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The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn by Robin Maxwell (1997)

June 9, 2012

I admit I was prejudiced against this book from the beginning – the title is unfortunate, reeking more of Adrian Mole’s unrequited love for Pandora Braithwaite than Henry VIII’s blood-spattered upheaval of his country’s religious institutions in pursuit of an annulment. Unfortunately, the maturity levels of this book’s Henry and Anne are a lot closer to Adrian and Pandora than to anyone who managed to survive in a Tudor court for longer than a week.

The framing device is interesting – the young Queen Elizabeth, working hard to establish herself as a serious political figure in the brief interludes when she isn’t fooling around with Robert Dudley, is approached by a Lady Sommerville who confides that she has a gift for Elizabeth – her mother’s diary, which she gave to said Lady Sommerville before her execution. Elizabeth then proceeds to read the diary bit by bit, so every few entries the reader is pulled back to the adult Elizabeth. At the end, when Dudley’s wife has conveniently broken her neck falling down a staircase and Elizabeth has just read of Anne’s downfall and impending execution, along with her regrets that she ever put her total trust in a man, Elizabeth notices the parallels and decides that the possible uxoricide Dudley isn’t worth the risk any more than Henry VIII was, and that she will never marry and will live for her country alone.

SEX OR POLITICS? Sex. Really, in anything called a “Secret Diary”, it’s not hard to guess the answer to that. Elizabeth spends a lot of time barking at her servants and occasionally making some vague comments about policies or being taken seriously by male ambassadors who are seeking her hand for their masters, but soon all of that is forgotten and she’s making out with Robin Dudley and fondly recalling their childhood friendship – but alas, he is married to another already. Does this situation remind you of anything? It reminds her, once she starts reading the diary “in secret”. As for Anne’s, she spends a lot of her diary-writing time on Henry’s virility and unfortunate lack thereof (the first time they sleep together he suffers performance anxiety, so to speak – an unfortunate preview of what will be happening a few years down the line) which seems to have been real enough, if perhaps not described in quite such flowery language.

WHEN BORN? Not clear, but as Anne refers to having spent her childhood in France and says that she grew up with Princess Renee, presumably the 1507 date is the one being used. Mary is implied to be older. George’s age is unclear, but he’s plainly older than both of his sisters as he talks about being “up in London” when they were sent to France and seeing Henry VIII as Prince of Wales before Henry VII’s death in 1509.

THE EARLY LOVE: James Butler makes a brief appearance, strictly to provide a comic contrast to Percy. Once things get too serious with the latter, he’s summoned by Wolsey and told that he’s not marrying Anne because she’s of low birth. Anne vows revenge as she’s packed off to the country: “Anne Boleyn shall have her day!”

THE QUEEN’S BEES: Well, Lady Rochford the eternally bitchy can be taken for granted at this point, and she’s in her usual form. Otherwise it’s just anonymous maids making snarky remarks, until of course we get to Jane Seymour, who is portrayed as a rather dim and malicious girl being puppeteered by her brothers.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Meg Wyatt Lee gets another look-in here. As Queen, Anne also acquires a female fool named Niniane, who coins the “Queen Anne Lack-head” joke and also makes a point of refusing to talk about her private life, which after too many pages of Henrician sex scenes made her my favourite character by a long shot. Lady Sommerville, preserver of the diary, counts as this as well, but only turns up at the very end, once Anne is in the Tower. Elizabeth has Kat Ashley, whom she’s always kicking out of the room when she wants to spend more time with the diary.

THE PROPHECY: A lot. Before Anne catches Henry’s eye, an “old hag whispered to be a witch” spots Anne’s sixth finger and wen and predicts a “brilliant and infamous career”. Several years later, when Anne is well established as queen-in-waiting, so to speak, she visits the Nun of Kent, who sees her despite historically having been strongly opposed to Henry’s divorce. While having a visionary fit, the Nun predicts that Anne will give birth to “a Tudor son” who will illuminate the kingdom. Anne, unlike the reader, doesn’t get it right away. Weirdly, once Elizabeth is born, Anne takes over the prophetic mantle: within days of Elizabeth’s birth, Anne has twigged to the homophone and decided that Elizabeth is actually the “Tudor son” and that she, Anne, is doomed never to have a boy but will be redeemed by her daughter. From that time forward Anne writes of her daughter as being a future queen. I’m not sure even the Nun of Kent would have gone that far.

IT’S A GIRL! Henry has a classic middle-school meltdown right there in the birthing chamber in front of a few dozen people, denouncing Anne as a liar who caused him a lot of trouble for no purpose, and concluding “You, Madame, will pay for this girl!” before stomping out, presumably to finish his day by slamming the door behind him and writing a sullen entry in his own diary (“NOBODY can understand how disappointing it is not having a boy. HOW can God be so unfair? Found another sore on my leg today, ointment doing NOTHING to help them. Think I might send Dr. Butts to the Tower.”)

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Yes, and the wen on her neck to boot. She hides the former with long sleeves and the latter with a ribbon.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No – Smeaton is implied to have a crush on her (it’s a rare book in which he doesn’t).

