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Imaginary Friends: Women

March 6, 2013

Tamsin, Patience, Margaret, Honor, Constance, Celia, Elinor, and Frances — these are only some of the many imaginary women who have been transported by authors into Anne Boleyn’s life as either fellow ladies-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon or ladies-in-waiting to Anne herself. These airy ladies are followed by an even larger flock of literary ghosts — the straight-up servants of ungentle birth like Sarah, Jane, Marie, Danahan, Nell, Nancy, Peg, Lynette, Annie, Bridget, Jessica, Bet, Niniane, Emma, Emma, Edithe and Edythe. Each tier of characters serves a different purpose and each has one or two standouts who manage to justify their own existence to all but the most exacting reader.

One thing I should make clear: while many people undergo both renaming and dramatic character changes once they reach the pages of a novel, I’m confining this category to people who were invented from whole cloth. So while, for example, Lady Diana Talbot of Vertue Betray’d (1682) and Helen Sackville of The Favor of Kings (1912) may have little similarity to anyone Anne actually knew, they were still loosely based on real people — Lady Mary Talbot and Anne Savile. Kat Ashley, who appears in Anne, The Rose of Hever (1969), could not have been Anne’s childhood servant, but she did exist. However, there is no real-life parallel to, say, Tamsin Lodge of The King’s Damsel (2012), and so she would count as an imaginary friend. Now, let’s see what these imaginary ladies have been doing that the real ones didn’t.

To begin with the downstairs crew: The vast majority are not characters in any meaningful sense, just names hung on a peg labeled “the maid”. This is justifiable, as Anne would certainly have had servants looking after her, and as their names are not recorded, authors are free to invent their own. Unless a maid is important to the particular plot the author has devised around Anne’s story, there’s no reason to say much about them except to make it clear that they exist and occasionally speak. Sarah from Queen Anne Boleyn (1939), Nell from Doomed Queen Anne (2002) Annie from The Queen of Subtleties (2004) and several others fall into this category. If anyone in the story speaks with an accent, or in any sort of dialect, it will be these characters. “I love Queen Anne with all my heart, but ’tis a shame, Queen Catherine dying alone and all tha'”, says Edithe of To Die For (2011), demonstrating her baffling habit of dropping random final consonants. Edithe is technically Meg Wyatt’s maid, I should mention — Anne’s maid is named Bridget and doesn’t get much to say before she dies of the sweat, and her replacement dies of poison which was smuggled into some gift oranges and which was originally meant for Anne herself. Anne is very distressed at this, as she’d given the woman the oranges to be kind. Kindness to the servants in this fashion is sometimes used as shorthand to show that Anne is tender-hearted at the core — it’s explicitly laid out in this passage from The Concubine (1963):

“Drink your wine while it’s warm, mistress.”

“Put the jug on the hearth,” Anne said, “and fetch yourself a cup. You’ve had a long, cold ride too.”

During her spectacular career — upon which, although she did not know it, she had already started — Anne was to have virulent enemies, some devoted friends; arguments about her behavior, her motives, her personality were to go on and on down the years, but those who actually served her in a menial capacity never wavered in their good opinion of her, never had anything but kind things to say. “She was always considerate and just.” “To me she was a good mistress.” “She was easy to work for.”

Not all Annes are unfailingly kind to the help: in Anne Boleyn (1957), Anne’s unnamed maid is described as “terrified of her mistress, who boxed her ears if she was clumsy or misunderstood an order, and then gave her a piece of velvet or a pair of slippers twinkling with embroidery when she cried.” But if her maids are mentioned at all, Anne is usually good to them (and of course, even in the last example, Anne gives her maid extremely valuable gifts, even if her temper is erratic). The supreme example of Anne’s benevolent treatment to a maid is probably found in Mademoiselle Boleyn (2007) in which the young Anne, resident at the French court, befriends a young laundress named Lynette.

A few maids play larger parts than to be simple objects of benevolence, chief among them Lynette from Mademoiselle Boleyn (2007) and Emma Arnett from The Concubine. Of these, Lynette is the less complex — she’s presented as a saucy, lively girl to whom Anne is surprisingly deferential at their first meeting: “You needn’t curtsy,” Anne says, “I’m only nine,” but Anne soon impresses the girl by showing that she understands the soapmaking process and enjoys it when the girl talks back to her. Later on, Anne gets her promoted so she can serve (and see) the quality firsthand, and, this being a Robin Maxwell novel, they talk about sex a lot. Before Anne leaves France for good, she instructs Lynette on the art of climaxing, thinking that this is a better gift than all the pretty dresses in the world. Lynette has a bigger part to play than most maid characters, and is superficially more independent, but in the end she still only exists to be an object of Anne’s benevolence, and she certainly never diverges from her opinions or actions in anything important.

