Anne Boleyn by Evelyn Anthony (1957)
I christen my blog with this book review because it’s the first Anne Boleyn novel I ever read (I picked it up in the college library stacks when I was nineteen). For that reason, I’ll always love it a bit too much for objectivity, but even if I didn’t it would still hold up well.
This is one of the comparatively few novels in which Anne the politician takes center stage. It’s not told entirely from her point of view, but takes frequent detours into other scenes and other people’s thoughts, notably Cromwell, Norfolk, and the demoted Princess Mary. Anne herself comes across as intelligent, brave to the point of being almost nerveless, and at first mainly concerned with seizing her moment both to advance her family and their views, and to do damage to Cardinal Wolsey, who thwarted her possible marriage to Henry Percy. Wolsey, when the book opens, is already pursuing the question of annulling Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon’s marriage. His object is a match with Princess Renee, but Henry, with the idea of annulment already planted in his head, veers off course once he pays a visit to Hever Castle and Anne starts doing the job she was brought up to – catching his interest in hopes of eventually raising her family’s status. Henry’s fascination with her grows steadily and continues until the precise moment seven years later when they begin to sleep together, and he’s already losing interest by the time she announces that she’s expecting the baby who turns out to be Elizabeth. Anne eventually realizes that she loves him, but that’s only after Elizabeth’s birth and it’s clear that for Henry, that ship has already sailed. Their final quarrels after the last miscarriage are hair-raisingly written; Henry angry, disappointed, sick of Anne, and Anne at last calling Henry out on the extremely convenient fact that God’s will and his always seem to coincide (“What a good friend you’ve made of the Almighty, that he always bears responsibility for what you fail to do yourself!”)
In the gallery of other perspectives, the Duke of Norfolk is particularly interesting and bizarrely funny on occasion. Norfolk was one of the political Houdinis of that era and the scenes where we see him doing things like nervously calculating what sort of clothes he should wear at news of Catherine of Aragon’s death (mourning? No mourning? With Henry, who knows? He settles on a non-committal outfit with a black feather in his cap, just in case) are a good reminder that Anne’s downfall was by no means inevitable. Norfolk’s bringing Anne the news of the King’s fall at jousting is rendered about five hundred times more sinister by his already knowing that Henry would live but telling Anne “mistakenly” that he was dead, in hopes of inducing a miscarriage to make her more vulnerable. This is, of course, after Norfolk has decided to back Jane Seymour – who comes across as being somewhat similar to Anne herself, except that she’s had the benefit of profiting by her predecessor’s example and is intending to stay out of politics after becoming Queen (openly, that is). Weirdly, Jane is described as also being Norfolk’s niece, which she wasn’t — his other niece to become Queen was Katherine Howard.
There is one very unusual omission: nowhere in the book is Anne’s bout with the sweating sickness mentioned. There’s an event ripe for changes of heart and agonized reflection, but in this book it simply doesn’t occur (as a result, Mary Boleyn’s widowhood is also unmentioned – in fact, as a political nonentity, Mary essentially disappears from the story by the time Anne is crowned).
WHEN BORN? Like a lot of novels which begin in Anne’s adulthood, this one declines to assign her an exact age. However, as she is described as Thomas Boleyn’s “elder daughter” and her sister Mary is already married by the time the story opens (c. 1525) it sounds like she’s closer to the 1501 end of the scale. Where George falls in the sibling order isn’t clear.
THE EARLY LOVE: Henry Percy, but since this book starts with Anne in banishment at Hever Castle, this one is entirely in retrospect – in the book itself Percy’s main role is to become progressively more enfeebled and insane, this degeneration largely chalked up to the horrors of being forcibly married to Mary Talbot (has anyone done a Mary Talbot novel yet? If not, she’s one of the few who hasn’t had one). While at Hever, Anne has been consoling herself by having an affair with Thomas Wyatt, who’s married, of course, but not happily. Neither of them thinks it’s going anywhere, but as they don’t expect ever to be recalled to public life again, it doesn’t make much difference. They seem oddly unconcerned about any potential pregnancies. It’s hard to imagine that the real Anne was this rash, but in the story it’s put to good use – Henry, who has developed a strong inclination towards Anne while visiting Hever, hears rumours that she’s involved with Wyatt and summons her to court in a letter which has a strong subtext of “That’s a nice poet you’ve got there – shame if something happened to him.” It’s also a nice ironic underlining at the very end, when to prove how very, very fair-minded he is, Henry orders Wyatt to be released from imprisonment, thereby ensuring that the only man who escapes execution for sleeping with the Queen is the only one who’d ever actually slept with her.
