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My Friend Anne: A Story Of The Sixteenth Century by Jessie Armstrong (1900)

October 27, 2012

A Young Adult book before the Young Adult genre was so named, this is a chaste romance aimed, I would guess, at girls from about twelve to sixteen. It could do no more than introduce them to the name of, and most rudimentary facts about, Anne Boleyn, because while a few historical people do appear – Henry, Catherine of Aragon, Wolsey, Dr. Linacre and of course Anne herself, most of her time is spent with purely fictional ones (including suitors) who don’t have any noticeable parallels with the real people in her life. Nonetheless, it’s an instructive example of how Anne was made relatable to young girls living at the close of the nineteenth century.

The problem the book struggles with is that while Anne had an undoubted, longstanding relationship with a married man (which behavior no young people’s author would encourage) she was also the mother of Queen Elizabeth, who is lauded several times throughout the story by the reminiscing narrator as the great peacemaker and bringer of the True Religion.

We who are now in the decline of life, and living in the glorious reign of our wise and beloved queen – good Queen Bess, as her subjects do love to call her – may thank God for the freedom and prosperity which hath accrued to our nation, at least in great measure, through that Reformation …. [we] are beginning to enjoy the fruits of the establishment of the purer faith and living inculcated by that reformed religion for which so many just and godly persons have been content to suffer persecution and death, until it pleased Heaven to set our present sweet Protestant queen upon the throne of this, our fair and dear country.

Obviously the mother of such a paragon should not be too suspect. So, how to reconcile the two images? In this case, Anne takes on a character that we don’t see very often; that of the penitent not-quite-fallen young woman, victimized by a predatory king and also by avaricious relatives, who is guiltily conscious of living outside the bounds of acceptable behavior but doesn’t know how to escape her circumstances. As the author states in her foreword:

The author has endeavoured to evolve a life-like and natural portrait of a young girl, placed by circumstances in a perilous position, who possessed at least some considerable personal attractions, and whose reputation – since envy and spite are at the root of many slanders – may not improbably have suffered as a consequence of the greatness thrust upon her, helping to bring about her cruel end.

Our story opens by showing us the scenic countryside home and family of seventeen-year-old Patience Linacre, daughter to Queen Catherine’s physician Thomas Linacre, where we’re introduced to the spirited Patience herself (her family teases her that her name is completely inappropriate for her), her brother Dickon, sister Dulcie, and various aunts and cousins, including one Sir Francis Percival, of whom Patience is fond in what she thinks is an entirely sisterly way, and a Thomas Cranmer who is tutor to one of her cousin’s young sons. They’ve just welcomed Dickon back from his Grand Tour of the continent and are shortly expecting Mistress Anne Boleyn, a cousin of theirs who used to spend time with them when she was younger, because her father being widowed (but not remarried) and not being a hands-on parent, he farmed her out to relatives. Anne’s visit is especially exciting because six months ago she was appointed maid of honour to Queen Catherine, largely through the offices of her godmother, Lady Purcell, who has aspirations – as Patience’s aunt tells her, “She thinks great things of her goddaughter, Mistress Anne …. Lady Purcell is all for a town life, and has high ambitions – if not for herself, for her goddaughter.” And when Anne arrives, we’re given a description of her appearance which steers between the conflicting opinions rather nicely, although interestingly, her colouring is never mentioned:

Perhaps the woman never lived whose claims to beauty were more disputed than were those our ill-fated friend Anne Boleyn. A fact it is that many persons did consider her downright plain. Scarcely a woman would ever allow that she had any real claim to beauty, yet there were few who did not look upon her with that peculiar involuntary expression which every woman instinctively recognizes as a tribute of – perchance unwilling – but no less sincere admiration from those of her own sex. One thing is certain: for most men Anne did possess a fascination of some sort, none the less strong if it lay rather in some potent witchery of manner than in actual beauty of face or form.

