Anna de Bouillain: Anne Boleyn As French Speaker
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.