Threads: The Reincarnation Of Anne Boleyn by Nell Gavin (2001)
“I still have my immortal soul,” thinks Anne Boleyn, shortly after she’s executed at the beginning of this book. It turns out that her soul is an unusually tough one, having already been through numerous incarnations and destined for several more (the latest beginning in 1947 and, presumably, still taking place). Reincarnation being something of a group concern, each of her lives will involve meeting and re-meeting the same people who will duly turn up at the Henrician court, although their relationships are not always parallel (Elizabeth Boleyn will turn up in different times as her daughter and her friend, for example) and the tensions and strengths of each relationship will have roots in what occurred in the previous, subconsciously remembered lives. Does it sound like a confusing mess? It is. And I loved it.
After her 1536 death, Anne spends an interlude in some ethereal place where she’s intermittently watching her life again and listening to a Voice which is helpfully filling in necessary exposition about how each rebirth is part of the soul’s attempt to better itself and compensate for the sins (or develop the strengths) which the soul’s bearer had during its last incarnation. These interludes with the Voice turn up throughout the book and got old quickly, but fortunately Anne’s own retrospective account of her life, along with gradually increasing snippets from her previous lives – is interesting enough to make up for it.
This Anne spends a lonely but happy childhood at Hever – she’s not pretty, but differs from her brother and sister in being less pliable than they, and also more pious; she has a strong wish to become a nun. This wish vanishes when she’s sent to France just before her adolescence, and she attracts the attention of a powerful man – never named – who rapes her repeatedly until she goes through puberty, after which he leaves her alone as she’s now too old for his taste. I have to say that I did not expect this development, and I really did not expect it to actually work. As it’s presented, though, it’s horribly plausible – Anne is young, far from her parents, in a court the size of a small town where sexual predation was not exactly rare.
I may well have become a nun, except for the rapes. I did not speak of them, but carried a scar on my neck where the miserable jackal cut me with a knife as I fought. When I whispered to someone the name of the man who had caused the wound, she made the need for secrecy clear to me and all who tended to me …. In time the scar faded, but I still wore the neckbands because I still saw the scar there, large and red, even after others could not see it there at all.
Mary tries to bolster her up, but practically speaking there isn’t much she can do, and when Anne eventually returns to England she’s learned about French, the art of conversation, the current religious debates, and to be extremely wary of men. This doesn’t prevent her from falling in love with Henry Percy, who’s the usual kindly, stand-up article (in this incarnation – we get a brief glimpse of him later as a violent Egyptian soldier) but who, after conferring with Wolsey, realizes more quickly than Anne that resisting the royal edict to separate would do nothing except doom both of them all the faster. And Anne herself finds the King strangely attractive, although because of her loyalty both her sister Mary and to Catherine of Aragon she decides to hold out against him. Of course, the reason for her strong attraction is shown to her during her afterlife interlude – she and Henry have always been together, whatever their incarnations.
We marry in most of these recollections. We are usually married. Sometimes he is my parent or I am his. Sometimes we are siblings. Sometimes we are each the opposite gender, but our usual bond is that of marriage.
Although Anne has no intention of becoming Henry’s mistress – especially as Catherine of Aragon knows that he’s thinking about a divorce in order to marry some younger princess – Anne enjoys the fact that his regard makes her popular and very truly run after and gives free rein to her own sharp tongue, and it’s this which ultimately gets her into an inescapable corner. When the lovelorn, obsessed Henry asks yet again what he could do in order to have her sleep with him, she tells him that he can marry her – planning to use his reaction as the punchline in her next story for her court sycophants. Unfortunately for her, Henry takes her seriously and soon a panicked Anne realizes that there’s no escaping from her own joke, and the religious upheaval of England is well and truly underway. Anne, who describes herself as a Catholic who simply wants reform, is horrified at Henry’s actions and even more horrified that it’s all being blamed on her. Worst of all is when she gives birth to Elizabeth and although Henry takes it gamely, she can’t bring herself to love the child who would have secured her position forever, had she only been a boy. She becomes pregnant again, but the baby is lost, and Anne starts having dreams and flashbacks about M. Anonymous at the French court and becoming extremely fearful of sex. Henry is suspicious when he hears her talking of it in her sleep, and is even more suspicious after he hears her explanation. (Had she really been unwilling, or was that just a subterfuge by someone desperate to explain her lack of interest in him?) Furthermore, he’s angered and suspicious at her obvious lack of love for their daughter. He finishes by raping her – yes, I know – and engenders the baby which is miscarried in January of 1536.