Emma Arnett in The Concubine is another matter entirely. This is a character who lives and breathes so convincingly alongside Anne that her portion of the story is every bit as interesting as Anne’s. Like all good imaginary characters, she has a strong influence on the story from behind the scenes, but not in a way that would contradict the written accounts. Forty years old when she meets the sixteen-year-old, newly heartbroken Anne, Emma is a countrywoman has had a life blighted by economic and religious disasters (enclosure, and the death of Richard Hunne being the chief ones) and as a result is hardheaded, practical, bitter, and more manipulative than she herself realizes. As a result of her early service with Richard Hunne, she’s become very interested in religious reform, and she is an invisible agent who helps to steer Anne towards the subject herself — not that Anne wasn’t already mildly interested, but Emma has contacts with middle-class reformers who know book smugglers, and she talks up reform to Anne whenever she has the chance. She genuinely loves and respects Anne, but she’s also using her to advance reform, leading Emma at last to what turns out to be a disastrous choice. She and her circle fear that if Anne has no boy, reform in England could be easily scuttled by an adult Mary triumphing over the baby Elizabeth. Furthermore, it’s become apparent that Henry is a bad breeding risk:

Emma, from reading the New Testament, had progressed to reading the Old which was crammed with proofs that if the heart were right, acts mattered little. Look at Jacob, cheating his old blind father, cheating his brother and his father-in-law, and yet chosen, beloved of God, and the founder of all the tribes of Israel. There must also be taken into consideration Christ’s attitude towards adultery: He’d dealt very gently with the loose-living woman at the well of Samaria, and had protected the other woman who was about to be stoned …

Not without an inner amazement, Emma Arnett, that decent woman, realised that if Anne, to bear a prince who would save the country from Mary, must commit adultery, she was willing to be an accomplice, even an instigator.

The fact that I strongly doubt anyone like Emma existed (let alone encouraged Anne to commit anonymous acts of adultery) does not prevent me from saying that she’s a brilliantly-done character.

An oddity in this category is one “Danahan” from A Tudor Story, but I’ll elaborate on her at the end, for reasons which will become obvious. And between stairs are two governesses: Simonette, who appears in a number of books, thanks to Agnes Strickland’s error in naming her as Anne’s governess, and Mrs. Crimpling the governess in Feather Light, Diamond Bright (1974) who is favourably described as affectionate and motherly, but fades out of the story after accompanying both Boleyn girls on their first trip to France.

Now to the upstairs crew — imaginary ladies-in-waiting. These are generally harder to justify than imaginary maids; after all, while the maids must have existed, we know almost nothing about most of them and all sorts of conjecture is therefore legitimate. But maids of honour and ladies of waiting usually — though not always — had their names recorded, and often it’s difficult to see why one of the real, comparatively obscure, women was not used (Margery Horsman, for example). One possible answer is that an author is free to put a fictional lady-in-waiting wherever she wants her to be, whereas in the case of a real woman one would be obliged to send her wherever real life sent her, but considering the number of real women who have been sent in unhistorical directions in a lot of books, I doubt that’s the only reason. In any case, imaginary ladies-in-waiting tend to fall into a few set patterns.

The first pattern is that of the fellow to Anne: the ones she meets at court sometime in the 1520s. These rarely play important parts and are there either to be briefly antagonistic before being routed by Anne, like Lady Honor Finch from Doomed Queen Anne (2002) or to be companionable to Anne during her early days and sympathetic after the affair with Percy is broken up, like Celia Conyers in The Uncommon Marriage (1960). Lady Rochford gets her own supportive friend in Margaret Bolton in Reap The Storm (1998), although Margaret breaks off the friendship after Lady Rochford testifies against Anne and George at their trials.

Finally, there’s the lady-in-waiting who’s the story narrator — a natural device to use, as she can continue the story beyond Anne’s death and, if she’s supposed to be writing far enough in the future, expand on things which wouldn’t have been sufficiently understood at the time. These characters follow a very similar trajectory. They begin as innocent country girls, usually with a talent for singing or storytelling of some sort, who are enthralled with the idea of going to court and becoming part of its glittering population. Once they arrive, their service to the Queen (either Catherine or Anne) is everything they dreamed of — at first. However, cracks in the foundation soon begin to show; the King is tired of Catherine/Anne, and other people at court are all on the make and ready to stab the innocent heroine in the back. Fortunately, the heroine has met a young man who, although sometimes annoying and brash, nevertheless intrigues her more than little. (She may or may not be betrothed to someone less appealing at this point). Finally, the excrement hits the fan, and the heroine, completely disillusioned, flees court for the country with the young man, never to return.

