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Mademoiselle Boleyn by Robin Maxwell (2007)

September 22, 2012

Robin Maxwell’s prequel to The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn is about her time in France and the Low Countries, where she lived at the court of Archduchess Margaret of Austria as well as that of Francois I and Claude of France. This is perfect territory for a novelist because so very little is known of Anne’s time there, although she was commended by Margaret of Austria and was friendly with Marguerite D’Alencon, sister to Francois and writer of the Heptameron. What do we discover in these distant halls of power? We discover that men were abusive, sex-obsessed power-hungry pigs, and the women were either passive victims who existed to be kicked around, or what my friend Emily once described as “Lady Betty Friedan, spunky proto-feminist.” Anne falls into the latter category, Mary Boleyn into the former. And Francois I of France falls for both of them.

There isn’t so much one overarching plot as several themes, the chief of which is that men are abusive pigs – Thomas Boleyn catches it particularly hard here, though he’s one of the few men who aren’t also aspiring rapists; sexless and stern, he confines his activities to giving his terrified wife the back of his hand and giving Anne and Mary their marching orders – Anne is to spy on the activities of Francois I and his sister, and Mary is to become Francois’ mistress, which she dutifully does, and experiences a nasty initiation in (literally) more ways than one. This only happens after a few years, though – Mary and Anne start their careers in France as children sent to attend Mary Rose Tudor when she marries Louis XII of France; naturally there is much speculative giggling about the horrifically decayed and ill king and his new eighteen-year-old queen. Louis dies on the first day of 1515, and as this isn’t the sort of book to miss a chance for a sex scene, you can hazard a guess about what he’s doing when he departs this trough of mortal error. Mary strings Francois I along for a while, torturing him with the possibility that she might be pregnant, but at last she marries the Duke of Suffolk like she always wanted, and Anne is a thrilled witness to this event – “A woman fighting for the rarest of estates in our world – a marriage for love.” Naturally she gets a keyhole peek at the happy couple when left to themselves afterward.

Subsequently she stays on to wait on Queen Claude, who is portrayed as very sweet and sympathetic to her occasional religious doubts, though of course she can’t tell Francois this as he is “the most Catholic King.” Francois argues with his sister over heretic-burning, in which Marguerite utters the immortal line “Show a little tolerance, for God’s sake!” Anne has a lot of meandering conversations with Marguerite and the other ladies about women’s roles in society and how even a lousy deck of playing cards doesn’t have any queens in it because women are badly served by their society, in case we hadn’t picked up on the first two hundred mentions of that fact. Mary Boleyn eventually becomes Francois’s mistress, and Anne fears she may be next. While she’s been enjoying solitary pleasures for some time now (far, far too much space is given to Anne’s exact technique for making herself “explode”) she’s in no hurry to give up control to anyone else.

Fortunately she’s befriended Leonardo da Vinci, whom Francois has moved to a house nearby (fact) and with whom Francois discusses theological and philosophical matters. Alas, we’re never allowed to see this more cerebral side of Francois for ourselves. Leonardo gives Anne drawing lessons, reassures her that she is indeed someone special, and gives her tips for putting Francois off when he tries to seduce her – essentially Anne challenges him to, and wins, an early version of strip poker. Leonardo also tells her the sad story of his illegitimate birth, which restrains Anne later on when she’s this close to doing the deed with Henry Percy in Francois’s love-nest tent at the Field of Cloth of Gold. Leonardo dies just before the end, as all storybook mentors must, but not before designing a fireworks show for the Field of Cloth of Gold and also designing a pack of cards for Anne which includes four queens.

SEX OR POLITICS? Sex. A lot. So much that you start to wonder when these people got their governing done, especially Francois I who, when he’s not sneaking off for secret confabs with Leonardo da Vinci or having conveniently spied-on fights with his sister, is busy hitting on the maids of honour, bedding the maids of honour, passing the maids of honour around to his friends to settle bets, inviting maids of honour into his bedroom so they can enjoy the sight of six other maids of honour sodomizing each other with altar candles and being smeared with honey, and getting Queen Claude pregnant six or seven times.

WHEN BORN? She’s nine years old in 1514, so about 1505. Mary is described as three years older, and George one year older yet, so 1502 and 1501 for them.

