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Imaginary Conversations: Henry VIII And Anne Boleyn by Walter Savage Landor (1824)

August 3, 2013

Imaginary Conversations was well-received if not exactly a bestseller in its day — Landor wrote them while he was living in Italy, and received much praise from the expatriate literary community there as well as others, but the appeal of these works has not stood up to the passage of time as well as some of Landor’s other productions. The participants in the Conversations are fairly wide-ranging — Peter the Great and his son, Queen Elizabeth and Cecil, Lippo Lippi and Pope Eugenius, and, of course, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Unfortunately the speaking styles aren’t as diverse as the characters; ancient, medieval or modern, Christian, Jewish or Pagan, concerned with souls or with earthier things, they all speak in a clotted, over-involved prose well sprinkled with archaic mayhaps and ‘twoulds. Even though Anne and Henry’s dialogue takes place during their last, imaginary meeting in the Tower of London, just before her trial, they manage to keep the dialogue stately and stuffy — all the more of an accomplishment, since Henry is drunk.

“Dost thou know me, Nanny, in this yeoman’s dress?” asks Henry as he stumbles in, then tells her not to try any “tragedy-tricks” with him; no sobbing or screaming allowed. Anne, whom he’s startled awake, faints instead, leading Henry to grumble that “these whey faces … gives us no warning.” (Incidentally, this is the only time I can remember seeing Anne referred to as whey-faced; usually that unflattering epithet is reserved for her rival). Anne momentarily believes that she’s already dead and Henry has somehow politicked his way into spending eternity by her side. “Oh, why do these pangs interrupt the transports of the blessed?”

“Thou groanest, wench, art thou in labour?” asks Henry, and after a little bantering about the fact that Anne still likes to snack on dried cherries (yes, really) and water, Anne reminds him that “it is hardly three months since I miscarried,” and she’s still not at 100%, especially considering her arrest and other postpartum complications. “But now that thou talkest about miscarrying, who is the father of that boy?” Henry asks, and even though he’s supposed to be drunk it still sounds excessively casual. Anne, naturally, declares that the boy was Henry’s, and that he’s now with God. Henry takes exception to this: “Pagan, or worse, to talk so! He did not come into the world alive: there was no baptism.” Henry, it’s clear, is a letter-of-the-law man ecclesiastically — not so Anne, who later on will reveal just a hint of animism in her own theology: “The plants, the trees, the very rocks and unsunned clouds, show us at least the semblances of weeping.” But after nagging her about her dreams and being annoyed to find that he doesn’t feature in the more prominently (Anne is dreaming of her own salvation) Henry gets back to business. “Thou has heretofore cast soft glances upon Smeaton, hast thou not?” he inquires, to which Anne confesses that yes, she has, but only because he taught her to play the virginals when she was young.

Brereton and Norris are “your servants, and trusty ones” she tells him, and as for Weston saying that he loved her — “I defied him” Anne tells her husband, but “The fellows shall one and all confront thee,” Henry tells her, before moving on to ask about the £15,000 which she’s spent in the last nine months, doubtless on her sundry lovers. But “I have regularly placed it out to interest … among the needy and ailing. My Lord Archbishop has the account of it,” she parries, and goes on to say that she doesn’t regret no longer being queen, but only that she’ll no longer be regarded kindly by the people and that, worst of all, “he whom next to God I have served with most devotion is my accuser.” She’s been reading devotional literature, looking for a similar story of a brave woman unjustly accused in order to console herself, but Henry disapproves strongly of this, and tells her so:

Thou has never read anything but the Bible and history, the two worst books in the world for young people, and the most certain to lead astray both prince and subject …. If it behoves us kings to enact what our people shall eat and drink — of which the most unruly and rebellious spirit can entertain no doubt — greatly more doth it behove us to examine what they read and think. The body is moved according to the mind and will; we must take care that the movement be a right one, on pain of God’s anger in this life and the next.

He swears he’ll keep out the English Bible “by the Virgin and St. Paul” just so we know he’s really a Catholic at heart, and Anne, who in addition to being mildly animistic shows signs of also being a universal salvationist, protests that “It must be a naughty thing, indeed, that makes [God] angry beyond remission. Did you ever try how pleasant it is to forgive any one? … When they know that He is good, they love Him; and, when they love Him, they are good themselves.” Nonetheless, if Henry can’t take this approach to the divine, she’s ready to “change her quarters” to wherever Henry likes, whether it’s back to Greenwich or into the Beyond.

After a few final theological skirmishes, in which Henry is horrified to discover that Anne believes that the greatest human ills are due to “An aptitude to believe one thing rather than another, from ignorance or weakness, or from the persuasive manner of the teacher, or from his purity of life, or from the strong impression of a particular text at a particular time … the hand of the Almighty, let us hope, will fall gently on human fallibility.”

“If the Church permitted it, thou shouldst set forth on thy long journey with Eucharist between thy teeth, however loath,” snarls Henry, to which Anne responds simply with a plea to “Love your Elizabeth, my honoured lord, and God bless you!”

ANALYSIS: This is one of the more peculiar specimens I’ve come across in this particular subgenre. Far be it from me to dictate how exactly Anne and Henry would have approached a final meeting, had there been one, but it’s hard to imagine their dialogue would have been both so courtly and so stilted. There’s a weird lack of emotion on both sides — Henry tosses out the accusations of adultery (both the incest charge and George Boleyn have disappeared) and expresses anger about the loss of the baby, but neither of these things are really tied in with what’s clearly Landor’s real interest, which is Anne’s religious opinions. These, as represented, may well be Landor’s own — certainly they smack much more strongly of a progressive early nineteenth century woman than of a progressive sixteenth century one. Anne’s implied rejection of Communion doesn’t quite square with the woman who requested that the Host be brought to her in prison, and her belief in universal salvation sits uneasily with the differing theologies of her time.

While this was written more than a decade before Victoria came to the throne, but Henry’s references to Anne’s “ringlets” and Anne’s own angel in the house-like charity towards and concern for her social inferiors makes it hard not to picture this Anne in a crinoline, even so. “What pains I have taken to find out the village-girls who placed their posies in my chamber ere I arose in the morning! How gladly would I have recompensed the forester who lit up a brake on my birthnight, which else had warmed him half the winter!” She sounds mildly peeved that she won’t get a chance to thank them in this life, just as Henry sounds peeved about her supposed adultery but lets the subject drop after her rejoinders and appears to forget about it by the time he leaves her. In fact, her answers to his questions in general are so coherent, and his own follow-ups so minimal, that by the end it’s difficult to tell why he still wants to kill her. If you didn’t know anything else about them, you’d almost think that Henry was still straight-up Catholic and was dispatching her because she was a heretic, the miscarriage being gravy. Certainly Jane Seymour, the desire for another son, or the complications he feared should he die without one are never mentioned, which is unusual for this time. Early Anne Boleyn drama does tend to focus on her supposed Protestant martyrdom, but Henry’s attachment to another woman is usually at least mentioned as a catalyst for Anne’s downfall even if not explored very deeply. Here it’s nonexistent, and Anne is being killed solely for the sin of being three centuries ahead of her time.

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