Later references to her “swan-like grace” and manner of holding herself make it clear that with Anne it’s more about character and carriage than her features, but for once Anne did not learn these arts of fascination in France, because she’s never been there – this Anne’s childhood was spent being lodged either with cousins or with her ambitious godmother until she got the appointment at court. She’s even shown, later on, making of the “Frenchified popinjays” at court who like to show off the clothing and vocabulary they’ve brought back from abroad. This Anne is emphatically (as her daughter would later describe herself) “mere English.”

But she is nonetheless fascinating and one of her first and most long-standing admirers is Patience’s brother Dickon, who upon seeing the still-appealing but now strangely distant Anne tries to flirt with her a little but makes no headway, as she doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in his company. Patience is more fortunate, as Anne asks if she would be willing to come to court with her to be her own maid, and Patience is thrilled to accept. Off they go, and before long Patience has been presented to Catherine of Aragon as Anne’s (and her) new “maid”, and Anne and Patience are rooming together. Right away, we learn that there’s trouble – not with Anne (yet) but between Catherine and Cardinal Wolsey. While pleading with the King for some relief for the poor and dispossessed, she emphasizes the toll that Wolsey’s taxes are having on them:

The king listened in silence while he heard of the imposition of taxes so heavy as, directly or indirectly, to cause ruin to many of his subjects. Factories closed, workmen dismissed, perforce – workmen who knew no trade but their own. Their wives and children starving, themselves reduced to a state of desperation, and in some places causing rebellion against the laws.

“Ha!” exclaimed the king at length, with a frowning brow, “art sure of thy facts, Kate?”

“But too sure, your majesty.”

“And to what extent, then, is this imposition?”

“Even to a sixth part of their estate or substance.”

“A sixth part!” cried Henry angrily; “by my halidame, the rogues do right to rebel!”

It’s a bad moment for Wolsey to send an invitation to a great banquet at York Place, but there it is. After a brief interlude in which Lady Purcell appears to tell a baffled Anne that she has great chances soon to come and she should make sure to take advantage of them, the banquet is held, with masques and dancing and dazzling accoutrements (the author states in her introduction that she consciously modeled this scene on Shakespeare, and hey, it works). Towards the end, Patience is looking for Anne because she’s exhausted and wants to go home.

“I would like to speak to Anne, if I could catch her eye, and get her to come over from yonder to just here below us. For I presume the cardinal did not think her distinguished enough for the royal table!”

“Perchance not, but the king does,” said my brother quietly; “for he led her with his own hand into the inner room.”

Cue ominous music as over the next few months Henry suddenly starts to have scruples about his marriage and Wolsey, always delighted to be of service, begins looking into annulling it for him. The ladies at court are universally horrified, including an oddly withdrawn Anne, who nonetheless declares of the queen that “We cannot but feel much sorrow for the sweet lady who may have so great a trial before her. For of a certes, she is not to blame, but rather those who did contrive her marriage to her husband’s brother.” Anne also praises Catherine as a sweet, gracious and true wife, at which Patience tells the reader “Ay, she meant it too – I wot well – in spite of all!” Lady Purcell is, naturally, at Anne’s elbow to tell her that while it’s all very sad, it’s certain to be for the best as Catherine and Henry were badly matched in the first place.

Here follows an awkward series of scenes in which the main purpose is to make clear the fact that Anne is lonely, depressed, and feeling mysteriously afflicted; also that Lady Purcell is always at her elbow urging her not to falter in whatever it is she’s doing. Since Patience knows nothing about her amour with the King, it gets rather frustrating for the reader. Anne keeps coming out with grim confidences like “If you never thank God for anything else in your life, you may thank Him that you are not placed as I am,” and “Yet I do not love to be wicked, nor was meant to be so – I am sure of it!” It’s a relief when Anne and Patience go back to the Linacre country home for Christmas, where Dickon is still living and more entranced with Anne than ever. Christmas festivities ensue, but the enjoyment ends on Twelfth Night, when Dickon proposes to Anne and she rejects him, telling him that she loves him but isn’t good enough for him, and everyone goes unhappy back to court, where Campeggio arrives for the Blackfriars tribunal, Anne is weepier and more depressed than ever, and Patience finally learns her great secret when Anne, unable to stand the stress any longer, secretly shows her a Holbein miniature of Henry which was his gift to her. Suddenly everything is made clear, and Patience is shocked while Anne pleads “I have few friends – you have been my greatest. Do not let me lose you!”