FAMILY AFFAIRS: Elizabeth Boleyn has retired to the country, where her main preoccupations are being disappointed in life and lecturing Anne about proper feminine behavior when Anne is in exile after the fallout from the Percy affair. George is loyal, initiates a lot of awkward religious conversations (according to Chapuys this was true, but I’m guessing the real George was a little more graceful about it) and complains about his wife. Mary gives Anne a lot of advice on the art of becoming Henry’s mistress and later on instructs Anne in the art of the blow-job. After the illicit marriage with Stafford, Anne throws Mary out due to jealousy at Mary’s very obvious fecundity and just generally being tired of her.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: Mostly in the Anne sections. “Witchlike midwives murmuring musky spells between my outspread thighs” gives way to “‘Twas sour surprise even to one so schooled in treachery as me” and it just gets worse. Especially disconcerting in a book with modern spelling are the random appearances of spellings like “anticks “magick” and “politicks” which don’t suggest the Tudors so much as a bad knockoff of Poor Richard’s Almanac. At least she doesn’t use “shoppe”. Anne goes off on suspiciously modern-sounding rants about the rights of women a number of times, and denounces the policy of royal babies having their own households and wetnurses as rules “made by men, who know nothing of a woman’s heart.”

ERRATA: There are a few instances of title abuse — the fictional Lady Sommerville can’t seem to decide if she’s Mistress Sommerville, Lady Sommerville or Lady Matilda Sommerville, and similarly Jane Seymour switches back and forth between Mistress Jane and Lady Jane. (As her father was a knight, not an earl, marquess, or duke, she would have been Mistress Jane until, of course, she was transformed into “Jane the Quene.”) It’s not enough to be truly annoying since titles are seldom used, but it’s there.

But there are some other mistakes which are truly inexcusable – when questioned about a precontract, Anne describes Percy as denying it three times “as Judas denied our Lord.” For a sixteenth-century Englishwoman – especially an educated one who was so anxious to support the English translations of the Bible – not to know that it was Peter who did that is roughly equivalent to a professional chemist being unable to read the periodic table. Also, George Boleyn refers to Henry VII dying — and Arthur dying shortly afterwards. If it had happened that way, Cromwell and Wolsey combined wouldn’t have been able to deny that Catherine of Aragon the title of Queen of England, because Arthur would have been king, however briefly.

Another problem, which makes me think that the book may have been written quickly, is that the dates sometimes become very strange. Elizabeth is referred to as being “swaddled” at a date when she would have been about thirteen months old – a bit past the swaddling age, surely. Anne’s pregnancies are all over the place. Maxwell gives her a very plausible three in total – first Elizabeth, then the rather obscure pregnancy of 1534 which seems to have ended badly at some point when Chapuys wasn’t on hand to write about it, and lastly the pregnancy which ended with her miscarrying a boy in January 1536. There’s nothing wrong with any of that. What is wrong is Anne’s announcement of a pregnancy in April of 1534 and then her announcement of a miscarriage — in December, which would be term for that pregnancy. In 1535 Anne gets pregnant in April or early May and then miscarries “a small strip of bloodied flesh” at the end of January of 1536, which would be right around the pregnancy’s due date, if not later. It doesn’t work. I realize that this is nitpicking to an extent, but it’s so sloppy.

WORTH A READ? I know a lot of people love this book, and from the biography the author is genuinely enthralled by this historical period, but I have to say no, unless you’re in the mood for an overdressed Harlequin. Ultimately the diary format is a failure. Fictional diaries are hard to do well, but I wouldn’t describe what’s here as a diary — Anne makes entries about four times a year, always about 3,000 words long and summarizing and explaining everything so neatly that she might as well be writing a school composition. The whole experience of reading a diary — the major threads mixed in with the minor, spotting a careless reference to something that will become life-changing, the preoccupations that change so quickly that looking back you wonder if it was really the same person writing it — those are all gone, and with them the point of the entire exercise.

The problem isn’t just the format and the pointless errors, it’s the utter flatness of the characters, their reduction to breathy, romance-novel figures when they aren’t suddenly taking a hard left into awkward conversations which are essentially potted summaries from Luther For Dummies, the dreadful prose and tiresome farsightedness of Anne and her constant predictions of the toddler Elizabeth’s future greatness. There’s no interesting perspective or exploration of personalities here, and by the time Amy Robsart turns up dead on the staircase, it’s just tedious.

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2 Comments
  1. But does Henry write obnoxious poetry about the Hoi Polloi? And does he go on and on about Anne’s treacle colored hair?

  2. sonetka permalink

    Thankfully, he doesn’t. He’s actually kind of hard to pin down in this one because we’re only seeing him second-hand through Anne’s rather unlikely-sounding diary; mostly he just bellows and stomps about needing a son, leavened with the occasional smack at Papal supremacy. I can just imagine the poetry, though:

    A barren land without me
    A barren land within me
    One girl can never stand against
    The wind, as if
    Charles the Fifth
    Would suffer us not to be swept up in his raging black storm.

    A boy!
    A boy will save me!
    And She, the Raven-Haired, the goddess-messenger
    Shall descend from the rainbow, bringing him.
    Oh life!
    Oh love!
    Oh God!
    Oh Anne!
    Only Death shall part us twain!

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