The Boleyn King by Laura Andersen (2013)
First of a trilogy which poses the question “What if Henry only ever had two wives and Anne’s son, not Jane Seymour’s, became King of England? And what if, in the end, Elizabeth Tudor still became queen?” It’s a fascinating premise, rendered considerably less fascinating when the numerous fictional characters keep elbowing aside the historical ones. Positing a non-miscarried healthy boy for Anne is one thing, but having four or five imaginary contemporaries tag along with him is quite another. Throw in a half-French Marie Sue and this novel, while it has its moments, is the literary equivalent of trying to watch an interesting movie while audience members are continually standing up in front and blocking most of it.
We begin with a prologue on June 28th, 1536, with Anne giving birth to a baby boy just as some shooting stars are seen in the sky. The midwife takes it as a good sign, but Anne is too exhausted even to care. “Henry will be pleased,” she thinks “And I … I will remain queen.”
We then jump seventeen years into the future, where it transpires that Henry VIII has died on schedule in January of 1547, George Boleyn has become Lord Protector, and Anne and Henry’s son Henry IX is quickly closing in his majority. For reasons left totally opaque, young Henry IX is known to his friends and family as William, and always referred to as such. William spends a lot of time swaggering and pouting and attempting to demonstrate how mature he is; for one thing, he takes a mistress, the distractingly-named Eleanor Percy (who doesn’t seem to be related to the Percys) and begins contemplating making war on France in order to negotiate a possible marriage with the young Mary Queen of Scots, who is of course betrothed to the Dauphin but not yet actually married. However, he is also battling against his fondness for one Genevieve Antoinette Wyatt (not related to the Wyatts), an orphan ward of his mother’s. She was born on the same day as William and they’ve been like brother and sister growing up, with an additional sister in Elizabeth – who as a toddler gave Genevieve Wyatt her nickname of Minuette when trying and failing to pronounce mignonette.
Minuette is a restrained but still fairly obvious Sue. First of all, although disclaiming any beauty or merit on her own account, she’s obviously quite pretty – she’s described as “like a colt – all eyes and legs and spirit” by one of her less pleasant suitors (Giles Howard, imaginary son of the real Duke of Norfolk). She’s also supposed to be very charming, although most of her charm seems to lie in the fact that she holds opinions sympathetic to a modern-day reader – in a later scene when she’s sent to the Lady Mary’s household as a spy, she can’t understand why wars should be fought over “this small matter of form.” Additionally, all the other characters love her; even the stubborn if oddly innocent Mary takes a liking to her, and Henry VIII is briefly remembered for a visit he paid to Elizabeth’s and Minuette’s schoolroom shortly before he died. “Though he’d complimented Elizabeth’s mind, it was nine-year-old Minuette who had disarmed him. When the formidable, enormous King Henry had left, it had been Minuette whom he’d hugged goodbye.” Of course, part of it is the sympathy factor; her own parents were both dead by the time she was eight, and as her mother was Anne’s favorite lady-in-waiting from days past, Anne took her into her own household.
So what is Minuette up to while William is showing his “sulky” Boleyn good looks, palling around with Dominic Courtenay (imaginary nephew of the Marquess of Exeter), feeling reluctant to arrange a marriage for Minuette for some strange reason, and making successful war on France? She’s trying to solve a mystery, of course – one of her fellow maids of honour, Alyce de Clare, has just fallen fatally down the stairs whilst four months pregnant by a mystery man, and in a letter sent just before her death she told Minuette that she was in trouble and enclosed some ciphers. The ciphers being translated, it transpires that Minuette’s own mother supposedly confessed on her deathbed that Anne had committed incest with George in order to conceive William, and that broadsides which are popping up proclaiming that “England Will Not Have A Boleyn King” are resurrecting the smear in the old confesion. Said “confession” is currently in safekeeping in a home known as a Catholic stronghold. Hmmm, where could that possibly be? Off Minuette goes to visit the Lady Mary’s household, where after some (literal) cloak-and-dagger business, the false confession is unearthed in … well, this is a rare Anne Boleyn novel where you don’t already know the ending, so I won’t tell you. I will say that in the course of hunting up the spurious confession, she receives declarations from love and proposals of marriage from an assortment of young men, including Dominic Courtenay, Jonathan Percy, Giles Howard, and of course William (though he doesn’t offer to marry her).
Interspersed with all of these are scenes of Anne aging and becoming ill, George Boleyn’s care for her and extreme care for politics – he’s always going off for secret meetings and constantly thinking two or three steps of everyone else; there’s a strong resemblance between him and Elizabeth in this case. At the end of the book, we learn that the retrieval of the false “confession” was in fact only part of a much more tangled situation, and one of the chief players in it is – well, surely you remember another famous case of a woman who fell down a staircase and broke her neck very conveniently? The same man is involved here, and that’s where the book ends and leaves us hanging until next October, when Volume 2 comes out.
SEX OR POLITICS? Intermittent stabs at politics are taken, what with William’s campaign against the French, but unfortunately sex takes over in a big way what with Minuette’s parade of suitors.
WHEN BORN? Not stated explicitly, but Anne is said to be in her early fifties, so presumably around 1501. George’s age isn’t clear, neither is Mary’s (who also died in 1543 in this universe, so she’s only mentioned briefly).
THE EARLY LOVE: Almost too many to count for Minuette, who can’t be around a young man for ten seconds without having him either crushing her to his bosom (if evil) writing sonnets (if good). She’s a lot like Bess in The Black Pearl that way. Anyway, her total at the end of this volume consists of Giles Howard (imaginary son of Norfolk) who is fortunately married off to William’s weirdly colourless mistress Eleanor Percy, Jonathan Percy (twin brother of Eleanor) who’s a sort of Mark Smeaton Lite, longing to prove himself by feats of arms, Dominic Courtenay, imaginary nephew of the real Marquess Exeter and eventually made the new Marquess himself, and of course William himself. Elizabeth has Robert Dudley – still married to Amy Robsart in this universe, and generally unscrupulous with the ladies. Anne’s comment on her own intrigue with Percy is to say that “Youth is made for hopeless romance,” and saying that it taught her never to entrust her heart to any man.