Patience entreats her to think of the injury being done to Catherine, and Anne, crying, says she thinks of her all the time and can never justify herself, although “As God is my witness, then, I believe the greatest wrong was done Catharine of Aragon when her father and the king’s did plan his marriage with his brother’s widow. I do not believe it was legal.” She assures Patience that she would never have even looked at Henry had she thought the marriage was legal, and Patience, while doubtful, is too fond of her to push her away. She has just one question – does Anne truly love Henry?

“I think no – sometimes at least,” she whispered. But in a moment after, almost throwing the miniature down upon the table – “yet there are times when I almost hate him!” she cried with flashing eyes.

This almost the last we see of Anne directly, for shortly afterwards Thomas Cranmer is discovered by Henry in essentially the way he was in real life, Catherine is moved to another household, separated from the King and Anne, and Patience goes with Catherine, missing Anne terribly but feeling that circumstances are conspiring to make her “my whilom friend Anne Boleyn.” But old passions haven’t died for everyone; while on a summer visit to her family’s home, she hears the dreadful news that Sir Francis has challenged one evil-minded Sir Joseph Wainwright to a duel, as Sir Joseph has been casting slurs upon Anne’s honour, and Patience realizes in that moment that she loves Sir Francis in much more than a sisterly fashion. Racing to the scene, she discovers that while Sir Francis is well and good, rumour had it wrong; it’s actually her brother Dickon who was the challenger, and even now he’s gravely injured and his life is despaired of. Fortunately they get him back home in time to get his wounds dressed and as he begins recovering, Sir Francis and Patience begin to talk tentatively about getting married. Patience is reluctant to do so too soon, not because she doesn’t love him but because she doesn’t want to abandon Catherine.

Dickon recovers, and finds that while he still loves Anne, fighting the duel for her sake has managed to heal the wound of being rejected by her. “‘Tis not that I love her the less. My love is deeper than it ever was – but different. I can wait now; this life is not all – nor the best!”

Patience returns to Catherine’s household and waits on her for three more years, drawing inspiration from her dignity and piety even as Henry thoroughly rejects her, and not feeling too much regret at the fall of Wolsey, whom she hates for forwarding the divorce even though he didn’t at first realize it was for Anne, and whose York Place is of course taken over the king.

After three years Patience and Sir Francis are married. Catherine has discovered that Patience is waiting out of loyalty to herself, and urges her not to do so much longer. “Child my days are numbered …. but before I go I desire to see you both united in marriage.” They are married in the chapel, with Catherine attending and giving Patience a gift of a few of her jewels, and Patience attends her to the end while Sir Francis is the one who transcribes her farewell letter to Henry.

In a coda, Patience informs us that only a few months after Catherine’s death “her unhappy rival, Anne Boleyn, was executed, leaving a fair and beautiful infant daughter, our present wise and gracious Queen Elizabeth,” and describes how “To all who had loved Anne, and who – having some knowledge of how sorely she was tempted – had leniently judged her, or judged her not at all, much sorrow came through her untoward fate.” Anne, the quintessential tragic fallen woman, has had her sins expiated by death, and out of evil has come good, in the form of Elizabeth.

SEX OR POLITICS? Sex. Very chaste and age-appropriate, but the book is all about young people panting after each other (Patience even sings “As Pants The Hart” though in the book it’s written “As pants the heart” which is a very different mental image). Religion comes up very briefly; when Dickon and Anne meet up again after Dickon’s return from the continent, they discuss the teachings of “the monk Luther” and agree that he’s correct in condemning the sale of indulgences. Otherwise, reformist doctrine is barely mentioned except for the rhapsodies to Elizabeth’s reign, which of course post-dated Anne considerably. Anne is shown as being truly convinced that Henry’s and Catherine’s marriage was invalid, but it’s presented as a personal and not political dilemma; there’s no sense that she’s forwarding the reformist cause by being with Henry – not that she’s very happy being with Henry in any event.

