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The Cutting-Room Floor

June 13, 2012

Part of writing (not to mention reading) an Anne Boleyn novel is accepting that there are certain scenes which pretty much have to be included: first meeting, declaration of love, Percy vs. Wolsey, “Whoso list to hunt”, discovery of pregnancy, secret wedding, Elizabeth’s birth, Jane Seymour on Henry’s knee, jousting accident, 1536 miscarriage, “I can lower you as much as I have raised you” “A look sufficeth me” … it’s not hard to fill in the rest. Other scenes depend on the format of the novel: third-person omniscient novels have to include at least a few conversations between Henry and Cromwell, ranging from how to give the Vatican a kick in the pants so Henry can marry Anne, to how to finagle the legalities before Henry can divorce Anne prior to her death. Catherine of Aragon and Eustace Chapuys will have a few scenes together, as will Mary Tudor and Lady Shelton. Henry Percy will be shown arresting Thomas Wolsey. The Duke of Norfolk will lurk in the background, waiting for the moment when he runs onstage to break the news that Henry has been killed while jousting. The Duke of Suffolk will take on his wife’s grievances against Anne, Brereton, Weston and Norris will have a few conversations just to establish that they are, in fact, part of the story, and Mark Smeaton will play some incidental music for all of them.

First-person novels (and third-person narrations which follow one viewpoint) have a tougher job in this department and often have to contrive scenarios in which the heroine somehow manages to be everywhere at once or just happens to overhear a lot of gossip quoted straight from diplomatic dispatches (Lady Rochford is a useful conduit for these, especially the nastier ones).

But there are a few things — just a few — which seldom or never turn up in either type of novel, and I admit I’m a little puzzled as to why. I can see why they might not be thought absolutely necessary, but in a fictional world which has given us everything from George Boleyn having an affair with Mark Smeaton, to Lady Rochford arranging for Anne to be ambushed by archers, to real maids of honour marrying fictitious gentlemen, these haven’t managed to slip in more than a few times:

1) The visit to the nunnery at Syon in December 1535, which was part of an attempt to get the nuns to accept Henry as head of the Church. This is one of those incidents that gets a lot of brief mentions along the lines of “I spoke to nuns at Syon and gave them English prayer books,” but which we’re never actually shown firsthand. Here’s Ives (pp.265-266), discussing Latymer’s account of it, which appears to be the only one in existence:

She arrived when the nuns were in choir, to be refused entry on
the ground that she was married and so excluded by the rules of the order. Anne declined to accept the answer and waited, with her attendants. Eventually the choir doors were opened and her party came in, only to discover all sixty or so nuns prostrate, with their faces fixedly `downward to the ground’. Thereupon, if we are to believe Latymer, Anne addressed this unpromising audience with `a brief exhortation’ about the moral decline of the congregation — all sorts of slanders were being reported back to the court — and she also rebuked them for persisting with Latin primers which they could not understand, offering them English primers instead which, after some resistance, the nuns accepted. Throughout his memoir Latymer makes Anne appear painfully stilted, and the absurd pomposity of this speech invites disbelief; it is hardly effective to admonish the backs of an audience’s heads, and Anne, of all people, must have known that these daughters of the best families and of the most scholarly religious house in England were better Latinists than she. But whatever really happened, Anne’s visit did not effect the desired conversion.

This scene, well-written and fleshed-out, could be wonderful. It could show the reader what a religious house looked like and how the nuns dressed and acted, it could clarify the religious debates of the time without forcing anything, and it would bring Anne outside of the court and away from Henry — showing her acting as a religious reformer and a politician on her own account. Depending on how far you choose to take Latymer’s account, it could even be pretty humorous. Best of all for the novel-writer, Anne went there accompanied by “her ladies”, so any book featuring a maid-of-honor narrator is in luck — no need to stretch probability to get the narrator there.

2) The letter to Mary Tudor. Or rather, the letter to Lady Shelton which was accidentally-on-purpose left in her oratory for Mary to “discover” and read. Admittedly this one could only really work in one of the books which has multiple viewpoints, and it may not be strictly necessary since Anne’s struggles to get Mary’s acceptance (or at least her compliance) are certainly dramatized. Ives again (p. 199)

[Anne] wrote a letter to Anne Shelton, which was left `by accident’ in Mary’s oratory where she read it, as clearly she was expected to do. Efforts to persuade Mary were, Anne wrote, to cease; they had been an attempt to save the girl from her own folly, not because Anne needed her acquiescence. One may think that only partly true, but there is no doubt of the chilling realism of Anne’s warning of what would happen to Mary if, as she expected, the child she was carrying was a son: `I have daily experience that the king’s wisdom is such as not to esteem her repentance of her rudeness and unnatural obstinacy when she has no choice.’ This was only literal truth, as anyone knew who was familiar with Henry’s behavior towards those who had offended him but sought mercy too late. Mary took a copy of the letter for Chapuys, restored the original to its place, and ignored the warning.