THE EARLY LOVE: Anne is betrothed from the age of eight onward to “an Irish churl” who is of course James Butler, but we never see him. Naturally she’s quite put out at the idea of being in an arranged marriage made by men. Henry Percy appears in glorious guise at the Field of Cloth of Gold, soloing in “Greensleeves” as a member of Cardinal Wolsey’s choir.

THE QUEEN’S BEES: Anne is maid herself to Queen Claude, but the only other maid who gets a lot of airtime is Mary Boleyn, who is ordered into the French King’s bed by her father. Otherwise the attention mostly goes to the higher-ups whom Anne befriends – Marguerite, and of course Leonardo. (Incidentally, Leonardo also turns up in The Last Boleyn, 1983, as a special friend to Mary Boleyn, not Anne. The rule seems to be that he befriends only protagonists).

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Lynette, a saucy scullery maid whom Anne gets promoted so she can interact with the quality first-hand, and with whom she also has a lot of girl talk. Lynette gets involved with a handsome blacksmith whom she eventually marries, therefore beating Anne to the Final Favour, but Anne figures out how to give herself an orgasm first. When Anne departs for England at the end, she gives Lynette four gowns of “fine silks and brocades” and an additional gift of instructions on how to “explode.” “I had given her a parting gift a hundred times better than four pretty dresses,” Anne reflects. Considering what valuable pieces of property such clothes could be, I think Anne may be flattering herself a little.

THE PROPHECY: Several – the first one when an eight-year-old Anne informs the future Charles V, who has just told her that he plans to be Holy Roman Emperor one day, “And I’m going to be the Queen of England!” At the Field of Cloth of Gold, Lynette accompanies her and tells her fortune – that “tonight you shall speak to your future husband.” Anne tells her that James Butler, for whom she’s currently slated, isn’t there, but Lynette insists. The next day Anne meets Henry Percy. This must be what she meant! Nice misdirection, but of course Henry VIII is there too, albeit he notices Mary Boleyn, not Anne.

IT’S A GIRL! N/A

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Not mentioned.

FAMILY AFFAIRS: Thomas Boleyn is described by the young Anne as “vile and heartless” and he viles it up pretty thoroughly during his few appearances. Anne – you spy on Francois and his sister! Mary – you become Francois’s mistress! (Yes, he puts it that directly). After poor Mary has been raped both ways by Francois and a few of his friends, she’s eventually called home to marry William Carey, and when she meets Anne again at the Field of Cloth of Gold, she’s very happy with him. Sadly, we barely see William because Mary Boleyn inadvertently precipitates that wrestling match between Henry and Francois (they both admire her good looks when she offers them a drink) and Thomas, seeing new possibilities in England, tells Mary that (in her words) “I am to become Henry’s mistress.” Off goes Mary to her doom and when Anne next sees her, she’s a dead-eyed sexually battered chew toy once again. Interestingly, even in this book Mary is a bad study and only begins to improve her French when her old teacher is switched out for a handsome young man.

George Boleyn visits France a few times and he and Anne have some entertaining conversations about the contrast between the different courts, and of course both of them are horrified by their father’s cruelty and the fact that marriages will be (gasp!) arranged for them! Elizabeth Boleyn is very much in the background and barely appears; she speaks to her husband like “a beast begging its master not to kick it.” Thomas, of course, condescends to her and insults her.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? She almost does with Henry Percy, after Francois thoughtfully lends them his private love tent for the evening (telling them “I simply believe that everyone deserves, at least once in their lives, a moment of wild unsullied passion”) but she draws back at the last second because thanks to the story Leonardo’s and his mother’s travails, she is determined that any child of hers will be born legitimate.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: The language is all over the place. It’s not as overtly painful as the “You fucking promised!” from The Queen of Subtleties but Anne seesaws back and forth from saying “Mayhap” and describing her breasts as “duckies” to describing Lynette’s husbands “fine set of choppers”, describing Margaret Beaufort as a “dragon lady” and saying that “My next farewell was a sight happier.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these phrases but put together they don’t quite work. Actually I was reminded of a chocolate bar I had recently, where the components included figs, almonds, and fennel. Individually splendid, together they were less than the sum of their parts. Anne describes her own facial expressions a lot, which is a little annoying – often she is giving an “impish grin”. How does she know? And then there are the sex scenes. An Amazon reviewer described them as being like cold, underdone potatoes in a stew, and I couldn’t better that description. Probably the worst is the one in which Anne walks in on Mary Boleyn and several other women all covered in honey and doing things you can probably imagine with altar candles (small ones, hopefully).

