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With Her Book Tucked Under Her Arm

May 23, 2012

Anne Boleyn is one of the most novelized historical figures ever to live. The sheer unlikeliness of the life she led, as well as her own character – love her or hate her, nobody could call her dull – as well as the major gaps in her history, all call out for fictionalization. At least, this is the opinion of the thousands of writers who have published novels about her or her family, not to mention the millions of readers who continue to buy the stories, ensuring that every year, the publishers’ lists will feature yet another book blurb promising A Fascinating New Angle On One Of History’s Most Enthralling Women. It almost has to be a “new angle” now because in addition to being one of the most fascinating subjects for a historical novel, by now she is certainly the most difficult.


Consider: the writer who decides to retell the Anne Boleyn story first has to confront the fact that most of their readership will know every twist and turn of it already, and may even (horrible thought!) know a bit more about some of them than the author herself. The readers will already have their own ideas, well or ill-informed, of the way the major players would have acted, of what incidents were particularly important to them, and what would have been going on in their lives during the periods which historians didn’t bother to record. The author is also faced with the problem of making these people speak and write in a way which is both readable and not grossly inconsistent with the written record, which most of her readers will have some acquaintance with. (Mary Boleyn’s letter to Cromwell justifying her second marriage, for example, has brought a lot of writers to grief. On one page she’ll be as vapid as a celebrity profile, and on the next she’s rolling out that magnificent declaration that she “had rather beg her bread with him than be the greatest Queen in Christendom.” Of course, people don’t speak like they write. But when their writings are all we have, it’s fatally easy to make them quote themselves directly and at length).

There’s also the emphasis problem; what incidents get stressed, what gets left out? Something has to be left out if the book is to be a well-plotted novel and not just a kitchen-sink infodump. What authors choose to cut and keep is often one of the most interesting parts about a Boleyn novel; for example in the last twenty years, Mary Boleyn and her travails usually feature prominently, on the assumption that as Anne’s sister (not to mention Henry VIII’s former mistress) this would be the natural order of things – but it wasn’t always like this. There’s more than one earlier novel where Mary barely makes an appearance, and the most important relationships are between those who are effective politicians. The religious emphasis (not to mention the characters’ feelings about it) also shifts dramatically over time.

In considering these many, many different approaches to Anne Boleyn in fiction, I’m not concerned solely with accuracy. It’s important, but it isn’t everything; a well-constructed, plausible novel with three-dimensional characters and some factual inaccuracies or subplots unknown to historians (but not necessarily implausible in themselves) might be a better book than a book with fewer big mistakes but a lot of small ones – overwritten (or underwritten) dialogue, names that don’t belong to the period, botching characters’ use of titles; they may not affect the course of the plot very much, but it’s hard to believe you’re in the sixteenth century if Sir Henry Norris is referred to as Sir Norris and servants have names like Ethel. Larger inaccuracies really depend on whether or not they fly in the face of what we know about the people involved, and the time they were living in. Mary Boleyn was not among the spectators at the trials of her sister and brother, but it can be a dramatic scene if well-handled, and there’s nothing about it that seems particularly unlike what is known of Mary Boleyn; for a politically astute type (like her father, for example) attending and potentially drawing attention to himself would be insane, but if anyone in that family can be plausibly portrayed as acting more from emotion than self-preservation, it would be Mary. However, a face-to-face meeting in the Tower between Henry and Anne doesn’t work because it’s utterly unlike what we know of the man. Once he was done, he didn’t care to stick around to give explanations and clean up the mess, and being king, he didn’t have to. The only discarded wife he saw again after he was through with her was Anne of Cleves, and that situation was quite different from anything involving Anne Boleyn. Naturally this is is all somewhat subjective, as none of us actually knew any of these people and the dividing line between “in character” and “out of character” can be hard to divine.

And of course there are the mistakes that almost demand to be made, mostly with regard to titles. When half the people in the story were transforming from Sir This to Earl of That to Duke of Whatever (while of course others were going from Queen of A to Dowager Princess of B) strictly accurate dialogue could make keeping the characters straight taxing even for a very dedicated reader. But that’s a subject for another post.

The writers of these books are writing these out of a fascination with the Tudor era, and that fascination is shared by millions of people, including me. As someone who would never in any era be able to write a completed, coherent Anne Boleyn novel, I have a lot of respect for people who do, and if the urge to snark on some less inspired efforts becomes too strong, it’s salutary to remember that it takes a lot of dedication to write even a very bad book. But also that it takes more than dedication to make a book good.

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From → Essays

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