A Lady Raised High: A Novel of Anne Boleyn by Laurien Gardner (Jennifer Ashley) (2006)
Laurien Gardner was a name adopted by several different authors who collaborated on the “Tudor Women” series, which as far as I can tell petered out after three books which covered Henry VIII’s first three wives. This, like its predecessor The Spanish Bride, adopts the Maid’s Narrative technique and in many ways is fairly typical of the genre: the maid (in this case a fictional baronet’s daughter named Frances Pierce) comes to court as an innocent adolescent who doesn’t understand the pitfalls that await the unwary courtier, and for this reason is taken on by Queen Anne as a special confidante, as Anne feels that she can trust this maid not to betray her or manipulate her for her own ends. The maid gets involved with a young man who cautions her about said pitfalls of court life, but she’s enjoying the life, loves the Queen, and has no particular inclination to believe him. Then the long-awaited prince turns out to be a princess, and in a phrase even Suzannah Dunn wouldn’t use, shit gets real.
Frances Pierce is a pretty good example of the genre; seventeen years old, brought up in the country, innocent of court ways and (comparatively) badly dowered, which means that suitors aren’t exactly flocking to her door. Like many another historical romance heroine, she likes to dress up in boys’ clothes and ride horses like the men do, as she feels constrained by traditional female riding dress. As the book opens sometime in the year 1532, she’s absconded from her aunt’s house and tittle-tattling family to do some riding and try to catch a glimpse of the King and the Lady Anne, who are going to be passing by at some point. General feeling in her household is strongly against Anne, and general feeling in the village seems to be as well. While the outraged matrons of the village know better than to cat-call and throw things at Henry, no such restraint is applicable to Anne, and Frances finds herself dashing to get between Anne and a ball of mud thrown by someone or other. (That the said someone wasn’t immediately arrested and hauled off to prison for a slow repentance is another indicator that this is a romance novel). Anne discovers that her rescuer is in fact female, and has an interview with her in which Frances trips over her own tongue, knocks things over, and is generally awkward – however, she has three saving graces: she writes poetry, so she can be entertaining, she has a French mother and so speaks French fluently, and she’s completely starstruck by Anne and can thus be counted on for complete devotion. Anne decides to take her on as an attendant as a thank-you for her intervention, and off goes Frances, to the disgust and dismay of her relations and the ladies of the village.
Frances takes to court life like a fallen priest to drink, and quickly develops an enormous crush on George Boleyn, who is naturally very handsome, flirtatious and appealing, and just a little bit of a dog, if I’m reading between the lines correctly. She hangs on to every glance and shoulder-pat from him, and writes poems about him which she sensibly conceals from everyone. But alas, there’s also a fly in the ointment – one Jack Carlisle, who seems to disapprove of her no matter what she does and is always cautioning her about the perils of court life and warning her about behavior that could get her into trouble — running off to a gallery alone during a ball, hoping that George Boleyn will follow, for instance; Frances doesn’t quite get that putting herself in a witness-free area when there are a lot of drunken men around is a bad idea, especially when said men are status-heavy power brokers accustomed to having their every command obeyed. Their relationship remains in this contentious state for a bit more than a year, during which they go to Calais, become the witnesses for Henry and Anne’s secret marriages (this is another book in which Henry and Anne marry twice – once in Calais in November and then again in January), and spar at every opportunity, until New Year’s Day 1534, when they’re married. Of course, this marriage takes place in order to protect the heroine from her own impossible innocence, but there’s also a passable in-universe justification; Jack is the son of an earl who’s currently rusticated but still has a reputation for being just a little friendly with some of the people who belonged to the Duke of Buckingham’s faction. A marriage with anyone too closely connected to a powerful family (especially one with a lot of Plantagenet blood) could be seen as the two families forming a new potential alliance against Henry, which would make Jack’s life even more uncomfortable than the average Tudor courtier’s. Hence, marrying Frances, who is quite likeable and has no connections worth mentioning, and whose family is so delighted that she has a noble suitor that, as he genially points out, it’s not like she could get out of marrying him anyway. Fortunately for all concerned, the two of them fall in love after the wedding and she’s so embarrassed to remember her early crush on George Boleyn that she burns all of her poems about them – or so she thinks. (Yes, this will be a plot point later).
