may well have been Catherine who launched hundreds of novels rooted in her tragic end and her posthumous redemption.

Dignity, Always Dignity

Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession by Alison Weir (2017)

Alison Weir has written numerous popular histories centered around the Tudor era and recently has expanded to writing novels based on the same. While her non-fiction books are dodgy and poorly sourced enough that switching to fiction was probably a wise move, ironically, her fiction suffers greatly from her tendency to cling to the established record (or her take on it, which isn’t always the same thing.) This extremely disappointing novel, which weighs in at a substantial 530 pages, leaves the reader with a frustrating sense of being perpetually stuck in first gear. It’s not that the author doesn’t have intriguing ideas about her characters, she does — but she always backs away at the last moment when faced with the prospect of actually developing them into something substantial. I have read it numerous times over the last few months and each time I am both disappointed and amazed at its dullness, its infuriating lack of emotional follow-up (a close family member died, how tragic! Now let’s never mention him again) and lack of basic accuracy with regard to key facts — this last continuing even into the author’s afterword, where she carefully explains what’s imaginary in some cases and completely fails to mention other dubious if not downright invented “facts” which remain in the novel to trip up the unwary.

The Goldfish Girl