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Anna de Bouillain: Anne Boleyn As French Speaker

July 25, 2012

Anne Boleyn’s time in France and the Low Countries tends to get short shrift in fiction — it’s as the necessary but dull prelude to the real drama in her life, though there are plenty of exceptions. Those books that do linger in the courts of Margaret of Austria and Claude of France do so in order to emphasize what important lessons Anne has learned there — about fending off men, feminism, the New Religion, seductive dancing, masturbation (Robin Maxwell in Mademoiselle Boleyn, 2007, you’ll not be surprised to learn) and sundry other things.

What she’s never shown learning much about is French. In many older books, or books based on older sources (Blood Royal, Brief Gaudy Hour, The Lady In The Tower) Anne is given a French governess named Simonette who teaches her the language as a child, so she’s already fluent when she takes ship. Simonette has her origin in Agnes Strickland, who appears to have taken the M. or Mme. Symmonet of Margaret of Austria’s household, who is on record as Anne’s tutor there (Ives, 19) as a woman named Simonette who was employed by Thomas Boleyn. There appears to have been no such person, which means that Anne is likely to have been dropped into a foreign court at the age of roughly twelve or thirteen (or, for the more traditionalist books, around the age of seven) not only to learn a new protocol but to learn a new and politically valuable language. And learn it she did — on her return to England she was described as being more like a Frenchwoman than an English one and all indications are that she stayed that way to the end of her life.

It’s hardly surprising, considering the amount of time she was there (nine years, and very important formative years at that) and the fact that she would have been completely immersed. English was not, at that time, the sort of language that other nationals could be expected to know anything about. Incidentally, I’ve always thought that one argument, albeit hardly foolproof, for Anne being born around 1501 is that if a seven-year-old child had been sent to France to live in total immersion until the age of fifteen — even writing her surviving letter to her father in French — the odds are good that not only would she have learned perfect French, she would have lost a considerable amount, if not all, of her English. A return at age fifteen or sixteen would not have made a return to fluent English easy by any stretch, whereas with a twelve-year-old, retention of her first language in an immersion situation would be easier to accomplish. But regardless of which age she was, she seems to have read and spoken both English and French easily — a number of Henry VIII’s love letters to her are in French, and it’s entirely believable that she thought in French frequently. How do the books handle her French speaking?

For obvious reasons, most of them ignore it. Trying to write English which is plausibly Renaissance-sounding is hard enough without throwing French, modern or Renaissance, into the mix as well, and even if the author speaks faultless French she can’t count on the readers doing so as well. (Case in point: myself. I know about twenty-five words of French, none of them learned in any class). A few authors keep their books entirely English, but will add the occasional, careful “she said, in French” to let us know how exactly these characters are communicating — Francis Hackett’s sadly dull Queen Anne Boleyn (1939) is very good about this, which is especially nice when various highborn folk of different nationalities are speaking to each other; in most books they might as well be using a Universal Translator for all the author lets us know. Laurien Gardner’s A Lady Raised High (2006) which, though very readable fluff, makes some really basic blunders, nevertheless does gain back a point or two for giving its fictional maid of honour a French mother, so that she can read and discuss books with Anne in either language. Then there are the books which have actual French snippets in them. Both To Die For(2011) and At The Mercy Of The Queen (2012) have Anne saying a few sentences in French of the sort that most readers can be counted on to puzzle out. (The latter has her speaking French to her dogs and her daughter — her cry of “Ici, mon chienne!” showed the traps that a gendered language can lay for the unwary).

Blood Royal (1988) is probably the most French-heavy book I’ve read, which is to say, it has characters besides Anne occasionally coming out with a phrase or two. (“He is your bel ami, your friend?”) In this one, Anne’s post-France fluency is neatly indicated without any shoehorning of phrases by showing a few conversations with Anne just after her return, where she occasionally fumbles for an English word. “What magnificent colliers… I mean, chains for the neck — you’ll have to correct me.” Anyone who’s spent any amount of time up to their neck in another language will recognize that feeling of discovering that the newer word has overlaid the older one. I have no idea how well this author spoke French, or didn’t, but she managed to cover herself neatly by giving the longest French lines to the Duke of Suffolk, who’s not supposed to be fluent anyway. Here he is flirting with Margaret of Austria, after offering her a ring, and being refused: “`But I got it fairly! I swear to you, Madame, I did!’ (J’ai le fait honnetement, dear me: the ladies silently giggled.)”

Anne’s bilingualism is not, I think, something that can ever be realistically portrayed, because anything realistic would be virtually unreadable for anyone who wasn’t fluent in both languages, especially if the book were written in the first person. While I grant that being bilingual in French and English is not terribly unusual, selling that book would still be extremely difficult. However, I do think there’s room for showing some of Anne’s early struggles as she was thrown into the deep end linguistically — the only character I’ve seen get this treatment is Mary Boleyn, who is virtually always portrayed as being much poorer at speaking French than Anne, despite having spent a respectable amount of time there herself. The imaginary Simonette the governess is largely responsible for this in the earlier books, as it was assumed that she arrived at the court of Margaret of Austria already fluent, but the reality of Symonnet, the real tutor, has been known for a while (he appears in Doomed Queen Anne, 2002, but for a sadly brief interval). Let’s see Anne actually learning a bit of French. With any luck, I’ll learn some along with her.