Francois was slouched low in a wide, high-backed chair, his long spindly legs splayed out in front of him. Though he had just addressed me, his eyes were yet fixed on the Caligulan scene on the bed. His right hand – God help me – was moving slowly and rhythmically beneath his codpiece. Finally he turned and smiled at me, a leering, invitational grin.

This is about as subtle as a sex scene gets in this book. (Anne runs away after this, if you’re wondering).

ERRATA: Francois I, before his accession, is referred to as the Dauphin of France, which seems unlikely as he was not the then-king’s son and could in fact have been ousted if Mary Rose Tudor had had a child. Mary Boleyn uses patchouli oil, which didn’t make it to Europe for another century and half. (This is when the author is trying to flesh out Francois character by pointing out that he has an inquisitive side which is interested in other countries and cultures). Card decks weren’t standardized, so while Anne Boleyn’s deck may not have had queens, decks containing queens had been manufactured at least seventy years previously in other places. “Greensleeves” appears about fifty years too early, and is described as being Henry VIII’s own composition, which it almost certainly wasn’t. Besides, hasn’t Greensleeves gotten a little threadbare recently? There were other lyrics in the sixteenth century.

WORTH A READ? This one is really frustrating. The point of the book is to show the development of the woman Anne would eventually become, and there are interesting parallels drawn in some cases – Anne marvels at the lover-like relationship between Francois and Marguerite, and compares them to herself and George, who confide in each other via letter. She sees that for all of Claude’s meekness and everything she puts up with, it’s her children who will ultimately be the real power at court thanks to their legitimacy. I did enjoy learning a lot of the background information and smaller scenes; Anne hearing some of the stories of the Heptameron, the women playing cards, seeing the underground passages which the French royal family could use for convenient and discreet travelling from one place to another.

However (you knew there’d be a however) the characters themselves had a tremendous problem; namely, I didn’t believe for a second that any of them lived in the sixteenth century. Anne refers to how “in our world” arranged marriage is the norm, with expressions of strong distaste and other women agree with her. Having her say this seems about as much of the time as a modern woman saying that “In our world, one must have a license to drive a car.” Anne holds no opinions that would be disagreeable to most first-world twenty-first century women; she thinks that women have a bad time of it in her era, is angry with her father for using Mary and herself as a means of advancement for the family (like he wasn’t completely typical in this) thinks the world would be better off if women had a say in government, considers sexual fulfillment to be an overriding concern in everyone’s life, and is nice to the servants and makes friends among them. You wonder what happened to make her into the woman who had a good eye for illustrious prospective bridegrooms, who chewed out a servant for bringing Henry’s shirts to Catherine of Aragon, who told Mark Smeaton not to get too presumptuous because he was “an inferior person” (perfectly correctly on her part, considering the era), and who on more than one occasion lost her temper badly. Most Annes are reflective more of the era in which they were written than of the real Anne Boleyn, but this one doesn’t even seem to be trying.

Other characters suffer from flatness and stereotyping: Marguerite is the fiery champion of women who never seems to have a conversation which isn’t about the awful place of women in their society. Francois mostly is occupied in leching; although we’re told of his intellectual interests and he shows Anne his library, including a number of forbidden books, we never actually get to see inside any of them or hear her opinions on them. Claude and Mary Boleyn are sweet victims of masculine domineering. Lynette is the spunky, one-note servant. The conversations range from flat to awkward, as in when Francois is arguing with Marguerite over his burning of heretics: “But I am `The Most Catholic King’!” he tells her, that being pretty much his entire argument. Leonardo, giving Anne tips on drawing, talks to her like an elementary school art teacher – which indeed he might have; being Leonardo doesn’t mean every word he uttered had to be a pearl, but it doesn’t help a book which is already extremely modern in sensibility. (Anne is a little surprised when Leonardo refers to God as “she”, but comes around after a couple of lines).The sex scenes range from awkward to embarrassing, and I’ll spare you any more of them.

There’s potential for a good novel set in this time, but unfortunately this isn’t it. The scenery is lovely but the actors don’t seem to know what century they’re in.

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From → Book Overviews

2 Comments
  1. Susan Higginbotham permalink

    Great review! I gave up on this one after the honey scene. I might have persevered if it hadn’t been for all of the italics that Anne uses.

    • sonetka permalink

      Yes, she certainly does do a lot of that. As for the honey scene, all I could think was “They are never going to get that stuff out their hair again.”

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