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Anne Boleyn by Margaret Heys (1967, also published as The May Queen)

September 29, 2012

An early example of a maid’s narrative, the maid in question here is Meg Tierney, fictional foster sister to Anne Boleyn and illegitimate daughter of Thomas Boleyn’s equally fictional foster sister, who is spending her last night of life in the Tower and writing down her reminiscences while there’s still time. Wait, what’s she doing there?

The book begins, rather jarringly, with a present-day narrator visiting relatives in the country and then getting into a car accident, after which we’re jolted right into a cell in the Tower of London, where the female prisoner is writing her story down before her execution the next day. This is not, for once, Anne Boleyn, but Meg Tierney, who begins the third skein of narration with her memoir.

Growing up alongside the Boleyn siblings, cared for by their stepmother and also taught by Simonette the governess, she develops a childhood crush on George Boleyn and a strong dislike of Thomas Wyatt, who is clever, unsympathetic and prone to teasing her about her unknown father. However, she finds compensations in the love of George and Anne (poor Mary is a vain simpleton who even at a young age can’t learn French well and flirts with everyone). As the Boleyn siblings are sent abroad one by one, Meg also spends a lot of time with her mother, who’s the housekeeper at Hever and instructs Meg in the art of cooking, medicine-making and, occasionally, second sight; Meg has inherited a turn for the supernatural. This culminates in an vision she has on Anne’s sixteenth birthday, which also happens to be May Day – the young people are wandering in the woods, joking that they’ll see a vision of the Green Man, who’s supposed to grant a wish if you see him. Meg strays a bit and suddenly finds herself in a silent patch of woods, confronting the Green Man, who looks at her for a long time, scaring her witless, and vanishes without a word. She wishes for George Boleyn to love her. Later, she’ll recognize the face of the Green Man as that of Henry VIII.

Anne and George now being returned from their childhood formation abroad, it’s time to go to court, with Meg as Anne’s servant. Anne is described in the way one would expect; light, witty, exotic, and with a high temper; she turns down the proposed Butler match with a tantrum that persuades Thomas Boleyn (who this once is merely a cynical, ambitious careerist and not the pinnacle of heartless evil as he usually is) that perhaps going through with it would cause more problems than it would solve and besides, there might be someone equally eligible at court. That there is, and Anne and Henry Percy are soon sneaking off for private conversations (Meg covering for them) but Wolsey finds out and dispatches Percy pretty much as Cavendish relayed it. George Boleyn passes on the news to Anne, shaking with righteous indignation about Percy’s treatment, and Anne vows revenge on the Cardinal as she’s sent home.

Thomas Boleyn decides that the best remedy for this sort of embarrassment is to go abroad for an unspecified period so that talk will die down (he wouldn’t be the last person to think this) so he, Anne, and Meg adjourn to the court of Margaret of Austria for three years – sadly, this time is passed over in about a paragraph. Back to England they return in time for Anne to catch Henry’s eye while dancing with Thomas Wyatt at court, but as she’s learned to guard her heart thanks to the Percy affair, she sees no reason to give in to the king just because he’s king, plus she’s disgusted with the way he automatically does whatever Wolsey advises. Anne’s stepmother, worried at how Anne has “hardened” since she lost Percy, has asked Meg to “guard her”, and Meg advises Anne to return to Hever to get away from Henry’s pursuit. He follows her there with letters and gifts of various animals he’s killed. Anne’s stepmother is distressed but hopes the thing will burn itself out, her father just hopes she manages to get a good deal out of it. The doubts and divorce hearings roll on as usual, punctuated by Meg’s meeting Mark Smeaton (“a lowly musician”) on his arrival at court and her bringing him to Anne’s attention; Smeaton is a handsome lout who repays this favour by getting sloshed and hitting on Meg, thus earning him the strong dislike of George Boleyn.

George’s defense of Meg is more than mere gallantry, for during their next visit to Hever in late summer of 1531, George is overcome with passion for Meg (“To think you have always been here, and I too blind to see until too late!”) The result is that Meg doesn’t return to court for about a year, as she remains at Hever to conceal the resulting pregnancy, and on May 20 of the following year she gives birth to identical twin boys, whose names incidentally are never stated. George attempts to justify himself to his father and stepmother (“Meg is my wife before God”) but they don’t seem terrifically distressed because everyone agrees that George’s wife is such “a bitch” (George’s word) that it doesn’t matter. Meg eventually returns to court, leaving the twins in the country, and is just in time to witness Anne’s elevation to Marchioness of Pembroke. She also witnesses the secret wedding in January of 1533 and later, when asking her mother about whether Anne will have a prince, is told in the best ambiguous tradition of fortune-tellers that the baby “will be the greatest ruler the realm has ever known,” but that she declines to state the sex. This will get Meg into hot water later, when Henry, knowing her reputation for visions, asks if the baby will be a boy or a girl. She gives her mother’s answer verbatim, and Henry assumes that this means it’s a boy. From Elizabeth’s birth onward, Henry is awaiting his chance for revenge on Meg for having, as he thinks, lied to him.