WHEN BORN? Not clear – the timelines in this story are like spaghetti (the Field of Cloth of Gold is described as having happened “twenty years ago” and yet the Duke of Buckingham is still alive at the opening) so it’s impossible to pin down a birth year. However, she’s described as being just a bit older than Patience Linacre, and Patience is seventeen when she goes to court with Anne, so this Anne arrives at court at about eighteen or nineteen.

THE EARLY LOVE: Both Sir Francis Percival and Dickon Linacre have childhood crushes on her, with Dickon’s being the more serious one. When Patience goes to court, she’s determined to plead Dickon’s case whenever the opportunity is there, but later her sister Dulcie warns her that Anne is getting the reputation of being “light” and that as much as they love her, it would be better if she didn’t marry their brother. Later on, while Anne is staying at their country house for Christmas, Dickon proposes and Anne rejects him, saying “I do love you too well – too well to let you marry me.” Dickon doesn’t take it well, shouting his curse on whomever it was who stole Anne’s love from him and thus ruined his life, at which Patience intervenes by pointing out that Anne can love whomever she chooses, and Anne both backs her up and insists that it would be her greatest sorrow if Dickon allowed his life to be ruined because she couldn’t be his.

THE QUEEN’S BEES: The only Queen we really see much of is Catherine of Aragon, and her only named maid of honour is Anne, with Patience in turn as a servant to Anne. “I soon had many friends” says Patience of her time at court, but she never names them and they have no lines. This lack is more explainable by the fact that the majority of the book’s scenes take place away from court.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Patience is Anne’s first, and after that Catherine of Aragon’s – she goes to Kimbolton with Catherine and only leaves when she and Sir Francis are married, at Catherine’s urging, in October of 1535. Her praise for Queen Catherine (“my dear Queen” who even in her greatest misfortune is still trying to help others) is almost as strong as her praise for Queen Elizabeth; an odd pair for devotion.

THE PROPHECY: None as such, but during the Twelfth Night festivals at the Linacre manor, the guests draw numbers to win the the sugar subtleties, the “mimic monarchs that did grace the battlemented tower that our cook … had cunningly devised and erected on the cake.” The winners will be the King and Queen of the Twelfth Night celebration . Anne wins the queen, at which a child guest exclaims that “Mistress Anne will make a lovely queen!” and the ever-calculating Lady Purcell agrees that Anne will do so, “glancing with some significance at Anne.” Later on during the visit, after she’s rejected Dickon’s proposal, Anne, with a “dreamy look” in her eyes, predicts that soon they’ll hear many surprising things about her, “some true, some false …. but there is one thing I feel. Though greatness and power may be before me – though I may be courted and admired, ay, and envied by many – it will not, I think, be for long! Something seems to tell me that my sun will set suddenly, while yet it is day – yes, set, perchance, amid darkest shadows”.

IT’S A GIRL! Not discussed, although Elizabeth is saluted quite a few times. Anne’s marriage is described as taking place “privately” three months before Henry announces it, and Patience is glad that her friend managed to preserve her virtue to the end, so presumably the wedding date is the November one, but Elizabeth’s birth isn’t mentioned in connection with the wedding date.


FAMILY AFFAIRS: Virtually nothing on any of them, unless you count the fact that she and Patience (and several other of the families mentioned) are supposed to be distant cousins, which is probably realistic enough considering the small pool from which the gentry came. But the only immediate family members even mentioned are Thomas and George Boleyn, and they never appear on stage. Anne bitterly dismisses them as “a father and a brother who would urge me to evil for their own ends rather than hold me back from it,” and later “I must do what the powers that be do ordain – or there is no home for me!” Patience also informs us that “She had no tender mother, or dear, true-hearted sister to confide in, and to counsel her, and to share her joys or griefs,” so Patience becomes her surrogate sister.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? We only get a very quick summary at the end of the book, with no details at all about the accusations against Anne, but considering her previous portrayal as a woman who admired Queen Catherine, wanted to be virtuous, but who was also lonely and being subjected to immense pressure from her father who had threatened to cut her adrift if she didn’t give in, and who still managed to keep Henry at bay until the wedding … I’m guessing not.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: I’ve already quoted a good bit and the flavour of the narrative is fairly clear from those; Victorian romantic with a dash of what Josephine Tey memorably termed talking forsoothly; whilom, for certes, and methinks all turn up with regularity, though not so frequently as to make it unreadable. One passage I found puzzling not for the style but for what it described:

Christmas Day we passed soberly, yet for the most part happily enough, going to the abbey church of Westminster – a right goodly party, in the morning, while in the evening we did play games with the children at Hoodman Blind and Hot Codlins. Many presents were exchanged among us too on that day: and those that gave Dulcie and Anne and myself more delight, I think, than even the fine gown-pieces of silk from my uncle, were two small boxes given us by our cousin John. For these did contain the very newest means by which we might fasten our garments – the most cunningly devised little pins, wrought in some shining white metal; strong and sharp-pointed, not above an ell long or less, and finished with dear little round knobs, or heads as John called them. Verily we felt it would be a pleasure henceforth to tire ourselves by help of these marvellous little pins, instead of the great wooden ones we had hitherto used to help out strings in the fastening of our garments.

One ell measure forty-five inches, so for the sake of all the real women living in Tudor times, I hope that the author got her archaic measurements mixed up and they weren’t pinning their clothes with four-foot long skewers. Also, I’m pretty sure that metal pins have been around a lot longer than five hundred years. I don’t mean to make too much of a mistake in detail – no historical novel can escape without at least one – but it’s so particular that I wonder if there was an authority of some sort or an encyclopedia current then that said that metal pins were a comparatively recent invention.

ERRATA: For this type of book it’s easier to list what was right than what was wrong (a fact the author acknowledges in her introduction, calling it a “romance”). The way Cranmer is brought to Henry’s notice is done fairly straight, and it’s not unbelievable that he would have been a tutor at some point though of course it probably didn’t happen quite that way. The description of Henry, notwithstanding Anne’s reaction to him, is surprisingly understated and may be closer to the real thing than the hulking monster of hindsight; he too is portrayed as deeply unhappy, although with a nastier edge, and at the beginning at least trying to do the right thing politically, however off course he goes. Dr. Thomas Linacre did in fact exist, although I can find no information about his family; the accuracy ends there as he was physician-in-ordinary to the King, not the Queen, and died in 1524, thus avoiding any heartburning over the divorce.

WORTH A READ? The fashion for this type of book has come and gone, so while it is interesting to read, this is more because of its period aspects than because the narrative is particular standout. I will say this was definitely a different sort of Anne; the lonely, depressed girl who is pressured to sin by her most revered authority figures and the rest of whose life is implied to be a long struggle with self-hatred. In some ways, even though Patience hears that Anne kept her virtue until her actual wedding ceremony, there’s a strong scent of a penitent prostitute out of Dickens; she doesn’t believe she’s worthy of an honest man’s love, considers herself justly shunned by society, and is grateful for the unmerited love of the more virtuous characters. There’s no hint here of a strong temper, sharp wit, or willingness to blaze any new trails. In a way she’s like a ghostly ancestor to the Anne of To Die For (2011), although the religious emphasis in the latter is much stronger. But that Anne also is unwontedly gentle, truly believes that Henry’s marriage to Catherine is invalid (and is shocked at Catherine’s blatant consummation-related “lie” at the tribunal), and while she isn’t the tool of her elders to the same extent, she’s got the same essential quality of really, sincerely, not wanting to hurt anyone all the way to the end. The Anne of To Die For realizes eventually that she may have been deceived on some points through wanting to believe that Henry was truthful, but although we never get a chance to see the Anne of My Friend Anne as Queen, let alone in the Tower, it’s not hard to imagine her feeling much the same way.

From → Book Overviews

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