Anne Boleyn by E. Barrington (Elizabeth Louisa Moresby), 1932
Before beginning this, why not read Before Mass, my attempt at an Anne Boleyn ghost story? I’ll wait until you’re done.
Now, on to the book, and Thomas Wyatt to the fore! Wyatt’s star is fading these days, but for a large part of the twentieth century he was Anne’s Lost Love of choice, and while he still makes agonized appearances in a lot of books, he doesn’t have nearly the stature that he once did. This book is a prime example of Wyatt during his rise – brooding, tormented both by his honesty in a dangerous time and his love for an Anne who doesn’t necessarily deserve this level of devotion. We first glimpse him visiting Anne, fresh from France and staying at Hever with Mary Boleyn, who has just been banished from court thanks to her affair with Henry. Wyatt, whom Anne teasingly calls “True Thomas,” presumably after the ballad, then proceeds to set the pattern for the rest of the book by showing that he loves Anne, having his love implicitly rejected, and warning her against someone (Simonette the governess, in this case) and having his warning ignored. For some reason, the reader gets the feeling that this will end badly for Anne.
Like many other Annes, this one’s rise is propelled in large part by bitterness learned in youth. Unusually for fictional Annes, this bitterness long predated any meeting with Henry Percy; it began with the realization that her “blemishes” – the wen and the sixth finger – meant she would always be looked on with suspicion.
How could she forget that when a child she had heard her nurse whisper to another: “Look at her hand, her throat – the devil’s marks in her body. She will come to a bad end – the devil’s own brat! Her rages are like his own.” She had never forgotten that poisonous whisper, and though churchyard grasses covered the whisperer, she heard it in every tone, saw it in every look that she could not read to the bottom. She was set apart from other women.
To compensate for these defects she works endlessly at her dancing, French, musical and flirtation skills, aided in all of this by Simonette the governess, who in another unusual development is an invaluable servant who designs Anne’s clothes, advises her in her flirtations, and unfortunately encourages Anne’s worst instincts, namely overconfidence and a taste for using people which is on a level with Becky Sharp’s. “I smell the stench of corruption as she goes by,” snaps Thomas Wyatt to Anne early on, and as usual, “True Thomas” is dead-on in his assessment. But Anne laughs him off; Simonette is useful to her, and she’ll need her when she goes to the English court. Which she does, in due course, and finds it extremely dull, even when she’s carefully preparing for her future by becoming engaged (with the approval of Queen Catherine) to the young and puppyish Henry Percy – surprisingly, this Anne doesn’t give a fig for him, although Percy is crazy about her. “If loss of flesh be the mark of a lover he certainly wore Anne’s collar. He had haunted her like a bee a balsam bed since she was at Court, and though he had made no formal revelation yet she knew him hers.” Still, she could use a bit more liveliness, so she proposes that she and some of her companions – on Mark Smeaton (“a low-browed, full-lipped sensual fellow” who looks like a goat but dances and plays wonderfully) Weston, Norris, Wyatt – her usual crowd, who quickly become known as “the Revellers” – stage some masques; apparently Anne had developed quite a talent for staging, and acting, in such while in France, and she decides to recreate a few of her best productions at Henry’s court. While they’re rehearsing the Harvest Masque, in which Anne and George play young lovers, an agonized Wyatt pulls Anne aside to try and find out how she really feels about Percy. After she promises him five minutes of honesty, she tells him:
Thomas – I will answer as before our Creator. I could not marry you, and Percy I must marry…. But this I say – I am no temptress, but I cannot spare my best friend, the dearest and best of my friends. True Thomas, do not cast me off …. remember your elf of the woods and still tune her soul to beauty.”
The theme of Beauty as the ultimate good is one we’ll find repeated throughout; Simonette, during one of our unpleasant glimpses into her head, thinks of Anne and George both as essentially pagan, worshipping nature and beauty, and Wyatt is of the same bent. Smeaton is a far more sinister example – someone who is so much a child of nature that he has no idea how to behave himself when he’s not piping in the woods and mimicking Pan, whom he’s said to resemble. “Then a word of warning. Beware of Smeaton,” says Wyatt. “He is a talking man who magnifies his tales. He will boast to Madge Skelton and others of favours you have not given. In a word – he is no gentleman.” This, as it turns out, is an incredibly inadequate description of Smeaton, but Anne promises not to associate with Smeaton again after the masque is done. Wyatt doesn’t remember that the five minutes have long since passed.
