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Anne Boleyn And Me by Alison Prince (2004)

March 9, 2013

Part of the My Story series which includes, among other titles, Voyage on the Great Titanic, The Great Plague, and Transported, this is the diary of an imaginary girl named Elinor Valjean who attends first Catherine of Aragon and, later, Anne Boleyn. Along the way she grows from eleven to twenty-two years old, witnesses massive religious and political upheavals, marries, and has two children. None of these things have any effect on her narrative voice, which begins and ends as that of a bright, naïve child flatly setting down facts and then forgetting them to move on to the next thing.

Elinor is the daughter of Michel Valjean, jester to Henry VIII, and his wife, a woman who came over from Spain with Catherine of Aragon. They have four children, and are naturally devoted to the interests of Catherine (“Although she is the Queen of England, she is so kind” says the eleven-year-old Elinor). Elinor, who writes that she often wishes she had been a boy as they can joust and have adventures, begins keeping her diary halfway through 1525 after being given the blank book by her elder sister, and as luck would have it, that’s when court life starts getting really interesting. Henry VIII has fallen in love with Anne Boleyn, who is newly returned from Hever, and it becomes apparent before the end of 1526 that he intends to marry her. Elinor faithfully writes down all the standard events – anger at the Emperor, the hitch caused by the Sack of Rome, Wolsey’s downfall, the poisoning at Bishop Fisher’s (“It is whispered that the powder was supplied by Lord Wiltshire”) and Anne’s reading of reformist literature (Elinor is shocked, but the shock only lasts for one diary entry – afterwards the suspicious books are not mentioned). By this time, Elinor has been taken from Catherine’s much-reduced household and given to Anne’s – she’s a talented musician and joker, we’re told, though we never hear her opinions of anything musical, nor does she make any jokes in her diary. From here she’s able to see Anne constantly, but Anne does not confide in her, nor is she fleshed out in other ways; she remains curiously opaque. We are told, and occasionally see, that she has a bad temper, that she’s courageous, that people didn’t like her, and that for all her “malevolence”, she was innocent of everything she was accused of.

Intertwined with this are the observations on Elinor’s own family – her sister’s brief, pathetic pursuit by the “trodden-on spaniel” Mark Smeaton, her mother and older sister leaving to wait on Catherine once the latter is sent away, Elinor’s own meeting with a handsome blacksmith at Hever named Tom Freeman, whom she eventually marries, the death of her father from the sweat (he’s replaced by Will Somers) and the births of her first two children, whom she is grateful to be able to nurse herself – unlike Anne, who wants very much to nurse Elizabeth but is not allowed to. Anne’s married life is, by contrast with Elinor’s, quite unhappy – by the time of Catherine’s death, they’re openly hostile, and at the Requiem Mass for Catherine Henry wears black, Anne wears yellow, and “grumbled that such a fuss was being made.” There’s no Ivesian ambiguity here about what caused Anne’s downfall – after her 1536 miscarriage (caused by catching Henry with Jane Seymour, not by the jousting fall, although the latter is mentioned) Elinor writes of the ladies looking at each other, all thinking “Anne Boleyn has had her last chance.” Four months later, this proves true as Anne’s ladies are questioned (Elinor denies knowing anything, other ladies are happier to invent stories) Mark Smeaton is arrested and confesses quickly, or so Elinor hears. “Mark would probably confess of his own accord, and I thank God for it. He is not a hero by nature – and what would be the point in incurring further suffering?” The other men’s and Anne’s trials are quickly over, and so is Elinor’s court service – like many a lady-in-waiting who becomes a heroine, she’s now entirely disgusted and horrified by court life. Luckily, what with her husband being a blacksmith, they can transfer residence to the country fairly easily, and the last entry summarizes their bucolic bliss.

I am glad now that I was not born a boy, as I wished so often when I was younger. For the time being, I no longer want excitement and change. I find tremendous pleasure in my children and in the task of making this tumbledown cottage into a warm home …. I pray that the King may be happy with Jane. I hope she will give him the son he wants, for only then will the fears and suspicions that fill this poor country be hushed.

May the soul of Anne Boleyn, who at the end was so brave and so undeserving of her fate, rest in peace.