This basic pattern shows itself first in My Friend Anne (1900) in which the imaginary Patience Linacre, daughter of the very real Dr. Thomas Linacre, leaves her bucolic life at a manor house to be “Not a maid of honour … but a useful maid and companion to her grace, the good queen [Catherine].” Patience is a childhood friend of Anne Boleyn, and while technically she’s supposed to be Anne’s maid, she ends up functioning as Catherine’s, and goes with Catherine when she’s exiled from court. Her relationship with Anne — who is presented as isolated and depressed by her guilty conscience — is frustrating. “Patience, I have few friends — you have been my greatest. Do not let me lose you!” cries Anne at one point, but since the book was written for respectable young nineteenth-century girls, Anne is seldom very specific about what exactly is going on between herself and Henry, and her downfall takes place after Patience has married her young man and left royal service after Catherine’s death. (Patience’s talent is singing, if you’re wondering).

Elinor Valjean’s talent is singing comic songs and telling jokes, although we don’t get to hear any of them directly in Anne Boleyn And Me (2004). She’s both the daughter of Henry’s court jester and lady-in-waiting to Anne, though not by choice — she’s sympathetic to Catherine of Aragon and dislikes Anne intensely. Nonetheless, in harmony with most readers, she’s developed more sympathy for Anne by the time she miscarries (Elinor has previously been angered by the inhumanity of wet-nursing) and decries the injustice when she’s condemned. Fortunately, she’s married to a blacksmith (whom she met while Anne was visiting Hever) so leaving court doesn’t present too many problems. “Tom and I have dreamed for years of a small place where we can live peacefully with our children, but the dream seems difficult and almost frightening now that we must think about turning it into reality,” she says, but they find a piece of land in good order and depart court just after Anne’s death. Frances Pierce of A Lady Raised High (2006) takes wet-nursing as a matter of course but occupies the maid-narrator’s usual place as Anne’s confidante, as she frequently describes herself as “a simple girl” and, having no family worth mentioning (Anne picked her up when Frances defended her against a gang of angry peasant women) is unlikely to stab her in the back for her own gain. Frances nonetheless has her own talent: writing poetry, although she’s not supposed to be especially good at it — the poems nonetheless serve the plot later on when they’re discovered among Anne’s papers and taken as evidence of Anne’s incestuous love for George. Frances is also one of the two women who sat beneath the table during Anne’s coronation feast, helping her with certain necessities. I was charmed by this, I’ll admit. Tamsin Lodge in The King’s Damsel (2012) has a talent for storytelling (mostly stories of Greek and Roman mythology, discovered in her late father’s library) and is sent first to wait on Princess Mary and later, when it becomes clear which way the wind is blowing, on Anne Boleyn. Tamsin dislikes Anne and wants to see Mary reinstated, and eventually becomes Henry’s mistress — she is the “very handsome young lady” of 1534 whose name has been lost. The young man she meets is a silk merchant, and when they marry at the end he reacts to the news of her previous deflowering by Henry with admirable sang-froid; he’d hoped the rumour wasn’t true but hey, what can you do, he’s the king. This probably isn’t so far from how most real, non-suicidal men would have reacted.

Meg Tierney in Anne Boleyn (1967), is a foster-sister and childhood friend of Anne’s who also comes to court as Anne’s maid but is promoted to lady-in-waiting when Anne receives her own household, and is given the title of “Madame Marguerite” at Anne’s coronation. Her talent is divination, and the young man she falls in love with is George Boleyn, by whom she secretly has twin sons. Her story, alas, does not end happily — Henry misinterprets her vision of Anne’s childbearing future, and Meg is condemned to be burned at the stake on the day after Anne’s execution. She forestalls this by taking poison — “It will be only an empty shell that the flames consume.”

There is in this last story a very faint echo of the story in The Spanish Chronicle about a maid named Margaret, who helped Anne commit adultery (by hiding Mark Smeaton in a cupboard and letting him out when Anne asked for “marmelade”) and was subsequently burned at the stake as punishment. Of course, there was no such maid. However, Meg Tierney is not the only fictional maid to have paid the ultimate price for her service to Anne. There are at least two others.

The first appears very briefly in To Die For and has no name; her role is exclusively to go along with Anne to a midnight meeting with an herbalist who supposedly has pregnancy-helping drugs. The meeting was arranged by Lady Rochford, which should give you some idea of the ultimate outcome; on the way back from the herbalist’s, Anne and her party are ambushed by archers (shooting at night! Hawkeye could take lessons from this crew) and a lady-in-waiting is fatally wounded. As none of Anne’s attendants were killed with arrows at any time during her incumbency, this lady is, fortunately, imaginary. The other lady’s story is more curious. Her name is simply Danahan, and she appears in A Tudor Story: The Return Of Anne Boleyn, which was published in 1963 but whose contents largely date from the 1920s. These consist of transcriptions and summaries of spiritualist seances conducted at the behest of Canon W.S. Pakenham-Walsh, an Anglican clergyman who had become intensely interested in Anne Boleyn and believed implicitly that she was talking to him from beyond the grave. During one automatic writing session, he received the message “I AM HERE ANNE. ALL WAS AS YOU SAY. MY WOMAN WAS DONE TO DEATH FOR MY SAKE.”