After Anne’s last miscarriage, the final downward slide begins – Henry hates her, Anne hates him right back, and she’s angry at being associated with such deeds as the beheadings of More and Fisher and the mistreatment of Mary – “I think sometimes his Grace is mad,” she tells Meg, “And I am forced to share in his guilt.” During Meg’s last trip back to Hever to see her sons, her mother the herbalist sews a few potent leaves into her cloak and tells her that they’re good for helping you sleep, but be sure not to use too many of them or else, well …. Meg gets the hint. When Anne and George and the others are arrested, Meg goes to Henry Percy to ask for help, which he’s unable to give as he’s gone stone-cold insane during the last few years. She also goes to Cromwell, who is unsympathetic as ever but gives her a discreet hint to “take heed for yourself.” This would be Cromwell’s way of saying “FLY, ALL IS DISCOVERED!” but Meg doesn’t take the hint and a few hours later she’s arrested on a charge of witchcraft. Henry’s still bitter and resentful over her failed prophecy (as he sees it) and Meg is posthaste condemned to be burned at the stake the day after Anne’s beheading. However, her jailer is kind and willing to smuggle her pen and paper, with which she writes the true account of hers and Anne’s lives and hides it in a crack in her cell wall, hoping that somebody will discover it and pass it on to her sons. She then takes the leaves that her mother hid in her cloak and begins to eat them, confident that despite her suicide, she’ll be reunited with George in the afterlife. In a sort of ghostly postlude we’re told that her spirit watched over her children, who both grew to manhood unaware of their parentage and had many descendants, including the present-day narrator who became “the willing instrument” to pass on their story.

SEX OR POLITICS? Sex, but extremely discreet. Meg’s surrender to passion with George Boleyn mostly takes place during a chapter break.

WHEN BORN? May 1, 1507 – thus the famous May Day joust where Henry walked away is also Anne’s twenty-ninth birthday. George and Mary are both older but by how much isn’t specified. Meg is six months older than Anne, so her birthday is somewhere in October or November of 1506.

THE EARLY LOVE: After rejecting the Butler match furiously (“I will be no man’s pawn! Never! Never!”) Anne meets Henry Percy during one of Cardinal Wolsey’s visits to court. Grey-eyed, golden-haired, and with “a tall, handsome figure” Percy enthralls Anne immediately and soon Meg is covering for them during their secret meetings. They become engaged: “Anne confided in me that they had plighted their troth and she was to become his bride,” so presumably vows de futuro. The showdown between Wolsey and Percy is faithfully passed along to George Boleyn by a friend of his in Wolsey’s household. (George Cavendish isn’t named, though he appears in this capacity in other books). Percy is sadly altered the next time we see him, which is after Anne’s arrest. Meg discovers that he’s in town and goes to plead with him to use what influence he has to get Anne a fairer trial, disregarding the warning of a servant who tells her that Percy “does not fare so well these days.” This turns out out to be an understatement: face flecked with “the white foam of frenzy” and bloodshot eyes, Percy greets Meg by falling into a fit and swearing for about ten minutes, after which, with “an insane giggle” he curses Anne for being Henry’s whore. The transformation from golden young man to insane wreck is attributed entirely to Wolsey’s and Henry’s interference in his marriage plans.

Thomas Wyatt is also hopelessly in love with Anne (although she isn’t with him) and presents her with a copy of “Whoso list to hunt …” before leaving court for the good of his health. From being something of a jerk in youth he grows to be somewhat more sympathetic and a lot more depressed in adulthood, the last being largely attributed to his uncongenial arranged marriage.