THE QUEEN’S BEES: Madge Shelton and Meg Wyatt (Lee) appear, both cast favourably – the former’s big moment comes when Anne slaps her for flirting (unwillingly) with Henry while Anne is pregnant, the latter is cast as a rather silly type who has an affair with George Boleyn; her marriage doesn’t come into the story. Jane Parker Boleyn, Lady Rochford is in her usual fictional form, about which more anon.
THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Dr. Butts is almost this. He’s continually warning Henry about Anne’s need for extra care during her pregnancies (she’s portrayed as having difficult births) and trying to keep her from stress so she won’t miscarry. A nameless maid at Hever is portrayed as being terrified of Anne, who boxes her ears one moment and makes her presents the next.
THE PROPHECY: None except for the usual background mutterings of “All the soothsayers say it will be a boy!” Refreshingly for this genre, no heavy-handed prophecies about Elizabeth’s future greatness as Anne is led to the scaffold.
IT’S A GIRL! Henry, while crushingly disappointed by Elizabeth’s appearance, doesn’t want his enemies to have the satisfaction of seeing it, so he bellows out some encouraging words to Anne (“We’ll have a fine son yet!”) then retires to sulk in private.
DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? She has the beginnings of a sixth finger which she designs a long sleeve to hide.
DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No, but Norris and Smeaton both have a certain inclination towards her (Norris is in no hurry to set a wedding date for himself and his intended and it’s clear that this is because he prefers Anne’s company, but it’s all very Courts of Love and nothing ever happens).
FAMILY TIES: George is the pre-eminent family member here; he’s portrayed as outgoing, good-tempered, brave, and not exactly the shiniest apple in the barrel. He’s badly matched with Jane Parker Boleyn, who in her turn is insanely jealous that he gets along so well with Anne; Jane is portrayed here as a shrewish, insane virago filled with unreturned desire for George and yet hating him at the same time – that is, portrayed pretty much the way she is in every other book or movie on the subject. When George decisively rejects her, towards the end, her anger and jealousy lead to the incest accusation. Anne’s father turns up in a fair number of scenes, but only leads a few of them (mostly the earlier ones where he’s making sure she gets her Reformist talking points right before she meets with Henry). Her mother turns up early, a cowed, not very bright woman who disappears from the story after the first scene. Mary Boleyn gets a few token nods as a cast-off mistress who didn’t have the sense to squeeze enough financial concessions out of her erstwhile paramour, but the time we get to 1530 or so, she’s gone too. Her children, her second marriage and resulting banishment from the court – none of that gets a word, probably because she was a political nonentity at this point.
WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: Very little of this except for the occasional “‘Sblood!” and “S’death!” which are a little jarring after the plain style of the prose surrounding them.
ERRATA: One editing slip: Jane Seymour’s eyes switch from grey to green depending on the scene. Factual slips I noticed are these: Jane Seymour is portrayed as Norfolk’s niece and Anne’s cousin, which was not the case. Jane and Norfolk were certainly on the same side politically but blood wasn’t a factor there. Clement VII has a scene in which he wonders how infallibility factors into his decisions when there’s so much political pressure on him, but Papal infallibility wasn’t promulgated until 1870. (Just as well for Clement, he had enough problems without it). Elizabeth is proclaimed Princess of Wales as a baby, supplanting her half-sister Mary, but there has never been a Princess of Wales in her own right. The two girls were Princesses of England.
Anne is portrayed as being present at court, and by Henry’s side, right until the moment she goes into labour – in fact, she, like other queens, was confined about two weeks ahead before Elizabeth was born, which meant she was shut up in the apartments she would use for the birth, waited on hand and foot, and seen only by women, so that she would have ample time to prepare for the birth. (Considering that the last few weeks of pregnancy usually seem to last about about five years, it’s hard to imagine this practice doing anything but shred the expected son-producer’s nerves still further).
WORTH A READ? Yes, despite the errata and some plot oddities – while it can’t be disproved at this distance, I just couldn’t believe in a full-blown affair with Thomas Wyatt – as dull as rustication must have seemed, the Anne in this book (to say nothing of the real Anne) comes across as too good a politician to give up what was, bluntly, a valuable asset in exchange for nothing. But other than that, the novel’s characters are consistently interesting, and the story itself is tightly structured and while it certainly doesn’t convey the full complexity of the political situation (that would use up a few reams of paper by itself) it does create an atmosphere in which it’s clear just how much work these people did, and what a perilous maze they were threading their way through. I also enjoyed seeing Jane Seymour portrayed as something more than a two-dimensional simpering fool – she has very few scenes, but they convey a clear, analytical intelligence which makes her a force to be reckoned with.
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