From → Essays

  1. Annalucia permalink

    Bilingual Anne would be better shown in a movie, don’t you think? All you’d need is a few snippets of her chatting away prettily in English AND French, charming some of the courtiers and reducing others to jealous sulks. In fact, Genevieve Bujold would have been perfect in just that kind of scene – a pity that the folks who made “Anne of the Thousand Days” never thought to do it.

    For that matter, a learning-the-language sequence is better handled on film too. That was one thing that the movie “Eaters of the Dead” got right. Early in the movie we meet a young Arab traveling north with a group of Vikings – first scene, the Vikings are sitting around talking in Norse – no subtitles; neither we nor Ibn Fadlan have any idea what’s being said. Next scene, it’s still mostly Norse but there are English words and phrases popping out at us – we are starting to pick up their language and understand bits of it. By the third or fourth such sequence, we (and Ibn Fadlan) understand just about everything. It didn’t take more than a couple of minutes, but it put us right in the picture.

    It’s a lot tougher on the page. Unless you are Charlotte Bronte, you are going to have to translate all French conversation for your English-speaking readers, and saying everything twice just gets tedious. It sounds as though the author of “Blood Royal” got the balance just right. And anyway, listening to someone butcher the language is much more entertaining than hearing someone speak fluently. In the Aubrey/Maturin novels, Stephen Maturin speaks fluent French, so we don’t hear him much, but Jack Aubrey is constantly mixing up genders and tenses and grabbing onto words which sound like, but aren’t quite what he wants… lots of fun.

    (And yes, “mon chienne” has gender issues, in addition to, well, just not sounding very colloquial. Herewith some free information for the next novelist to tackle the subject: there’s a French word, “toutou,” which is more or less “nice doggie,” and much more suitable if you want to show the Queen fussing over and baby-talking to her dogs.)

  2. sonetka permalink

    Yes, I remember the first time I read Jane Eyre — “Oh, uh, that’s interesting. I hope there aren’t any key plot points in there.” Mercifully, the movies provide subtitles. I love the method you described in Eaters of the Dead — if there’s ever an Anne Boleyn movie which shows the Young Anne going abroad, they could use that method to great effect. And yes, this is one of those problems that I don’t think a book can ever really solve, just make a game attempt at, as Blood Royal did. The different approaches are interesting, though. (One thing I didn’t have time to get into was the issue of who *else* speaks French; I’ve seen books which have the elder Mary Tudor not speaking it, though her brother did, and also books where Catherine of Aragon is unable to speak to Queen Claude of France. I have no idea to what extent any of this is true — Margaret of Austria was Catherine’s former sister-in-law and had been asked to teach her French so she could communicate with the royals; how much it was kept up later I don’t know. As for the elder Mary Tudor, it’s true that her marriage to Louis XII was rather last-minute, but I can’t find any non-fictional information on how much French “the French Queen” knew. I’d be surprised if either of them were absolutely ignorant).

  3. According to Richardson, Mary was tutored in French by John Palsgrave and was fluent in the language when she left for France. Palsgrave was one the leading language tutors of the times who had the then revolutionary idea of using pictures to aid vocabulary. Tutoring Mary must have been a pleasure as he was sent up to Yorkshire to teach Henry’s bastard son, Henry Fitzroy next. This appeared to be the assignment from hell as Fitzroy was only interested in hunting and was bright but lazy (remind you of anyone?!).

    A great shame that Anne never exchanges any words in French on the scaffold, to the executioner from Calais. I have always thought that it would make a great, last scene.

    • sonetka permalink

      She does in one book that I know of! That’s The French Executioner, in which the executioner visits her the day before because he’s a tormented, alienated soul who feels like a last conversation is the least he can do for his, uh, client base. She requests that he cut off her six-fingered hand and bury it at a crossroads in the Loire valley for some mystical reason or other, and on the scaffold he tells her in French to hold up her hands in prayer so he can slice the hand and her head off all at once, so people won’t notice that he’s going to make off with the former. It’s quite an opening scene but Anne’s hand is really just the Macguffin, and the story isn’t about her at all. I agree that a last conversation in a book which is actually about her would be great — so far as I know the closest thing we have to it is Anne’s flirtatious eye contact with the executioner in Brief Gaudy Hour.

  4. I’ve never read the French Executioner but isn’t it spun out into a few more books? I’ve never believed that Anne wore a blindfold on the scaffold. If the executioner called for his sword and she turned her head, how could she hear him, as both her eyes and ears would be covered?

    I agree that the end scene in BGH is brilliant – the Frenchman is good looking but in a sinister way!

    • sonetka permalink

      I don’t think a blindfold would keep her from hearing unless whoever tied it took care to *really* cover her ears up — and it wouldn’t have had to cover her ears at all. At least, I don’t remember hearing ever being a problem when we were playing blind man’s bluff. Though I can’t decide whether blindfolding the executee is really a kindness; bad enough to be beheaded, do you have to spend your last moments totally disoriented as well?

  5. Yes, it’s funny that both the Tudors and Anne of the Thousand Days depict her without the blindfold. And she was wearing a cap which covered her ears so the kerchief would have fitted over the cap and then over her ears.

    You are right about the disorientation, though. Still, it provided Lady Jane Grey with the dramatic “Where is it? Where is it?” moment as she groped her way to the block. At least Anne did not have that problem, there being no block!

    • sonetka permalink

      I think the movies/TV show did it because it’s much easier to have a last emotion-filled shot of someone’s face when the most expressive part of it isn’t covered :).

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