Unfortunately, at this point Jane Seymour is already on the horizon – dim, foolish, and promiscuous, but just enough of a contrast to Anne that the already-susceptible Henry falls for her and, by extension, for the manipulations of her friends who would like to knock Anne off the throne and replace her with someone supposedly more friendly to the old ways. Which they accomplish, somewhat to Anne’s surprise – she was well aware of a rift, and was fearful of what Henry would do, but she expected a divorce and exile, not death. But death is what comes, and along with it, the stories of her previous incarnations – we’ve been seeing snippets of them interspersed with the 1500s story, but now we see more, mostly of her eleventh-century life as a travelling acrobat, married to Henry (“my favourite life”) where everything came together, but in which she lost three baby daughters in order to give her a better chance of appreciating Elizabeth when she came along. But as she didn’t do so enough, she learns:
The skeletal structure of my next life plan has already been set forth. The design in this plan is that I will learn self-effacing service. Lessons in duty and discipline will continue. There will also be corrective punishment: I will be on the receiving end of tongues as sharp as my own, and I will not have the freedom to protest or respond. Lastly, because I failed a test with Elizabeth, I will now face that same test again under even more difficult circumstances ….
The plan is that I will be born in Cathay in the Year of the Horse. My position in the family will be as unwelcome daughter to a couple with several other daughters, but no sons …. A husband will finally be found for me and in my 24th year, the Year of the Fire Horse, I will give birth to a female.
Beyond that, I may write the story as I choose.
Fire Horse women were – and still are, to some extent – considered to be bad luck, and virtually unmarriageable due to their stubbornness. Whether this was also the case in the seventeenth century I don’t know, but when the reincarnated Anne becomes pregnant, it’s made clear that if her Fire Horse child is a girl, its continued presence in the family would be unwelcome. Once again, after a struggle, Anne fails her daughter and is sent on to another life in which she’ll be taught yet once more to value her children. Henry, meanwhile, although always present in Anne’s life before, has been separated from her for a while (apparently the Powers That Be decided that their relationship had gotten too volatile and they needed to be apart for a little bit), although, as Anne discovers, his own problems will echo down his next few lives as well: “he will have trouble keeping wives for some time to come.” Finally they’re judged able to meet again and end up running into each other at a party in a Chicago apartment in 1970. No beheadings, apparently, have resulted.
The epilogue, which bundles the stories of their post-16th century lives together, also contains the full story of their lives in ancient Egypt, where Anne was a prostitute with two small daughters (she became a prostitute after her husband was maimed in an accident and could no longer work) and Henry was a transvestite fellow prostitute who even then had a soft spot for children, in an entirely innocent way. In this incarnation, Henry is the man who becomes a victim, much as Henry Percy will later on, and from then on he begins evolving throughout his incarnations until eventually we see the tyrant taking his revenge on the world which had trampled on him 3,000 years previously.
SEX OR POLITICS? Sex, in many different times and places: Anne is a prostitute in ancient Egypt, a travelling player in early medieval Europe who marries a less stressed-out Henry and has fourteen children with him, and the unwilling wife of a Chinese farmer. Politics are mentioned as they related to the divorce, but are certainly not a major factor in the story – it’s all about Anne’s internal struggle and the baggage she carries from her past lives, not to mention the new bits of baggage she’s picking up to carry to her future ones. By the time she’s been through two successive horrific marriages – her marriage to Henry, and her marriage to a Chinese farmer who insists that she kill their newborn daughter – she’s gone off of marriage altogether in her next life, in which she’s a wealthy Victorian spinster who adopts her deceased sister’s daughter, and then loses her as punishment for having given up on (or allowed the death of) her daughters in earlier lives.
WHEN BORN? 1501. She’s the second child, Mary having been born a year before her, in 1500, and George in 1503.
THE EARLY LOVE: James Butler makes a brief appearance but Anne doesn’t want to marry him because he has a violent reputation, and her mother, who married Thomas Boleyn for love, talks him out of insisting on it. The “sweet and gentle” Henry Percy looks like he’ll be a very eligible replacement bridegroom – they secretly handfast but don’t sleep together. After the decree comes down that Anne and Percy shall separate forthwith, Anne is so frantic that she offers to be his mistress, but he turns her away, telling her that he can’t do that to her. She learns later (as in, after her death) that not only had his father been threatening him with reprisals, but that the King was going to revenge himself on the Boleyn family if Anne did anything foolish like marry Percy anyway, so it was all very noble. Percy had a more violent incarnation in ancient Egypt, where he would pay Anne to pretend he was raping her. (She still liked him, as he paid on the nail).