Anne does not dismiss Smeaton after the Harvest Masque is successfully performed, and she doesn’t marry Percy, either; the king was so entranced by her dancing and singing that he found out who she was, discovered the engagement, and ordered Wolsey to break it off forthwith. Anne is sent home to Hever in a fury, and soon Henry is dropping by for frequent and rather aggressive visits. Anne, who had previously despised Mary for giving in to him so easily, starts to reassess that opinion – Henry would be hard to resist even if he weren’t the king, not because he’s sexually attractive to her (Anne is a cold, cold fish) but because his personality is so strong and overbearing. But she doesn’t want to be treated as Mary was. What should she do? Fortunately, Simonette is at her elbow to give her advice, and Anne and Simonette both have enough sense to have their conversation in French so no servants can overhear:
“He is flame-mad for you, Anne, and such madness does not outlast possession with any man …. It is this, and you have one of two chances. Either make him bid high now. Ask what you will and surrender, having gained great good for your people and yourself, and be paid off and cast off, – but fat with gold and jewels, or – hold out. Fly to conquer!”
“To conquer? But how? What/” Anne’s eyes were wide with amaze. “What more could I have of him? He has no more to give.”
Simonette rose and leaned against the window, looking down the way by which the King must come. She did not look at Anne.
“The Queen’s health is broken. She can neither have a son nor live long years. I have it from a sure hand. Now a few kind words cost little, and France is far and safe and a tender thought sown in a man’s heart springs green and blossoms. If I were Anne Boleyn –”
But Anne Boleyn sat speechless, staring at the tapestry on the wall – mossy green and grey and faded figures of Diana and her nymphs pursuing nimble deer. Impossible! Mad!
Simonette, then, ultimately gets the credit for bringing the Reformation to England, though being a devious Frenchwoman her main thought is for herself; she’s Anne’s maid at court, and Anne’s rise is hers as well. Anne follows her advice, leading Henry to send letter after letter as she does her best to evade him and leading Wyatt to write “Whoso list to hunt,” which she finds very flattering, and since she enjoys Wyatt’s company and conversation she continues to string him along for the moment. By the time Henry has started to demand that something happen, she’s conveniently left for France to serve Marguerite D’Alencon for a while. In the meantime, Henry has started the ball rolling on the divorce and Wolsey is assuming that he’ll marry a French princess and that Anne’s influence, such as it is, has gone. He has, as he’ll discover, miscalculated badly. Anne stays away for six months, just enough to drive Henry practically around the bend, and then returns. She and Wyatt have a blowout fight after she informs him that “To me, love is green summer arbour woven of roses and plaited stems. We rest and kiss and rejoice, knowing that in a few months icy winter will shriek through bare stems and all the roses dead. No more to me than that. Be wise. The king comes tomorrow. You have had your day.” Wyatt is finally disabused of the idea that she’s capable of loving him, or anyone really. But nevertheless he’s still her slave, and off he goes to court with her, where she amuses herself devising more masques and flirting with Mark Smeaton (she throws comfits at him, to which he responds by picking her up and threatening not to put her down until she kisses him, among other things). This is put to an abrupt end by George, exhibiting a common sense rare among the Boleyn siblings:
“Only a fool takes risks like that. I tell you a man has disowned his wife for less. What man likes a base-born rascal like Smeaton playing with his sweetheart? Let him stick to his lute! On that he is a master of men’s hearts.”
“And who used to talk of the republic of Art?” she retorted.
“You were not then the King’s sweetheart, and I was younger. Incoming fortune steadies a man – he has the more to lose. Be wise! Hold your distance from free-mannered men like Mark.”