SEX OR POLITICS? Not much of either – it is intended for children, after all. There is a nice afterword at the end giving a mostly accurate timeline of events and pictures of all the major participants.

WHEN BORN? Elinor is eleven in February of 1526, so her birth year is 1514. Anne’s birthday is never made clear, neither are those of George or Mary, however, I got the impression that she was towards the older end of the spectrum.

THE EARLY LOVE The book begins in 1526, after the Percy affair, but it gets several mentions; Elinor’s sister Rosanna tells her about it, and later on we’re given the usual story in which Anne revenges herself on Wolsey out of anger over Percy. Oddly, Percy doesn’t appear at her trial – it’s the Duke of Norfolk who begins to crack when he reads the verdict. Thomas Wyatt is also described as gazing soulfully at Anne a great deal, but she doesn’t do much to encourage him.

THE QUEEN’S BEES Elinor herself, of course, as well as Madge Shelton (who is friendly, but grows proud after Anne pimps her out to Henry for a distraction). Elinor’s sister Rosanna is a lady in waiting to Catherine of Aragon, and there are a few conversations with Maria de Salinas, Lady Willoughby. Jane Seymour gets a few mentions, although no dialogue. At the end, Elinor rejects the chance to serve Jane Seymour, describing Jane as being irritating in a way that even the dreadful Anne wasn’t, and an idiot into the bargain. “She has large, rather stupid eyes and a little mouth set above a weak chin. She looks as humble and stupid as a sheep …. She is poorly educated and has not the wit to argue with anyone, let alone Henry. He will have no trouble getting total obedience from Jane. But I find her just plain boring.”

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR Elinor to Anne (despite her dislike of her) and her mother to Catherine of Aragon. I was pleased to see that George Cavendish also got a fleeting cameo, trying to arrange horses and luggage conveyance for Wolsey’s 1527 trip to France. Mrs. Orchard, Anne’s former nurse, is briefly mentioned (she collapses at the trial when the guilty verdict is read).

THE PROPHECY None except for the book of prophecies, which Anne finds in Elinor’s presence and tosses aside as “a mere bauble.” Elinor admires Anne’s courage in spite of herself.

IT’S A GIRL! “The King is bitterly disappointed. He barely glanced at his new daughter; although she is a lovely baby with red-gold hair like his own.” However Anne is said to be affectionate towards her, and distressed when she has to leave for

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Never mentioned.

FAMILY AFFAIRS: We don’t see much of the Boleyn parents – we learn that Thomas Boleyn is acquiescent when Anne decides to take Hever’s blacksmith back to court with her as a servant (he cured her horse of something), and her mother isn’t really a presence. Mary Boleyn’s moment comes in the entry for 8th October 1534, when we learn that she’s been banished by Anne. “Mary did not seem concerned. I heard her say that she would rather beg for bread with a good man at her side than be Queen of England.” What little we see of George Boleyn is less flattering – at least once he catches Elinor alone in a hallway and takes the opportunity for a few free gropes. “I am a strong girl and had he been any ordinary man I would have used my fists and feet to send him packing, but he is Lord Rochford, much favoured by the King, and I dared not give him cause for complaint.” The episode in which he read the paper aloud at trial is reframed – one of the lords asks him to read it aloud, he does so, and only realizes belatedly that it was a trick; having said the words, he’s guilty. Lady Rochford is mentioned a few times as George’s “shrewish” and “spiteful” wife but we never see her directly.

Elinor’s family is treated with a bit more detail. She has an older sister named Rosanna and younger brothers named William and Daniel, the former of whom chooses to stay at court after the rest leave.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No. Although Elinor dislikes Anne, she dismisses the charges as ridiculous. Some of Anne’s hostile ladies, however “gave the court far more pleasure, retailing salacious stories of the Queen’s promiscuity. Nobody queried the tales they told, even though some of the alleged offences were remembered – or misremembered – from years ago.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: At its worst, it’s as flat as the Netherlands. It summarizes events, and that’s it; for example, in the entry for 8 April 1533, Elinor writes of how Viscount Rochford had just returned from his mission to France, and was closeted with the King for a while on returning – “and today the King made the official announcement that he has married Anne Boleyn and that she carries the royal heir. He appointed the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk to break the news to Queen Catherine, and they have already left for Ampthill.” That’s that – and there’s a lot of that. However, there are some nice moments in which the characters do leap into life, as when at the end of 1530 Elinor and her intended have to ask the King for permission to marry.