Further questioning elicited the information that the woman’s surname was Danahan, and that she died at the behest not of Henry VIII but Thomas Boleyn: “She was thrown living into a pit and stones caused to cascade on her. This was also her grave.” What brought this about? Apparently, Thomas Boleyn’s concern for his own position. Danahan had been maid and friend to Anne from childhood: “Within the boudoir the relationship was much deeper than that of lady and maid and was one of two deep and loyal friends.” Apparently she died because, as Anne’s closest confidante, she could have testified against the charges that Anne had committed adultery (“the full story” was implied to be somewhat murky and somehow implicating her father’s and mother’s pressure on her to marry Henry in the first place, although Anne’s shade makes it clear that she never committed adultery) and Thomas Boleyn had Danahan killed to shut her up. “The Lady Anne feels that the devotion and sacrifice of the maid … should not be forgotten in this record of her life and I therefore agree it should be included,” the Canon concludes. I doubt it belongs in a record of her real life, but in a record of her fictional life, it makes as worthy an entry as any.

If the imaginary population of Henry’s and Anne’s court were to be totaled, there would probably be twice as many fictional people living there as real ones. But in the absence of a fictional census, I think this sketch of its population will suffice for now.

FICTIONAL LADIES IN WAITING (from the first paragraph)

Tamsin Lodge appears in The King’s Damsel (2012)

Patience Linacre appears in My Friend Anne (1900)

Margaret Bolton appears in Reap The Storm (1998)

Honor and Constance Finch in Doomed Queen Anne (2002)

Celia Conyers in The Uncommon Marriage (1960)

Elinor Valjean in Anne Boleyn And Me (2004)

Frances Pierce in A Lady Raised High (2006)


Sarah in Queen Anne Boleyn (1939)

Jane in The Heir of Allington (1973)

Marie in Annie Boleyn’s New Year (c. 1880)

Danahan in A Tudor Story (1963)

Nell in Doomed Queen Anne (2002)

Nancy and Peg are Mary Boleyn’s maids in The Last Boleyn (1983)

Lynette in Mademoiselle Boleyn (2007)

Annie in The Queen of Subtleties (2004)

Bet in The Favor of Kings (1912)

Niniane in The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn (1997)

Emma in Threads: The Reincarnation of Anne Boleyn (2001)

Bridget and Jessica in To Die For (2011)

Edithe is Meg Wyatt’s maid in To Die For (2011)

Edythe is Tamsin Lodge’s maid in The King’s Damsel (2012)

From → Essays

  1. I love Emma! The final chapters when she realises how much she loves Anne and will soon lose her to the executioner’s sword are heart-rending. She is also a nice contrast to Meg Wyatt who is normally portrayed as weeping so prodigiously, she is completely useless at dealing with the practicalities of a scaffold scene. The Black Pearl from Laura Cassidy is another lady-in-waiting novel. I do wonder why there is a massive trend for novels to be written from their view point; it is almost as if the author hides behind such a persona rather than taking the character of Anne head on.

    • sonetka permalink

      Emma is fantastic. She’s certainly not designed to be a reader avatar, unless the reader has had a really horrible time of it, but she’s so real. (I have no idea if Lofts intended this — probably not — but I’ve always wondered if that bit where Emma is interpreting the Old Testament might be a subtle nod to the idea that having the Bible be interpreted by trained professionals might not be a *totally* bad idea :)). Meg Wyatt tends to vary — in some books she’s weepy and useless, in others she’s Anne’s conscience and always trying to keep her from going off the rails (sometimes George Boleyn is in love with her but forced to marry the nasty but rich Jane Parker).

      The novels told exclusively from a maid’s viewpoint are comparatively new — the oldest one I have is from 1967, though there may well be some older ones. It is hiding behind a persona, to some extent, but I imagine a lot of authors do it as much for the reader as for themselves. They give the reader a sweet, sympathetic pair of eyes to look through, a happy ending (she goes off to the countryside with her young man, having learned a Valuable Life Lesson), plus you can see the aftermath of the execution and tie up all the loose ends. You need to be really sure of yourself to end a book right as the sword strikes, like in Brief Gaudy Hour.

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