THE QUEEN’S BEES: Meg is one, of course – as a reward for her service, Anne gives her the title of “Madame Marguerite” on her coronation day. Jane Seymour comes to court late, as a replacement for Meg when the latter is forced to retire to Hever in order to have George’s babies discreetly. Described as “a pale-faced, insipid creature” she precipitates one of Anne’s miscarriage by being caught on Henry’s knee, after which Jane slips away “pale eyes gleaming with triumph.” She doesn’t have any lines, but naturally she becomes best friends with Lady Rochford, who’s her usual jealous, vindictive self, described as watching George like a cat (justified, considering his double life with Meg). Curiously, Lady Rochford’s accusation of incest is, in this book, entirely sincere; she catches a glimpse of Meg stealing into George’s rooms at night for intimate purposes while wearing Anne’s cloak. Mary Wyatt, sister to Thomas, is there but doesn’t display any particular characteristics beyond being sweet.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Meg to Anne, naturally.

THE PROPHECY: Several, one made by the heroine; as a child, she looks into a scrying bowl at the prompting of her mother, and sees Anne walking in her coronation procession. Later, Henry asks her to ask her mother (who also has second sight) whether Anne’s impending baby will be a boy. Meg passes on the message, which is that the baby “will be a great ruler” but before telling him that her mother didn’t specify the sex, Henry runs with it and starts proclaiming his joy that it will be a son. When the baby arrives, of course …

IT’S A GIRL! Henry manages to gasp out a few words of comfort to Anne and repeat her stepmother’s assurance that daughter will be a good playmate for a passel of younger brothers. After this he departs, “But not before he had taken the time to look back long and ominously at me.”

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Never mentioned – rather unusually for this period.

FAMILY AFFAIRS: Anne’s stepmother appears again, though a bit different from the others – this one is young and lively, but also in comparatively poor health, so she’s just as happy not to have her own children. Anne’s mother is remembered as “young and unworldly …. She had stayed in her home patiently to bear his children, and to die because she had no more strength to fight for a place at her husband’s side on his upward climb into society.” Thomas Boleyn is, for once, not a monster of unparalleled depravity but a clever, cynical diplomat who wagers that Mary Rose Tudor will have worn the French king out within a year (he’s right), warns Meg against talking too freely around Cromwell, and after Anne throws a fit about the projected Butler marriage decides that it would be a waste of time to fight about it and besides, she might find someone just as good at court. I think this may be the only book I’ve read in which Thomas Boleyn says something “affably.” Of course, his character is largely softened by his taking a lowborn second wife and giving houseroom to his foster sister (Meg’s mother) after she becomes inconveniently pregnant. George Boleyn is a romantic hero – loving Meg since childhood, forced into a marriage of convenience (his father is only willing to call off so many matches, after all), and as doom is drawing in towards the end, rejecting Meg’s suggestion that they go abroad. “And leave Anne to face any danger on her own? Meg, even you must not ask this of me.” He also expresses reluctant admiration for the courage of Catherine of Aragon and her daughter in their unwavering opposition and feels that while the church needs reform, Henry’s taking it too far by executing monks and so forth – Meg shares this opinion with him, and in this they’re the most likely reader stand-ins. Poor Mary Boleyn is barely there and disappears from the story after returning from France as soiled goods and being hastily palmed off on William Carey – not surprising, as her sisterly function is usurped by Meg, right down to the inconveniently timed pregnancy and temporary disappearance from court. Mary’s affair with Henry gets a brief mention and there’s a hint that Anne considers it one more reason to hold out, but Wolsey is the real issue there.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No, but Lady Rochford, nasty piece of work though she might be, genuinely does think she committed incest, as Meg borrowed Anne’s cloak for the purpose of sneaking into George’s rooms at night.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: A lot of the descriptive passages, especially early on, are well-done and atmospheric if a bit on the ornamental side. Here are the young Anne and Meg trailing around after Meg’s mother in the dairy:

On this particular day, Anne and I had gone with her, pausing as we entered the cool dairy to sniff appreciatively at the indefinable slightly-acrid smell of churning butter and strained milk, while my mother, as was her usual custom, counted and inspected the cheeses that stood in various stages of maturing on the scrupulously scrubbed wooden racks lining the walls of the room. Then she inspected the work of the dairy maid, who, after a hasty curtsy, continued to turn the handle of the wooden butter-churner, and Anne was directed to observe and note how this all-important work was carried out. Patiently my mother explained to her that to know the exact moment the milk “turned” came only after weeks of practice, and Anne, nodding wisely, appeared to have understood it, at least in theory. In actual practice, however, her efforts rarely met with any measure of success and I regarded her outbursts of chagrin and frustration with much sympathy, for such tasks came as easily to me as Anne herself absorbed Simonette’s teaching of the more social graces.

