To Die For: A Novel of Anne Boleyn by Sandra Byrd (2011)
This novel features an Anne who may be the most single-minded pusher of religious reform among all the fictional Annes out there. This is only to be expected, because the author is Sandra Byrd, who writes for specifically Christian publishing companies. (I was going to say she’s a Christian writer but that’s too vague – that description could encompass anyone from John Calvin to Flannery O’Connor, but you won’t find their works listed for a specifically Christian market). The narrator is Anne’s lady-in-waiting, Meg Wyatt. But she’s not exactly the Meg we’ve seen so often before, the one who was sister to Thomas Wyatt and married to Sir Antony Lee. This Meg is also a sister of Thomas Wyatt, but is married firstly to someone named Baron Blackston and subsequently … well, I’ll leave that to its proper place. The Meg who married Sir Antony Lee is mentioned glancingly in the book as being this Meg’s niece, who is nicknamed Margery in the book, whereas Meg the heroine is described by the author as having been originally named Anne, but renamed Meg to prevent confusion with Anne Boleyn. Are you following this? I couldn’t, even though there were family trees in the back, albeit poorly formatted. From the author’s postscript it sounded like she had conjectured the existence of another Meg (Anne?) Wyatt from the gap between Thomas Wyatt’s siblings’ ages, but this still didn’t explain how the Meg Wyatt who became Lady Lee was Thomas Wyatt’s niece and not his sister. Never mind, let’s just tag her with “Meg Wyatt” and be done with it.
The story itself is competent romance and follows to a T the dictum once summarized by Florence King as “Keep the heroine a virgin as long as possible, and never let her have sex willingly with a man she doesn’t love.” It’s nicely paced and moves at a good clip from childhood vow of friendship between Anne and Meg to Anne’s summoning Meg to court to Meg’s arranged marriage with an elderly baron who considerately dies posthaste and leaves her a virgin widow while Anne is busy getting tangled up in Henry’s divorce, and Meg’s pursuit by the late baron’s evil nephew and heir while pining for the man she can’t have. All the while Meg is following the daring new fashion of reading the scriptures in English without letting too many people know about it, and from reflecting on them is beginning to wonder if perhaps she’s called to a life of service and not of marriage. Throw in a number of assassination attempts (including at least one by Lady Rochford) and a betrayal by Madge Shelton, and it’s clear that this book is in no danger of getting bogged down in political minutiae, although Byrd has read her Eric Ives and places a strong emphasis on Anne’s opposition to Cromwell’s wholesale monastic dissolution as being a key factor in her fall. Reading it is still a weirdly bifurcated experience, as Anne is living in some place resembling Tudor England and Meg is living in a Regency romance – at least, the people she gets entangled with have titles like Blenheim and Asquith and first names like Charlotte, Rose and Jessica; apart form other discrepancies the names are all at least fifty years too late for Henry VIII (often closer to one hundred and fifty years too late). Even when Meg accompanies Anne to the Tower, it’s hard to feel that she’s in much danger since she clearly comes straight from the fictionalized reign of the Prince Regent, who couldn’t even manage to divorce one wife, let alone behead anyone.
The other major problem is that this Anne is just too nice. Obviously Anne was more than her high temper or Henry would never have spent seven years trying to marry her, but it seems very clear that she did have a temper and was not above pulling political strings and, on occasion, kicking her enemies when they were down (as Wolsey and Mary Tudor could well attest). The Anne in this book only loses it when she finds out that Henry has been fooling around with other women while she’s pregnant. The rest of the time she’s earnest, sweet, in love with Henry, and generally just a nice Protestant girl who had the bad luck to fall in love with a married man.
SEX OR POLITICS? Sex is very much in the air even though only the bad characters do anything premarital (Madge Shelton has a “loose shift” and puts on airs when Henry takes notice of her). There’s the obligatory dollop of politics. Unusually for a modern novel, though not surprisingly considering the imprint, there’s a lot of reflection on (and quotation from) the Bible, not just the usual one or two quotes and obligatory references to Luther and Simon Fish et al.
