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Simonette the Governess: Vain Shadow

August 1, 2012

Simonette is, like Anne’s stepmother, a literary ghost, and much like Shakespeare’s “true love” Anne Whateley, she exists because of a transcription mistake. As I mentioned in my last post, Agnes Strickland, writing in the mid-nineteenth century, mistook the Symonnet of Margaret of Austria’s court for Simonette, governess to Thomas Boleyn’s children, and as a result a number of mid-century novels graced Hever Castle with an extra resident. Unlike Anne’s stepmother, however, she invariably disappears from the story by the time Anne is crowned. Simonette has never once made that last pilgrimage to the Tower that I’ve read.

But first, an honorable mention to the only book I’ve read so far which puts M. Symmonet in his proper setting: Doomed Queen Anne (2002).

I had my lessons from a tutor, Monsieur Symmonet, who spoke to me only in French, even when I wept piteously, “Oh please, monsieur, just tell it to me in English!” To no avail. He merely smiled and repeated what he had just said, still in French. Gradually the sounds soaked into my mind, and my tongue learned to pronounce them.

Nicely done, especially for such a short book. Weirdly, Mademoiselle Boleyn (2007) which both by its concentration on Anne’s early life and its publication date you would expect to have some mention of this person, skirts around the issue completely; her “tutors” are vague and nameless, and she acquires her French at some point while the reader isn’t looking.

Now, on to the governess. Brief Gaudy Hour (1949), with its knack for dwelling on events or characters which are often overlooked by others, gives Simonette far more attention than any other novel: it turns her into a semi-comic middle-aged spinster, short-tempered and very protective of Anne. However, being a Frenchwoman and thus obliged to have A Past, she is also the former mistress of a minor nobleman, and she used her “arts” (wonderful word) to hold on to him for years. She speculates that if she had been a bit more beautiful, she might have held on to him for life, and might not have had to “fill her life with Boleyns.” Having done so, however, she works Anne hard at her French and later on gives Anne the blueprint for holding out on Henry for his torment and her revenge.

In The Lady In The Tower (1986) Simonette gets much less attention but what we see of her isn’t far off from the previous example. She’s short-tempered (Mary is “hopeless with her lessons” and is scolded a great deal), a single woman who loves the Boleyn children and reassures Anne that she’ll grow into her looks, praising her eyes and dismissing the sixth finger. “Sometimes it is more chic to have a little imperfection … more human … more exciting … more fascinating. You will see.”

From these we can see the basic template for Simonette; sharp-tempered, worldly-wise spinster with no patience for slow learners but with an underlying affection for all the children, topped off with a dash of French superiority and, often, a “gruff” or “husky” voice (which combined with her other features always makes me picture her lounging on a sofa at Garsington, c. 1922, one hand carrying a cigarette holder and the other fending off a horde of vers libre writers). In Anne Boleyn (1967) we catch a glimpse of her teaching the Boleyn girls not only French but deportment, scolding Mary Boleyn for “tossing her head like a cow” and shrugging Gallically at Mary’s continuing struggles to get her walking and her grammar just so. In Blood Royal (1988), Simonette is specifically described as a Parisienne, so we know that we’re dealing with someone who is seriously French, and once again poor Mary Boleyn catches it hard: “But I can’t speak French as well as you can,” she cries to Anne. “Simonette is always pinching me for it!”

Considering that no such person existed and that the only description novelists had to go off of was a clause in one sentence by Agnes Strickland, it’s remarkable how similar the Simonettes are. My suggestion is that the key to this similarity lies in Strickland’s two-word description: “French governess.” Writers tend to be readers, and you don’t have to have read very much to get a strongly nineteenth-century vibe from that phrase; when before or since have governesses been so much in the fictional limelight? (Even James Fenimore Cooper wrote a novel called The French Governess — even after some of the depths I’ve plumbed here, I’m not sure I could bring myself to finish it). A governess’s being French merely means that she would be, in nineteenth-century terms, especially desirable as an employee, and in fictional terms it means she gets to be more chic and worldly-wise than any mere Englishwoman could manage, but a bit more frightening too. Hence the inevitable cross of Bronte and Edgeworth topped off with Colette and just a sprinkling of Miss Minchin’s Select Academy For Young Ladies (to taste).

I doubt Simonette will ever appear again — Strickland’s popularity has passed and Ives is in the ascendant. However, it may be some consolation to her nonexistent ghost that in the books where she does appear, she inevitably gets more lines than William Brereton.

From → Brief Lives

  1. Susan Higginbotham permalink

    I’m enjoying these posts! A similar ghost is Jane Grey’s “Nurse Ellen”–even though a “Mistress Eleyn” accompanied Jane to the scaffold, there’s no evidence that she was Jane’s childhood nurse. Her description as such appears to have been invented by Richard Davey.

  2. sonetka permalink

    Thanks, I’m glad you like them! I’ve enjoyed your blog(s) for a long time, though everyone seemed to know so much more than me that I only recently started commenting :). Anne’s stepmother is another interesting ghost I’m planning to post about — especially since when she appears, she’s often used to humanize Thomas Boleyn: “See! He wasn’t just a cold autocrat who used his daughters as pawns! He was susceptible to Cupid once in a while as well!” I don’t think that Thomas Boleyn was really much different from any ambitious courtier of his time; he just ended up more in the spotlight than most of them did, and of course in novels it’s easy to cast him as the two-dimensional heavy, but the “fact” of his marriage to a woman of relatively low rank forced novelists to give him a bit more depth.

    I didn’t know that about “Nurse Ellen” — it’s wonderful how one description can evolve into an entire imaginary person. Maybe Nurse Ellen and Simonette should get together sometime, they’d probably have interesting conversations.

  3. Did not take long to find out that Symmonet was an aged Abbé employed by the Regent of the Netherlands to teach her wards of which Anne Boleyn was one. In Mechelen. In what us now Belgium. This is where Anne was educated. Not France. Her sister Mary went to France as a maid of honour to Henry VIII’s sister Mary when she married Louis XII and their father wrote to the Regent asking if she could let Anne go with her sister, but the Regent refused. So Anne stayed there. Neither sister was a lady in waiting to the next French Queen, Claude.

    • sonetka permalink

      You’re quite right that Symmonet the Abbe was real. I mention that in my entry — “the Symmonet of Margaret of Austria’s court”. The person who was not real was “Simonette”, a French governess employed by Thomas Boleyn at Hever. Agnes Strickland was the one who made that original error/conflation, and since she was such a popular source, generations of novelists ended up including “Simonette” as a character.

      I know that Anne went to Mechelen, but what’s your source for her never having waited on Claude? Ives (p. 29) describes her as having done so for about seven years, following the death of Louis XII.

      • Appears to be no original evidence. And she was not at the Field of Cloth of Gold either. Her sister, aunts, uncles, parents, future sister in law, etc were. Not Anne. She doesn’t appear to be listed at the following event either when Henry VIII, Queen Katherine etc met the Regent. So Anne possibly not with either court by then although apparently in France. Since she is listed amongst the English students who have to go home from France in 1522. But she could have been staying with friends or relatives since she has apparently not been listed at all as a member of Queen Claude’s household.

      • sonetka permalink

        I take it you’ve read Sylwia Zupanec’s book, then. I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on this issue, especially considering that it has nothing to do with the subject of the post.

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