Thomas Wyatt also appears, and in a blissfully welcome change from his usual fictional persona, he’s not a sensitive wilting lily but a “braying ass” who’s continually challenging Henry in various arenas and is always moaning about his wife’s adulteries (Anne wonders if perhaps his wife was justified, since she’s tied to such a jerk). Wyatt compensates for striking out with Anne by boasting that he’s slept with her, earning his first spell in the Tower and a close shave with death as a reward. “It is to be hoped he learned his lesson about telling tales,” Anne comments tartly, but adds that when she died, she was startled to see him crying sincerely over her death, and to find that despite all bragging and unpleasantness, he had really cared for her. Wyatt only gets a few pages in the book – in her other lives, he’s confined to named but very minor roles – however, this Wyatt was more alive for me than he is in quite a few books in which his role is much larger.
THE QUEEN’S BEES: Since we see comparatively little of Anne’s life at court as it’s lived, we also don’t see much of the maids. Jane Seymour appears briefly, described in highly unflattering terms; she’s a vapid, pasty-faced cow, and Anne takes a dim view of the inevitable comparisons between her own role in breaking up Henry’s marriage to Catherine and Jane’s role in breaking up her own marriage. “I should have thought that my own thankless efforts to spare Katherine during those early years might have been rewarded with even a feigned attempt by Jane to discourage Henry. However, that was not to be.” Unusually, Jane is also described as very promiscuous.
THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Emma, a woman whom Anne brings from Hever who serves as her maid and confidante. Unlike most such, Emma eventually marries and leaves court, leaving Anne distressed at having nobody safe to confide in.
THE PROPHECY: None made in-story, so to speak, but the “Voice” usually gives Anne behind-the-scenes explanations both of what was going on in her previous lives and what she’s slated to do next.
IT’S A GIRL! Anne and Henry are both disappointed, but Henry actually takes it better. He’s good with children (both in his current life and most of his past ones), has had the disappointment of a girl before, and still hopes for sons. But for Anne it’s a worse blow – she hasn’t had previous disappointments to thicken her skin, and although she tries she finds that she simply can’t forgive Elizabeth for disappointing her.
DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? She has the double nail, but not a proper sixth finger – one reason she likes Percy so much at first is because he’s completely unfazed by it. She does not have a wen on her neck, but rather a scar, courtesy of the man who raped her when she was ten; he put his knife to her throat and cut it slightly. The next day he sent her an “unfashionable choker necklace”, suitable for covering said scar, along with orders to wear it Or Else. She felt protected by the necklace and kept wearing them long after the scar had faded.
FAMILY AFFAIRS: Thomas Boleyn is the usual ambitious autocrat, although Anne acknowledges (from the afterlife) that there was nothing remarkable about his designs for rising in society by placing his children well, and she’s not shown objecting to it while she’s alive. Elizabeth Boleyn is more interesting – she’s the highborn, haughty woman who’s well supplied with noblesse oblige (she sees to it that all of the servants are well taken care of when they’re past work) but has comparatively little affection for her children. Not an unusual combination, but there is one crack in the facade – she married Thomas Boleyn for love, and they still love each other. For this reason, neither of them are particularly interested in forcing their children into matches which are genuinely repellent to them. Elizabeth also turns up in Anne’s Egyptian past life as one of her daughters, who becomes a prostitute and then runs off with a soldier to another town and a life of respectability, disowning her mother in the process. Evidently the awkward relationship between them persisted 3,000+ years later.
Mary Boleyn is similar to many others; the pretty, easygoing one who thinks with her heart and not her head. However, she’s also lazy, a people-pleaser, and happy to lie to someone’s face to get out of trouble. (She also enjoys painting, we’re told – a rare instance in which Mary gets to have a talent of her own). George is present but isn’t as strongly characterized as the women. He’s handsome, down-to-earth, loves his sisters, and that’s about it.
DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No. However, a combination of factors (childhood rape and the adult fallout from that) leads to Henry being genuinely suspicious that there’s Something She’s Not Telling Him.
WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: The writing can be awkward, and the sixteenth century Henry and Anne always address each other as “thou” which, though it’s used grammatically, still kept making me think of Quakers. Anne also calls Henry “Rex” as a pet name (and also because “Henry” makes her think of Percy) but again, it’s very distracting because it sounds like a dog’s name. The writing can be clunky. But when the author is on, she is on. The description of her childhood rape is spare and horrifying, and the sequence in which Anne’s reincarnation is trying to decide what to do about her newly-born Fire Horse daughter is skilfully and absorbingly (also horrifyingly) written:
I placed her upon the ground and squatted beside her. It was my duty to smother her, or drown her. I had done this any number of times in my imagination, preparing myself for just this contingency, bracing myself for an infant that was female. I had worked carefully to harden the part of my heart that would want her to live, and had deliberately turned that part of me cold. In my mind, it was easy: she died quickly and I could walk away satisfied that I had performed my duty to my family. In my imagination, she was merely a lump of tenuous life, not a person ….
But in reality, she woke up and cried.
ERRATA: There are a lot of basic errors in this – it’s almost at the level of The Secret Diary Of Anne Boleyn. Hypocritically, I’m willing to give the author a pass here where I’m not elsewhere, though I still shook my head a lot while I was doing a quick reread last night. Where to start: Catherine of Aragon is described as having dark hair and eyes, which she didn’t at all – although it leads to a nice little scene where the child Anne is pleased that queen looks like her, and pretends to herself that she’s Catherine – of all the “young Anne pretends to queen of something” scenes out there, this is one of the most believable. Prince Arthur is described as having died shortly after Henry VII, so that Henry VIII inherited “both his throne and his widow.” Arthur died years before Henry VII; if he’d died afterward, he’d have been King Arthur. (The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn makes this howler as well). Anne’s last miscarriage is said to be of a deformed baby, although this is somewhat ameliorated by her saying that she couldn’t tell herself that it was deformed, and that someone may have started the rumour to discredit her. Elizabeth is conceived in a hasty closet grope between Anne and Henry before Henry goes to meet Wolsey, although Wolsey had been in the ground for two full years before Elizabeth’s conception. Henry VIII is described as suffering from the pox and passing it on to his wives, although that idea had been largely discredited by the time the book came out. It’s also stated that Anne chose execution rather than having her daughter disinherited, an idea which has really taken hold but which doesn’t have any basis in fact. Henry did as he pleased in these matters.
The author does a commendably thorough job of describing her sources and making it clear in her introduction that the story is a fantasy, and “not a historical reference.” However, the afterword which gives the reader this information does get a bit pear-shaped on occasion; it’s stated as a fact that Anne was not a virgin when she married, and that “only [writer] Karen Lindsay thinks she was.” This assumption seems to stem from the assertion originally promulgated by Sander that Anne was “debauched” by her father’s servant. The “debauchment” is shifted to France but is not otherwise questioned – strange, considering that the author makes it clear that she considers overtly hostile sources (Chapuys et al) as books to be read with caution.
WORTH A READ? This book features almost every flaw which should make me dislike an Anne Boleyn novel: basic errors in history, first-person narration from Anne, random supernatural intervals, huge stretches of dialogue-free prose, random time-shifts (century shifts, even) and an unhistorical rape committed by Henry VIII (the child molestor character is a different matter, since his name is never given and it could be anybody. That was well done). But I absolutely loved it. Part of it, of course, was the novelty factor – this wasn’t just the usual Anne Boleyn story, but several other short stories woven in, with familiar people reappearing in new, unfamiliar roles. And as these roles kept shifting, it meant that we were shown Anne and Henry both as victims and victimizers, people enjoying life together and hostile to each other, moving in and out of the orbits of Princess Mary, Catherine of Aragon, Mary Boleyn, Henry Percy and the others, sometimes as their friends, or enemies, or both. It’s not the subtlest device in the world, but I still found it enjoyable, especially since it frees the book from a problem which haunts many Boleyn novels better written than this one: the problem of the agenda. Most novels about Anne have some sort of agenda driving them, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but you can usually tell what lesson the author wants you to take away from the story. In this case, the reader isn’t the one getting the lesson, it’s Anne, who is trying to perfect herself and is failing each time – as is Henry.
This isn’t a good introductory novel about Anne Boleyn; the disordered narration and glossing over the political scene (not to mention the interspersed scenes from different centuries) would probably leave a novice reader more confused than anything. But if you’re familiar with the period – and with Anne – it’s a nice change of pace, and an excellent brain-bender.
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