WHEN BORN? 1501 – Byrd has several family trees in the front of the book, for both the real and fictional families, and while they’re horribly formatted at least they make clearing up this question easy. Mary Boleyn is given a birth year of 1499, and George 1500.
THE EARLY LOVE: The projected Butler marriage is mentioned a few times but we never actually see him. Anyway, Anne is soon much more wrapped up in Henry Percy (in a moment I liked, Anne tells a somewhat perturbed Meg that her father would drop the Butler match in a second if Anne could catch the heir of the Earl of Northumberland). The romance with Percy goes by pretty fast, and since Meg is the narrator we don’t see much of it. After Percy gives in to Wolsey and is dragged back home to marry his original intended, Anne declares, “I will never again pledge myself to a weak man,” and that’s the last we hear of him until he stands up to say “Guilty” at her trial. Meg’s parallel romance is with one Will Ogilvy, who flirts with her in Latin (only a few phrases, alas, and we hear them a lot) and who informs her at the at the beginning of the book that he feels called to the priesthood and alas, cannot marry. After this, she’s married off to the aged Baron Blackston, and her almost instant widowhood occurs right around the time that Will starts hearing about some of these Reformist ideas in seminary.
THE QUEEN’S BEES: Jane Seymour appears, but she doesn’t really register as a character, mostly she’s just towed around by Lady Rochford and mentioned as being “stone-stupid” (though Anne thinks of her as sly, and towards the end acknowledges that perhaps Henry is charming Jane the way he once charmed her). Madge Shelton starts off as a nasty-minded flirt and ends up as a nasty-minded vicious flirt who passes on some highly colored stories to Cromwell. She doesn’t seem to be engaged to Henry Norris in this version; in fact, she’s the one who twits him about whether he plans to marry any time in the near future. Lady Rochford, not to be outdone, has been promoted from being merely a nasty, jealous, half-insane backstabber to someone capable of engineering an elaborate assassination attempt against Anne which involves sending her out on a midnight errand to an herbalist to procure fertility potions and having her waylaid on the way back (by archers, shooting in the dark) in the hopes that she’d be killed and the potions found on her would “prove” that she was a witch. There’s also an earlier assassination attempt where someone sends Anne poisoned Seville oranges which Meg gives to a servant; it’s not clear who’s behind this but Lady Rochford seems a likely candidate. We last see Lady Rochford hanging out in Anne’s rooms in the Tower, enjoying the spectacle and offering Meg a place in Jane Seymour’s service.
THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Meg to Anne, of course, following her around and generally acting as the Hobbes (the cartoon tiger, I mean) cautioning her against getting too involved with a married man, against pushing too hard for the reformed religion, that sort of thing. Anne also has a lower-ranking maid named Bridget who dies of the sweat, and Bridget’s substitute who has a young daughter anachronistically named Jessica; the latter two are eventually poisoned. Meg has a faithful servitor of her own named Edithe who speaks in an unrecognizable dialect which mostly seems to consist of dropping the ends of words, but in her favor, she manages to survive to the end of the book.
THE PROPHECY: None, really, except the usual predictions of Elizabeth being a boy. Meg tries to comfort Anne before her execution by telling her of all the great things she’s done and how she’s brought Reformation to England forever.
IT’S A GIRL! Not shown directly, but summarized. Henry is cold but polite. “Although he commented politely on the babe’s coloring – his coloring – the celebratory jousts were canceled.”
DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? She has a very minimal “double nail” but nothing else. I have to say, this was very refreshing.
FAMILY AFFAIRS: We barely see them, except for Lady Rochford and of course, George, who doesn’t have time to do much but appear amiable and friendly to his sister. Mary Boleyn appears at the beginning, and Meg attends her wedding to William Carey, but it’s all rather embarrassing as everyone knows she’s Henry’s mistress. Carey’s death is referred to later but Mary disappears from the story afterward. Thomas Boleyn makes an early appearance in which he’s grasping and unpleasant and not much else. Meg’s own family get more space, not surprisingly; she sees a lot of her many siblings and her father beats her up when she doesn’t want to have a marriage arranged for her.
DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? She’s a nice girl, of course not. She didn’t even sleep with Henry before they were married; they had a secret ceremony at Calais (vows de praesenti, true enough to the time period) before sleeping together, then another secret ceremony in January in case anyone called the first secret ceremony into question. I’m not sure how that was supposed to work.
WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: I quickly came to dislike “for certes” which is used far, far, too often. Otherwise it’s mostly straightforward plain language with some “Mayhap ’tis certain” types of phrases and the occasional jarringly modern phrase (one character refers to his rural manor as being in a “family-oriented” location).
ERRATA: Not the biggest mistake, but one of the most annoying: the titles are inconsistent and in many cases just wrong. Knights are routinely Sir Norris, Sir Brereton, Sir Seymour – this just isn’t how it worked in Anne Boleyn’s day, or now, in fact. (I think it says a lot about me that my biggest objection to Cars 2 was the fact that Sir Miles Axelrod, the ex-lemon entrepreneur, is consistently and wrongly called Sir Axelrod and not Sir Miles. And I think this may be the first time that Anne Boleyn and Cars 2 have been mentioned in the same paragraph). The constable of the Tower is called Lord Kingston. He wasn’t. The women’s titles are all over the place – Jane Seymour goes from Mistress Seymour to Lady Jane Seymour to Lady Seymour and back to Mistress Seymour, and similarly title migration happens to most of the other female characters. These titles are not interchangeable and unless these women’s fathers and husbands were changing rank every fifteen minutes, they simply would not have been addressed in these varying ways.
While I wouldn’t generally count something unverifiable as an error, since bizarre things do happen in real life and there are a lot of gaps in Anne’s life which need some sort of incident, I absolutely refuse to believe in the not one, but two, assassination attempts against her as they’re depicted in the book.
I’m not saying that a failed assassination attempt would be a bad plot device, but to be remotely consistent with history, it would have to be very, very subtle and leave no obvious evidence like the corpses of unintentional victims (in the Lady Rochford, Midnight Assassin plot, a nameless waiting-woman is killed). It’s impossible to believe that anything like this could happen without at least a few disposable Plantagenet cousins being sent to the Tower if the real culprits couldn’t be found. But in the book the incidents sink without a ripple, and Henry never even finds out.
The book also seems to be suffering from an attempt to make Anne out to be, at bottom, a thoroughly nice individual who was unhappily led astray by a married man, which means that she herself never does anything particularly unpleasant or self-seeking. Dame Eleanor Carey, whom Anne pressed Henry to make an abbess, was not “a known reformer” as this book has it – far from it. Henry’s own letter rejecting her describes her as having “two children by two sundry priests”, not the sort of person you’d expect to do a good job straightening out an abbey. But Dame Eleanor Carey was the sister-in-law of Mary Boleyn, and Anne was helping the Careys to work their family connection. Similarly, after Elizabeth’s birth, Anne is shown trying to make overtures to Mary Tudor (via Meg, who carries the message) and being thoroughly rejected, which is true enough, but she’s described as trying to see Mary at the household which Mary and Elizabeth “shared.” This is an interesting way of describing Mary’s situation there; what had in fact happened was that Mary’s own household was broken up and she was sent to be a servant to Anne’s daughter.
WORTH A READ? If you’re in the mood for a light and dramatic romance, you could do worse; it never drags and what with invented assassinations and imaginary barons wedding real women, you don’t feel like you know the whole story by heart. I did like the emphasis on religious matters and the English-Bible-as-contraband, and didn’t find Meg’s fascination with it unrealistic; when something is forbidden people will naturally be more strongly interested. This one definitely gets points for not using the word “Protestant”! It’s true that Meg, while steeped in the English Bible, seems a bit ignorant of Catholic customs for someone who’d been raised in them – she doesn’t seem to realize that a picture of Gabriel appearing to Mary would refer to the Feast of the Annunciation, for example, and thinks that an annulment and a divorce referred to different things – but if you want to see a recent novel with Anne the Religious Reformer in the ascendant – indeed, with religious reformation as the only thing she’s remotely interested in – this is what you’re looking for.
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