And sometimes it gets a touch ornate:

Then I saw those others, the proud Seymours, fast orbiting into the brilliance of Henry’s favour, and her, the pale mouse George had laughed about, Jane Seymour, creeping and colourless, who had, by her restrained gentle nibblings at the King’s passion, toppled Anne from her throne. Surrounded by her ladies dipping and swaying around her like a crowd of painted butterflies, her eyes no longer downcast, and with pink lips smiling in triumph, she made her way daintily to the King’s side.

Not terrible, but an awful lot images colliding – orbiting planets! Nibbling mice! Painted butterflies! A lot of the more dramatic episodes have this kind of image-layering going on and it can get a little thick sometimes.

ERRATA: The timelines are a bit weird, especially during the last year of Anne’s life, which is accidentally extended by an extra year. Catherine of Aragon dies and Anne discovers Jane Seymour on Henry’s knee one January, and Anne then miscarries a boy. So far, so expected. But Anne then retreats to Hever with Elizabeth for the summer, Henry visits them there, and the two become reconciled to the extent that Anne gets pregnant again – which baby she miscarries the following January after Henry’s fall while jousting. So Anne gets both an extra year and an extra miscarriage, poor woman. Lady Rochford is referred to as “Lady Jane” which she wasn’t, and Margaret Wyatt becomes Mary Wyatt. Anne’s stepmother and Simonette, of course, both come straight out of Strickland. Strangely, Princess Elizabeth is described as having brown hair. Jane Seymour is described as a late arrival, only coming to court to replace Meg when she has to retire to the country to hide her pregnancy, but Jane Seymour had been at court since Catherine of Aragon’s time (hence Chapuys’ snotty observation about the miraculousness of her being a virgin after so many years at court). The order of arrests is also wrong – William Brereton “disappears” late in April, and Smeaton is arrested afterwards, when Smeaton seems in reality to have been the first one taken into custody, possibly because being a commoner meant he could be tortured into a confession. And as far as anyone knows, after her 1522 return Anne did not go back to France until ten years later, when she was already Marchioness of Pembroke and Queen-to-be. Anne’s father and stepmother are referred to as Sir Thomas and Lady Boleyn to the end of the story, although by 1536 they would have been more properly Lord and Lady Wiltshire, as Thomas Boleyn had become Earl of Wiltshire. In fairness, this may have just been to prevent confusion at the title switch.

The triple-layered narrative was interesting but annoyingly inconsistent: Meg refers to her writing her story, but it’s not clear where she leaves off as the narration stays in her head to describe her last moments wherein she starts to chew on the suicide sleeping herbs. Then, too, her postscript talks about revealing the tale to her far-off descendant and having her write it down. So which was it?

WORTH A READ? Despite the fact that Meg is pretty much a textbook Sue – second sight, mysterious parentage, beloved by the handsome and doomed George Boleyn, who fathers her identical twins, confided in by Anne, etc – the book is very readable if also rather strange. In some ways it reminds me a bit of Alison Uttley’s style (I’m thinking of A Traveller In Time) although Uttley was a better writer all-around and her plots were tighter. The childhood sections and especially Meg’s vision of the Green Man were well done and made it seem like there was a good straight-up supernatural novel here which would be much better if it didn’t have to be tethered to Anne Boleyn’s real story. While there are the obligatory references to reform and Anne is damned as “a Lutheran” by unsympathetic characters, that vision on May Day was more vivid than all the other religious moments combined. I did enjoy the moments when Meg had an actual influence on the turn of real events – persuading Anne to return to Hever the first time, and accidentally dropping Anne’s handkerchief during the famous May Day joust of 1536: Sir Henry Norris picks it up and the King mistakenly thinks Anne dropped it. But these moments are swamped by Meg’s continual shadowing of Anne, dreaming about George Boleyn, and trips back to Hever to see her children. It’s a pleasant romantic novel with supernatural touches and George Boleyn as the leading man, and entertaining enough to read. But I think that if the lead character’s story had been more divorced from Anne’s, it could have been much more interesting.

One thing I find interesting in addition is how this book seems to be sitting right on the dividing line of two different Anne genres: Anne herself has a strong streak of the Adventuress Annes of the previous few decades, who tend to be witty, proud, intelligent, and deeply scarred by having lost Henry Percy – and, like Scarlett O’Hara or Amber, decide to console herself by ruling as much of the world as she can. But there’s also a softer edge; she’s more domestic, more interested in the servants, and of course there’s that supernatural subplot. From the sixties onward, subplots involving dreams, visions and prophecies begin to come more into view, and the emphasis on Henry’s “witchcraft” accusations much stronger. This is one book which, slight in itself, is nevertheless worth looking at just to see one of the places in which the older style begins to transform into the newer one.

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