THE QUEEN’S BEES: Minuette herself, of course, and Minuette’s late mother was one to Anne – a Frenchwoman named Marie-Hilaire who came to England for her out of friendship (and was, in fact, one of her very few female friends). Alyce de Clare, the pregnant maid of honour who falls down the stairs, is one of Elizabeth’s attendants, and Eleanor Percy has some sort of vague equivalent position before being married off to Giles Howard so as to go on being William’s mistress more conveniently.
THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Minuette to Elizabeth, and a maid named Carrie to Minuette – “She insists she is my servant, but I say she is my friend,” says Minuette of her.
THE PROPHECY: None that I could see, unless you count the “England Will Not Have A Boleyn King” broadsides.
IT’S A GIRL! Not described, although since there’s a scene where George tensely remembers the possibilities if a prince hadn’t been born, it’s safe to say that Elizabeth’s birth wasn’t greeted with too many hosannas.
DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? No.
FAMILY AFFAIRS: Mary Boleyn is dead at the beginning of the story – as in real life, she died in 1543 and virtually nothing is said about her except that, much like other Marys, she could never quite keep up with the games that Anne and George played as children. Curiously, although Mary dies on schedule, Elizabeth Boleyn lives much longer; William remembers how, at the time of his father’s death in 1547, he was staying at the home of “grandmother Boleyn.” (Of course, this grandmother Boleyn would have been under considerably less stress than the real one was). George is the Lord Protector, Duke of Rochford (I’m not sure if that was a mistake or if his title had been upgraded, though if it’s the latter he shouldn’t still be called Lord Rochford). Poor Lady Rochford is reduced to a walk-on role, and as of old, she has “the eyes and tongue of a snake.” George will sleep with any willing woman except her; unsurprisingly, they are still childless.
DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No, but the forgers of the Penitents’ Confession would like people to think that she did.
WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: Nothing purple at all – it’s clear, serviceable prose, clear as water.
ERRATA: Since this is an alt history novel, it wouldn’t be fair to count things as errors which really boil down to “I wanted the author to write it differently.” There are some basic mistakes, though – William’s name being the most obvious. Why on earth is Henry IX called by another name in private life? He’s the son of Henry VIII, not Queen Victoria – the era of royals who had thirty-five given names apiece was far in the future. Furthermore, the “Catholic party’s” intention to overthrow the “illegitimate” William and install Mary on the throne in his place just doesn’t ring true to the era. To overthrow a young, male king in favour of a woman who was pushing forty would have been incomprehensible. Even Edward VI, it should be remembered, was technically illegitimate by Rome’s standards, as Henry had married Jane Seymour while excommunicate and using his own service instead of the standard one. No Catholics seriously objected to his coming to the throne, much less tried to get Mary to take it from him.
WORTH A READ? I had mixed feelings about this book. I loved the premise, and I very much enjoyed the scenes with Anne and George – I thought they were drawn very well, not idealized figures and not witchy caricatures either. Anne, in her fifties, is bright, sharp-witted, and very much used to having her own way (it’s a sore point with her that George was made Regent, and not her). She has a gimlet eye for clothing and we see the young Elizabeth primping herself just before a meeting with her mother, so that Anne won’t make a few brief, devastating remarks about her. George was a little over the top (he is meeting late-Henrician men in secret tunnels to discuss the unmasking of sinister plans, after all) but on the whole George’s portrayal as the fearsomely capable, intelligence-gathering regent worked well. You could see the resemblance to Elizabeth. Elizabeth is rather similar to her usual fictional portrayal – cool, levelheaded, able to argue circles around people if necessary. Even Lady Mary gets a bit of nice characterization when she isn’t going on about how the Mass shouldn’t have any English in it.
The chief problem is that we don’t see enough of them, or even a fraction enough of the other real people who walk through the story, some surviving beyond their real time and some not (I should mention that I’m not criticizing this approach – after all, who’s to say that Elizabeth Boleyn might not have lived a bit longer had she not outlived four-fifths of her children?) We see the Duke of Norfolk doing a bit of plotting, but most of the villainy falls on his imaginary son Giles. Cranmer and Cromwell are barely mentioned, and while Thomas Seymour gets a brief, lustful look in, we certainly never hear about his sister, or in fact any of the real ladies-in-waiting whom Anne had. Surely some of them would have still been around, or their children would have been? Worst of all, we never find out what happened to most of them! Cromwell isn’t there any more, that’s clear, but what his ultimate fate was in this timeline is left a mystery. Did he lose a struggle with Anne over monastery monies in April of 1536? Did he die naturally? Beheaded for something not related to Anne of Cleves? We never find out. Nor do we find out exactly how Mary ended up in a situation very similar to what she had in the days of Edward VI, when in this timeline she refused ever to honour Anne or acknowledge her as queen. What we do find out, in excess, is exactly how all of the imaginary company of young men felt about Minuette and how wonderful and special she is. The imaginary characters are all tediously modern when it comes to matters of romance, as well — Dominic, who’s about twenty, is revolted at the idea of marrying (and doing other things with) a fourteen-year-old, Minuette wonders at Eleanor Percy’s marriage since she can’t believe that she really cares for the groom, and so forth.
I did enjoy it as a light read and plan to get the second from the library when it comes out. Hopefully the new one will have more of the older, real people in it – or at the very least we can find out what happened to Cromwell.
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