Unsurprisingly to the reader, she doesn’t listen to him. The divorce proceedings chug on, with Anne masqueing and bewitching Henry and Catherine sighing and sewing shirts alone, until the Blackfriars inquiry; after Catherine’s performance there, Henry is raging to Anne about Wolsey, how he’ll be trapped forever and never get the divorce. Anne, deciding that this is the moment for action, shuts the door and they spend the night together, Henry in a wash of sexual passion and Anne in the confidence that if she gets pregnant, Henry will decide to cut the cord to Rome because their son’s legitimacy will be far more important than any theological niceties. She doesn’t get pregnant but Henry is entranced by her anew and begins letting her assist him in affairs of state, where she’s intelligent and skillful but also merciless; she doesn’t just want to defeat Wolsey and Catherine of Aragon, she wants to destroy them utterly. George counsels her against this, pointing out that the King has a heart, albeit one which is well hidden, and after they’re gone may come to blame her for any excessive cruelty, but Anne thinks this is ridiculous and is backed up by her father: “My lords, do not listen to my son. He is poetry-mad, but it is only in idle verses that men spare an enemy.” Wolsey is duly hammered down, escaping only by his own sooner-than-expected death, and Catherine and Princess Mary are driven off to separate, depressing residences. But there is a canker in the rose – Henry’s infatuation with Anne is beginning to fade (as are Anne’s looks) even as he has Cranmer and Cromwell now engaged on working on the divorce. Quick! What does Simonette advise? A visit to a convent, as it happens; pure water, simple diet, and inaccessibility will work wonders for her beauty and charm.
Off Anne goes to Sopewell Abbey, where the nuns, terrified of her, treat her with all due respect and at the end of the visit she’s thrilled to discover that she’s pregnant. She marries Henry in January of 1533, Cranmer pushes through the divorce, and the coronation is arranged. It doesn’t go so well – “too many caps on heads, and too few tongues” about sums it up, and Wyatt, present at the ceremonies, notes how Anne is already unhappy now that she’s gotten what she wanted: “His emotion was neither sympathy nor grief at her removal into the heaven of royalty, but pity. He had known her too long to believe it could satisfy her for ever. Already he had noted the onslaught of weariness and sick distaste…. Anne had the discontent that may be the source of spiritual adventure in some far distance.”
Pregnancy doesn’t agree with her; she’s miserable, losing her looks, unable to be entertaining, and is taking it all out on Princess Mary by raging against her and threatening her (and, as in a number of other books, requiring her to be inaccurately present at the baby’s birth). And there comes the moment when she makes a very serious mistake: while she’s quite in the habit of ignoring Wyatt’s and George’s advice, she’s never yet ignored Simonette’s, but when Simonette tells her that while Mark Smeaton was good enough to clown around with in the old days, he’s “no fit companion” for her now, she ignores her. It’s not a good idea to piss off your Svengali, and from then on Simonette hates not only George, but Anne as well.
Elizabeth is duly born, and Anne begins to fall apart; she is, she discovers too late, only good at being a queen in masques, not in real life. She panics at the thought of Henry taking a mistress, and she has no control over her court, although George and Wyatt are continually urging her to take the reins before Henry gets tired of this state of affairs and decides that promoting another mistress to queen might just be a good way to solve the problem.
She tried reform for a week or two, but habit and her own love of ease were too strong for her and it soon slipped back into the old rut, and her maids and men made love in the dark corners with eyes swimming in wine, and except on formal occasions they treated her like one of themselves, no worse, no better. And only two kept out of the racket and riot – Mary Wyatt who loved her, and quiet, watchful Jane Seymour, who loved no one, but slipped from among them like a shadow when she could, to sit alone and tell her beads. For so they taunted her.
Only the sharp-eyed Simonette knows that Jane is actually sitting somewhere much more comfortable than a prie-dieu, and while she taunts an anxious George Boleyn with this knowledge, she doesn’t bother to tell Anne, who after her miscarriage of 1534 has become a much less worthwhile horse to back. Anne, knowing that she’s lost Henry’s love and that the people hate her, living entirely for the present, expecting nothing from the future, and Smeaton encourages her during their cheery theological discussions. “What do you believe in after death, Anne?” asks Smeaton at one point. “Not the painted heavens and hells. But what?”