We both knelt before him, and he listened to our request. Then he gave a bark of laughter. “Marry?” he said, “Aye, why not.” He took a great draught from the cup of wine he held. “All the world seeks to marry.” … I wept with gratitude and kissed his hand, and laughed. “These are early days for tears,” he said. “Those come later.” His face clouded and he waved us away. “Go, leave me.” And from loving him for his generosity, I once again found him alarming.

ERRATA: Some of the dates in the diary are out of sync with events – Cardinal Wolsey’s death is announced on November 28th 1530, when he wouldn’t die until a day later. Princess Mary is summoned by Anne to be present at Elizabeth’s birth, but this didn’t happen (YA books can’t let go of this, it seems). The names are awkwardly handled – Anne Boleyn is referred to as “Anne Boleyn” or occasionally “Lady Anne Boleyn” or “Lady Boleyn” throughout – she never had the latter title, and calling her simply by her name seemed very awkward and unlikely for the period. People used titles then; even though Elinor doesn’t like her, it seems unlikely that she would have called her by her name so baldly, even when writing privately. Similarly, Catherine of Aragon is described as rejecting the title of “Dowager Queen”, when of course she was never supposed to have been queen – she was supposed to be Arthur’s “Princess Dowager.” And there are a few situations in which Elinor really should have known more than she did – “A man called Thomas Abell” is referenced as having been arrested for publishing Invicta Veritas, which is true, but since Thomas Abell was Catherine of Aragon’s chaplain for years, Elinor should already know who he is. Mark Smeaton is an adult and attached the Queen’s household in 1525, when actually he was neither.

WORTH A READ? A preteen girl could read this book, enjoy it, and learn some basic facts from it, so it’s on a par there with Doomed Queen Anne (2002) – which also had the same inherent problem; the target audience is preteen girls, so the adult narrator has to sound like a preteen herself when she simply wouldn’t have. That being said, the book still felt like a missed opportunity in some ways. Elinor is supposed to be half French and half Spanish – surely someone with that kind of background would know people who had their own perspectives on the divorce and knowledge of the shadowy offshore figures who were influencing the course of events. Speaking three languages, she would be likely to know more and overhear more than most. But instead, her family have little to say about religious issues in general. They don’t seem to have any opinions on the French king, or the Emperor’s actions. The only real difference of opinion comes when Elinor attends Anne’s trial – Elinor’s mother thinks it’s Anne getting what she deserves, Elinor feels that she’s being unjustly treated, although she dislikes her. Among the surviving mother and four siblings, religious questions simply aren’t discussed. They seemed like a pleasant enough family (even if the court jester marrying anyone’s lady-in-waiting seemed like a highly unlikely chance) but if you’re going to go to the trouble to create an entire fictional family at court, they need to have more to do with themselves than occasionally produce children and bemoan Catherine’s treatment. At least in Doomed Queen Anne, the fictional characters are firmly in second place and don’t take up large portions of the narrative not doing much.

There’s also an inherent weakness in the diary format, which is that there’s very little quoted conversation; Elinor mostly summarizes, although we do get a few snippets of conversation from time to time, and those were well-done — her father has some entertaining observations on the hazards of noble women falling in love with musicians, and when Henry and Anne actually speak, the conversation moves swiftly and engagingly. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough speaking — Anne remains flat and mysterious to the end, although she is granted the virtue of courage. The book does get points for the afterword: it has a timeline of events (largely accurate, although it says straight-out that the Percy match was broken up by Henry’s infatuation with Anne, which isn’t at all an established fact) and also pictures of all the major players, so the reader can disentangle the factual from the non-factual all in one place – and, with luck, go on to read more books about the Tudors. I’d recommend that the discerning ten-year-old start with both this and Doomed Queen Anne, since they present somewhat different perspectives on her (although they both insist on making her flirt with poison and having Princess Mary witness Elizabeth’s birth — why is that so hard to let go of?) It will be a good introduction to the fraught questions that usually go along with the simple question “What was [Historical Person] really like?”

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