Frances gets pregnant immediately after her wedding and so is pregnant at the same time as Anne, who expects her second baby in the autumn of 1534. But Anne cools towards Frances for some unknown reason and sends her off to her husband’s estate, where Frances receives the news that Anne has miscarried her baby, just a month or so before Frances herself gives birth to a healthy son. She’s back at court by Christmas, but their relationship is strained — Frances has a healthy boy and Anne conspicuously does not. Jack is often away doing vague diplomatic jobs, but when he’s present he updates Frances (and the reader) on the state of religious reform in England. Finally Anne and Frances have a blowout; Anne has been slipped some poetry which Frances wrote about George before her marriage, and is convinced that she was dangling after him in order to raise her own status. Frances protests that it was just a silly infatuation, but Anne, accustomed to power-seeking, doesn’t believe it and sends her back home again. She forgives Frances at the advent of her (Anne’s) third pregnancy, and Frances returns to court in time for Christmas and, a month after, Anne’s miscarriage — the baby is deformed and monstrous, a la Retha Warnicke. Henry and Anne fight, Jack turns up with ominous updates about rumours of rise and fall, and when Anne is finally arrested, Frances is so angry that she goes to see Cromwell and argue that there must have been some sort of mistake, and discovers that Cromwell is using her poems about George, found among Anne’s papers and presumably written by her, as evidence of incest. Cromwell brushes off Frances’s attempts at explanation but does agree to let her be one of Anne’s ladies in waiting at the Tower. She and Anne have some final consolatory conversations, during which Margery Horsman is mentioned as testifying against Anne, and Frances remembers some previous interactions and realizes that Margery must have been the one who stole some of her old poems about George and showed them to Anne. The trials and executions take place, though not exactly by the book. That is, George Boleyn and the other four men are hanged. Frances describes the scene in great detail; hoods over heads, final drop and so forth. This absolutely flummoxed me. I think it’s still the most inexplicable mistake I’ve seen in a book yet.
Frances witnesses Anne’s beheading, and shortly afterwards Jack comes along to spirit her out of the Tower and tell her that Jane Seymour has been requesting her as a lady in waiting. Frances is, naturally, horrified at this idea, so she and Jack and their son go peacefully off into the sunset towards his ancestral estate, letting go of court dangers and follies forever.
SEX OR POLITICS? Sex. The naïve heroine who doesn’t understand “the world of men” is invoked here as a way to avoid discussing politics too much, and most of what she hears comes via her eventual husband. Her political opinions, such as they are, are very much in harmony with general twenty-first century opinion; yes, the monasteries need reform but it’s a shame they were trashed, and executing the hapless religious who got in Henry’s way was horrible. Jack, for all he strikes a surprisingly period note by admitting straight out that he’s strong-arming her into marrying him because it helps solidify his social position (downward), isn’t so sixteenth-century that he cares whether she has a son or not.
WHEN BORN? Anne is described as “about thirty” during her second, ill-fated pregnancy in 1534, so around 1504.
THE EARLY LOVE: Henry Percy is briefly mentioned (“Gossip implied that Anne had never fallen out of love with the Earl of Northumberland”) and we see him at the end when he arrives for Anne’s trial. Frances is “pleased to see that he looked ashamed of himself” and notes that it was obvious “by the way he looked at Anne across the chamber, that he still loved her.” Frances herself develops a massive crush on George Boleyn and writes convincingly awful adolescent poetry about her love for him, which Anne eventually discovers, long after Frances is married and the crush nonexistent, but which still seriously displeases her. (“All the time you were using me to gain prestige, to worm your way into my family!”) Oddly, Anne fails to destroy the love poems, although she doesn’t give them back, and guess what right-hand man to Henry VIII happens to find them some time later when rifling through her effects to find some evidence of wrongdoing?
THE QUEEN’S BEES Frances, of course – she’s the maid who is lowly enough and devoted to Anne, so she gets to eavesdrop on or participate directly in most of the events described, but unlike some other books with heroines of this type, the other ladies in waiting do leave impressions; Lady Margaret Douglas especially, who comes across as sharp-witted, amusing, and not entirely trustworthy – the sort of person who’s fun to gossip with but whom you’d never entrust with your own secrets. Lady Mary Howard is prim, awkward, but oddly endearing. Lady Rochford is “a dull stick with a sour disposition” (Frances has a crush on George Boleyn, but even so, her description of Lady Rochford is a lot more restrained than some other novels). Jane Seymour is quiet and sly. Margery Horsman also gets a few mentions as a tale-teller (she’s the “one maid more” of Cromwell’s anti-Anne intelligence gathering session) which I was glad to see; it’s a rare novel that even admits that Mistress Horsman existed. Madge Shelton appears as an excessively flirtatious type who has an affair with the King and is then “toyed with” by Henry Norris – the famous “I would tarry a time” conversation comes about as the result of Anne trying to force Norris’s hand and get him to openly commit himself to Madge.
THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR Frances to Anne, of course. Minor servants are alluded to but not named.
THE PROPHECY: None that I noticed.
IT’S A GIRL! We don’t see Henry’s reaction directly, but “The King canceled the jousts. Jousts, I gathered, were only appropriate for a prince.”
DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? No, the story is described and specifically rejected: “Vicious people liked to say that she wore the necklace to hide a large mole …. Likewise, lies and gossip gave her a sixth finger on one hand, but this, too, was utter nonsense, although I admit it makes a good story.”
FAMILY AFFAIRS: We only see George and Mary – George is the ideal crush, adored from afar and flirting with Frances just a little after she’s married; we get the feeling he’s been around. Mary tends to fade in and out – when Frances is out of favour with Anne, her tasks get delegated to Mary, who is portrayed as a cheerful, lighthearted type. Her final scene comes during the famous blowout with Anne in which Mary’s pregnancy and secret marriage were revealed: her final line is “I’ve had it with Court and lies and you!”
DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No. Frances, who has learned nothing in four years of court life, can’t understand how anyone could believe the charges and goes to Cromwell to try and rebut them. Her husband, being sane, is nearly ill on the spot when he finds out about this.
WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: The writing is plain and clear, which I liked (and the titles were correctly used as well, which was a blessing to the eyes). For some reason the description of Frances’s labour stands out to me; it was about half a page total, didn’t go into gory details or set up any dramatic scenes — it’s portrayed as a perfectly normal birth.
Pain came and went. It would rack me and make me want to double over, holding my belly, thinking it would subside. My body would tease me with feeling better for a while, and then pain squeezed me until I was screaming with it …. I lay on the sheets, naked and sweating, certain I would die. When I begged for a priest for unction, the midwife laughed and said I was a good girl and I’d do fine.
Not Shakespeare, but labor and birth is difficult to write well, and this was better than a lot of descriptions I’ve seen.
ERRATA: Plenty – but before getting into that I have to say that these were some of the most uneven errata I’ve seen in a book. There were details in here that seemed to show that the author had been paying serious attention to the history books: Margery Horsman’s existence being acknowledged, for one, and Anne telling Henry Norris to swear to his almoner that she was a virtuous woman. The episode with Anne “doing reverence” to Chapuys also gets a place, and there are a few other little incidents which were similar pleasant surprises. However, these nice touches were counteracted by some breathtakingly huge errors – the kind that make you wonder if the author only read alternating chapters of the history books, or if there was some sort of mixup at the publishing company and these pages were actually from another book. I’m speaking of the last pages, when the execution of George Boleyn and his four companions in judicial victimhood is carried out by … hanging. Yes, all of them. Bound hands, hoods over the heads, the long drop. How anyone could write a novel set in this time and not realize that beheading was the execution method of choice for anyone prominent enough to be turned off on Tower Green, I cannot imagine, but there it is. Not to mention that in those days, hanging was just the first step in hanging, drawing and quartering.
It’s hard to match that, but there are some other problems. Ladies of the court are constantly referred to as wearing wimples, which would have been a few hundred years out of fashion by then; certainly they didn’t show much hair, but they were wearing hoods and veils of various styles, not wimples. Frances’s father is a baronet, but baronetcies didn’t exist then – James I was the originator of the current system. Frances’s son is given multiple names (John Anthony James Carlisle) which, while technically possible, would have been extremely unlikely. Mary Boleyn is banished a year early, in 1534 instead of 1535 (though in the book’s favour, it got the month right – often Mary is banished in December instead of September, as she actually was).
WORTH A READ? In spite of the ridiculously naive lead character and unbelievable mistakes about wimples and hangings vs. beheadings, there’s something about this book which is really likeable; the author is very good at pacing and can also be very funny; Frances’s sharp-tongued mother is fairly two-dimensional but still very enjoyable to read. I also liked that Frances, inasmuch as it was possible, had her own life – she gets sent from court at various intervals, she isn’t always on the best of terms with Anne (who loses her temper with her, is sharp with her, and banishes her twice), and she isn’t just Anne’s shadow. She has her own child halfway through the book instead of getting married and moving on in the middle of 1536, like many other imaginary or semi-imagined maids of honour. Also, Margery Horsman is there! I’m not sure I can bring myself to actually recommend a book in which George Boleyn is hanged, but I will say that it would make a good airplane read.
Links to Amazon are an affiliate link. You can help The Head That Launched A Thousand Books read even more novels by purchasing any item (not just the one linked to) through these links.