There’s a lot of potential there; first of all, Anne having to come up with the scheme for the letter, and secondly some of the phrasing (it’s hard not to wonder about that “daily experience” of the “King’s wisdom”, it sounds like it could be fairly grim). And of course Mary’s reaction to it. We know Mary survived, but Mary herself must have had serious doubts on that score at the time.

3) Lastly, and most baffling — what happened to Henry’s letters to Anne. These are, rightfully, included in anything Boleyn-related which is bigger than a leaflet. Henry sending her game after hunting, Henry begging her to return to court, Henry longing to kiss her “dukkys”, Henry sending her his second-best physician when he hears she has the sweating sickness (the best physician, of course, was with him. Devotion has its limits). You can read all of the letters here.

What we never hear of is the incident which led to those letters being preserved, something which was in neither Anne’s nor Henry’s interest. Nobody knows how it happened, except that the letters must have been stolen — (or possibly sold, and maybe both) by someone, and somehow ended up in the Vatican, which is where they are now. This may not have happened during Anne’s or Henry’s lifetimes, but it’s equally possible that it did, and there’s no telling who did it — whoever it was, historians certainly owe him or her an unpayable debt. If the letters were stolen while Anne was alive, it must have been a tremendous shock to say the least — this was material that she really would not have wanted to fall in the wrong hands, especially as the letters were written at a time when Henry was swearing up and down that he would gladly marry Catherine of Aragon all over again if their marriage were valid, and that only the torments of his conscience had driven him to inquire into the matter at all. But the only book I can think of which has really gone into this plot point is Margaret Campbell Barnes’s Brief Gaudy Hour (Wolsey is the thief in her scenario).

I haven’t read every Boleyn novel that’s been written; I’m not sure such a thing is even possible. It could be that there are stacks of books out there filled with dramatic re-enactments of the Syon confrontation, in-depth explorations both of the effect that the theft of the letters had on Anne and Henry’s relationship and on the reactions of the people who ended up reading them, and what Anne thought when her planted letter to Lady Shelton was (apparently) not discovered by Mary. If so, I hope to find them, and if not, I hope somebody’s writing one. In the last extremity I suppose I may have to resurrect my old fictitious maid of honor Isabel and write them myself, but I hope it doesn’t come to that.

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From → Essays

4 Comments
  1. Annalucia permalink

    Hmmm…interesting story about the Nuns of Syon. I wonder if they were really slackers? It seems equally likely that that might be a made-up excuse to allow Anne to go in and hector them – and also to let them know that the Court had its eye on them, in case they proved insufficiently spineless before Henry 😦

    If you want Anne-as-villainness, though, that scene and the Mary Tudor letter incident could be written to show her as so hateful that the reader will positively cheer when she gets her head whacked off.

    • sonetka permalink

      It’s hard to say, really — there are all sorts of possibilities there. Latymer was writing a generation later, for Elizabeth, and was very heavy on Anne the New Religionist and his portrayal makes her look like about as much fun as Cotton Mather. What really happened there we’ll never know, but I think a good writer could have fun taking a stab at it. It is hard to believe that she wouldn’t have known what sort of education the nuns had. As for the planted letter, the timing on that one is interesting; I should have put that in the post, it was in January of 1536, between Catherine of Aragon’s death and Anne’s own miscarriage of the baby boy. Since there’s no way to know her state of mind then, you could paint it as coldhearted villainy, as a long shot taken out of desperation (after all, *was* this pregnancy going to make it? Perhaps her symptoms had been lessening lately …), a bluff, a real warning borne from something she’d heard Henry say, or anything, really. It’s such a clumsy and over-the-top way of doing things.

  2. Brown Line permalink

    I suspect that the reason no works of fiction explore these episodes (which I first read about here) because far too many writers are reading each other, instead of the primary sources. But you’re right – these are wonderful episodes, full of dramatic potential. The scene of Anne addressing the prostrate nuns of Syon is tailor-made for the movies; in my mind’s eye, I can see the young Genevieve Bujold swaggering about as she lectures the nuns, and growing angrier by the minute as she realizes she’s being “dissed”. One of the great scenes that was never filmed.

    • sonetka permalink

      The thing is, a lot of novels will *mention* the Syon episode, but we never actually get to *see* it. And it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if they all read each other; if you like the idea of an Anne Boleyn novel enough to write it, you’re probably also quite ready to read others! There are a few fictional devices which several books have in common (Anne’s stepmother, Anne having a French governess named Simonette) but these all come from Agnes Strickland’s history of the lives of the queens of England, so while some novelists may have been copying each other’s errors I think it’s more likely that they were all reading Strickland. And yes, Bujold would have done the nunnery scene to a turn. (I still can’t figure out why they didn’t let her give her farewell speech at her beheading in that movie. I can’t believe I’m saying these words, but “The Tudors” actually did that scene much better).

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