“I believe in nothing, for I know nothing, except that here on earth we are damned for a few brief years’ mistakes. Only I know I would live for fear of worse with such a God to deal with. Fetch me wine, Mark. My head spins with your horrid talk [of the king having mistresses] and for the rest I shall suspect Mary Wyatt with the King at your bidding, for if she is false to me the world and he may go hang tomorrow. Oh, that I were free – free! I could win the people. I could – No, no. Talk no more. Wine, and sing – sing!”
But the people blame her for everything; More’s and Fisher’s deaths, the Carthusians’ deaths, Mary’s and Catherine’s sufferings. Once again she gets pregnant, and is cheered to hear of Catherine’s death (although she has no hand in it) but the day comes when she walks in on Henry and discovers that the mysterious mistress she’d heard of was none other than Jane Seymour, the most unlikely person. She promptly miscarries, and Henry informs her that he’ll have no more boys by her. This is the signal to Simonette to suddenly develop a sick mother in France, and off she goes, trunks packed with ill-gotten gains, never to be seen in England again. She does, however, leave a lovely parting gift; namely a letter sent to Lady Rochford (“a coarse-minded, spying woman” whom George hates but we barely see) insinuating that George and Anne’s relationship has a lot more to it than meets the eye, none of it good.
Anne recovers from her miscarriage with the help of Mary Wyatt and Mary Boleyn, but aside from the King’s loss of interest in her there’s another, more pressing problem; Jane Seymour is pregnant, and as an heir in the hand is worth two in the grave, Henry drops the hint to Cromwell to get busy investigating and see if he can’t come up with some reason why his current marriage should be so unfortunate. Anne’s unpopularity is such that Cromwell doesn’t have to work too hard to come up with some insinuations about witchcraft and devil’s mark, not to mention that Anne’s less than restrained behavior with the various gentlemen of the court – and of course, Smeaton – makes adultery a plausible accusation. The real blow, however, is the testimony of Lady Rochford, prompted by nobody knows whom, that Anne and George had an incestuous relationship, and from then on they’re doomed and they know it. George dies well, recommending obedience and godly living to the assembled crowd, although “in his creed death had always been a venture on probably shoreless seas,” and Anne, although she raves in the Tower as she did in real life, pulls herself together in the end to ask Lady Kingston to convey her apologies to Princess Mary and also to make a much more dignified showing at her own execution than do any of the women waiting on her – Mary Wyatt collapses after Anne gives her a prayer book and a whispered message (we’re never told what it is, though it’s hinted that it’s for Thomas). Afterwards her body is put in the arrow chest and later secretly conveyed to a church near Hever, and Wyatt is now the only person living who knew Anne – or rather, knew her as well as anyone could. Somberly he reflects on her life and his own poetry while Henry rides off to Jane Seymour’s house and “Norfolk and Thomas Boleyn oiled their sinews to cringe before the new Queen.”
SEX OR POLITICS? Sex, with Simonette and Mark Smeaton as the more obvious personifications of out-of-control lust. Not that very much is actually done onstage — these characters don’t screw, they smoulder in vividly coloured prose.
WHEN BORN? Wyatt reminds her, shortly after her coronation, that she’s now thirty years old, and she doesn’t disagree with him, so late 1502 or early 1503; an unusually early birthday for an Anne of this era. Mary Boleyn is referred to as “younger” but by how much is unclear, and George the saturnine and worldly is older, but again no exact birth date is given.
THE EARLY LOVE: In an unparalleled development, Anne doesn’t love Henry Percy in the least and pursues him solely for his wealth and position. (Before meeting him, she briefly speculates that she could marry the Earl of Surrey). Her situation with Wyatt is a bit harder to discern; she flirts with him, confides in him, and seems to be always on the verge of blurting out her true feelings, but always draws back in the end. In a way, George is her only real early (and late) love; not in an incestuous way, but because they have that shared experience.
THE QUEEN’S BEES: Mary Wyatt, sister to Thomas, waits on Anne and receives a gilt prayerbook from her at the scaffold, Jane Seymour is watchful, quiet and secretive. Madge Skelton (Shelton) appears as a generic frivolous maid, and Bessie Blount is referenced early on but we don’t actually get to see her. This Anne isn’t really much for female companionship, except for Mary Wyatt’s. She likes her circle of brilliant young men, and she and they are each other’s mutual destruction.
THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Both Simonette and Mark Smeaton, to very bad effect, and the first one is not actually faithful. Simonette is a Parisienne who is implied to know all sorts of ambiguous characters in that amoral wasteland and has something to sell to every one of them. Unlike most other Simonettes, she’s only about eight years older than Anne, and is attractive in a sensual, overripe way – at the beginning of the story she’s “a young woman of about thirty, plump and full breasted, olive complexion set off by bright black eyes and hair,” but running to fat, and as the story progresses and her own evil-doing with it, she becomes overfat and unattractive. After steering Anne’s course and abandoning her, by the end of the book she has feathered her nest so nicely with gifts and rich castoffs (not to mention things she’s stolen) that she can slip back to France before the crisis comes and be assured of a comfortable existence. Mark Smeaton is, as we’re continually told, the Pan-like musician of innate genius who is excessively forward and presumes upon the great too much; he has a lot of conversations with Anne in which he teases her about attachments to other men and also tells her of his essential atheism. He is repeatedly described as goatlike, like a nature god, and terrifying. “I loathe that man,” says Mary Wyatt.
“Sometimes I look to see if hoofs are hidden in his shoes. Not that he is a devil, but good and evil are mere names to him of things he never knew. Is that to be a devil, Thomas? I used to think he loved evil, with his twitching nose and strange, fixed yellow eyes like a goat’s. But I think he does not. He is beyond my understanding and when he sings I cannot take my eyes off him. He is Anne’s drug and delight – his music, I mean. She is mad for it.”
THE PROPHECY: Thomas Wyatt tells Anne about a dream he had, involving a frightening thunderstorm and his fears for her, but Anne laughs it off. Another is made unintentionally by Anne herself, when it turns out that …
IT’S A GIRL! Anne is distraught and panicked, but still sharpwitted enough to cobble up an explanation for Elizabeth that Shakespeare would have recognized: born on the eve of the Feast of the Virgin, here is a virgin who will achieve greatness. Henry is pacified for the moment, but still feels himself to be “the fool of Europe.”
DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Yes, and as mentioned earlier, it and the wen are serious factors in her development. Incidentally, she also designs a special sleeve to distract attention from it.
Why did she wear sleeves falling in drapery from the shoulder, which gave her the look of a winged thing as she glided to and fro through the great halls at Blickling and Hever Castle? Her disgrace – as she thought it, in sickening, angry solitude. On the left hand a little blemish – a tiny indication of a sixth finger beneath the fifth.
FAMILY AFFAIRS: Other than Thomas Wyatt, George Boleyn is the only person with whom Anne is even momentarily sincere, and also like Wyatt, he spends a lot of time trying to restrain her worst impulses, cautioning her against taking excessive revenge on her enemies and pointing out that any cruelties committed during her rise will certainly be remembered should she one day fall. Towards the end of his life, Anne tells Smeaton that “George is changed. God has crept in through the keyhole and makes mouths at him,” but he’s not so much a committed Lutheran as someone who isn’t completely crazy. George is very similar to her physically (as is Mary, unusually) and is portrayed as a cultured, cynical sort who has traveled extensively on the continent (Italy is mentioned giving him a love of art) and who also has a strong taste for French attitudes, French food, and French women – including, briefly, Simonette. George doesn’t take much account of his fling with her but, as we’ll discover at the end, she certainly took it seriously, and bitterly: “For a grudge and false kiss not so long ago, but less than nothing to him now, she hated him with hell’s own hatred.”
Mary is the sweet, empty-headed girl who embodies “I had rather beg my bread” from the first moment we see her, banished to Hever after her affair with the king goes sour (although it may not have been a full-blown affair – the text is vague about that). Later on she elopes with the penniless “George Carey”, and after his unheralded death marries William Stafford and writes her letter to Cromwell. She’s briefly seen at court towards the end of Anne’s career, advising Anne to be more sympathetic to the erstwhile Princess Mary, but otherwise she doesn’t factor into the story: Anne and George have no time for losers. Thomas Boleyn is usual cold, cringing courtier, and even worse than usual in that he actively assists Cromwell’s inquiry into Anne’s supposed misconduct. His first wife is long dead and his second wife is a pale shadow of the usual stepmother: a meek countrywoman more at home in the kitchen than the court. Anne dislikes her and finds her dull, and she isn’t much of a presence – she has no name or definable personality, and her main occupation seems to be shrinking into the shadows and collecting recipes.
DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No; she was flirtatious and unlike Catherine was unable to make her courtiers avoid the appearance of evil, but all she did was flirt indiscreetly and, of course, ignore Simonette.
WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: I’ve quoted a lot, but there are a lot of nice moments of characterization with the secondary characters — one I particularly liked was an early scene where Mary Rose Tudor is reintroduced to Anne six years after their first meeting (Anne accompanied her to France, then stayed on when Mary went back to England). Mary Rose is all friendliness, commenting on how Anne has grown, making jokes, then “She turned from Anne laughing and apparently forgot her. That was the Tudor way — a genial little blaze of friendliness and then cold ash.”
And sometimes it gets a little overdone:
So the dark engulfed the brilliant Boleyns, portents of a day they should not live to see, splendid, treacherous, fierce and feline. Life has moved swiftly since then, but has not overtaken their pride, no, nor equalled it. Pride and pomp must walk more humbly to-day in the face of the crowd that watches them with wolfish eyes of envy and green. But why moralize? … For bliss is still beneath the horizon. Luther’s light burns more than a little smoky and threatens extinction, and in spite of his well-aimed ink-dish (typical of much) the Devil with his supporters, the World and the Flesh, is still active. The riddle of the Sphinx is answerable but not by the formulas of any century, whether Luther’s or another’s.
ERRATA: Well, since Simonette the governess didn’t exist I’m comfortable in saying that she did not prompt Anne to reach for the crown, have an affair with George Boleyn, or tell tales to Lady Rochford. Mark Smeaton doesn’t have much recorded history, but as he does seem to have been one of Wolsey’s choristers in the 1520s (according to Cavendish) it’s unlikely that he was gadding it up with Anne and being the personification of Nature’s wild side at the same time. The masques, while fascinatingly described and wonderful way of making Anne drive the plot, would not have happened in the way they were described; Anne takes speaking roles, among other things, and a woman of quality would certainly not have done that, no matter how many extra fingers she might be compensating for. Princess Mary is described as being forced to be present at the birth of Elizabeth, which she wasn’t, and Brereton and Weston and Norris are all young men who are perpetually twenty-five or so. There are others, but these are the main ones that come to mind.
WORTH A READ? This is one of the stranger novels I’ve read, and I’ll say right now that it was very, very hard to summarize, because (to quote Robertson Davies describing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) it’s very much a written book. It’s the literary equivalent of an opera; ridiculous dialogue, overdone costumes, lighting and makeup that would look simply foolish in ordinary life, and yet, somehow, it works because when reading it something in you knows that the characters are not just ordinary people, or ordinary novel characters, but are also actors in a complex and frightening play. Anne is not just Anne, she’s a scarred and frightened Eve, who makes a devil’s bargain with the “serpent” Simonette and gains earthly glory and riches, but at the price of her life. George is the personification of her better side, he’s indivisible from her even while he hates what she’s turning into, and by ignoring his warnings and advice she ends up inadvertently destroying him as well as herself, and Wyatt is the watcher who tries to interfere and discovers at the end that the best he can do is write the story down, so others can make what they can of it. Mark Smeaton is the unpredictable natural world; enticing, frightening, enjoyable, but impossible to control and liable to wound anyone who tries to control it too much, not because he’s malicious but because that’s the only way he knows how to be.
I wouldn’t say it’s a book for everyone – the atmosphere is feverish and the prose ornate and sometimes overdone, and you won’t get much out of it if you don’t have much tolerance for overwrought prose or the repetitious nature of this kind of storytelling (Wyatt warns her against Simonette and Smeaton about three times, George warns her about restraining herself and staying away from Smeaton three or so times – the themes become very familiar). If you do like it, though, this is an excellent book; it’s not good history, but it is good opera.
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