Saturday Selection: Three In-Betweeners
The in-betweeners are often listed as being novels “about Anne Boleyn”, but they really contain insufficient Anne to support a whole entry. But as they could still be considered part of the canon, even if a fringe part, I wanted to give them at least a short mention. And as you’ll see, the fact that Anne barely appears doesn’t prevent them from having curious takes on her.
My Lord The Fox by Robert York (1984)
The central mystery of the book is centered around the death of Amy Robsart, Robert Dudley’s wife, but Anthony Woodcott (agent of William Cecil) uncovers some risky information about their new queen’s parentage while in the process of investigating the first matter. It seems that while she was still the queen-in-waiting, Anne patronized a freelance French sorcerer called Gerard — “as ugly as a devil in a painting,” Woodcott describes him thirty years later. When Anne began sleeping with Henry in August of 1532, determined to conceive a baby to force the issue of their marriage, she regularly visited Gerard to procure “philtres” to hasten conception, but when she hadn’t become pregnant by November she began to panic. Threatening Gerard with exposure as a sorcerer and eventual execution, she blackmailed him into letting her use his home as a safe place to meet with the ringer she’d enlisted to get her pregnant.
She told him that she knew a strong young man about the Court who died of love for her, and though she had played with him a little and found him well-favoured she had allowed him no freedom with her because of his humble birth. But now, she said, her mind was made up to have him, for she knew she could trust him, and if she could not bring about a child with one so strong and young then she could not do so with any man …
I said, “And was it so?”
He replied, “Yes. Three times in that November of the year 1532 she made use of my house for her purpose.”
…. Thus, by a chain of lies and artifice, did Anne Boleyn become wife to King Henry VIII, and was crowned Queen in May, her coach proceeding through a silent crowd who, if they opened their mouths at all, uttered no cheer but cried “Long live Queen Catherine,” such was their enmity which never changed.
That’s all we see of Anne in the book, and as we’re only hearing Gerard’s version of the story, it’s possible that his recollection is somewhat slanted. Woodcott and Cecil both believe it, though, as they recall how Thomas More refused to attend the coronation or endorse Henry’s marriage to Anne, stating his suspicions of her virtue. Yes, he was on the wrong side of the religious war, they think, but surely so sharp-eyed a man must have known something was off about her, right?
The story itself is well-written and a lot of fun to read, and I loved the depiction of Elizabeth — who is sharp (in several senses), cool, and who will lose her temper only when she fully controls the situation — even when confronted smoothly with a document showing that by rights, she should be “Mistress Elizabeth Smeaton.” (She disposes of it and discomfits the bearers just as smoothly). That being said, you don’t have to like Anne at all to see that the central premise is thin even for adventure fiction, since Thomas More never cast any opprobrium on Anne’s personal virtue — in fact, he went out of his way to praise her (probably for political reasons, but he still did it), and the real source of his trouble was the Oath of Supremacy. After all, while it was hardly unprecedented for a king to dispose of an unproductive wife via a papal loophole, throwing off the papacy and making himself essentially a new domestic Pope was more than More was willing to endorse. But if he had any inside knowledge about Anne’s sexual misdoings, he didn’t share it. (And on a pregnancy-related note — November is rather early to conceive a baby born on September 7. If their last assignation had been on November 30th, that baby’s due date would been around August 25th. While a lot of babies arrive two weeks late, for Anne’s sake let’s hope she got pregnant in December).
The French Executioner by C.C. Humphreys (2001)
Anne is the catalyst for Protestant uprisings throughout Europe in this one, but Reformist though they might be they all want a piece of her — literally. The piece in question is her six-fingered hand, which she told her executioner he should cut off — in one motion with her head, if possible, so it would be less noticeable — and then bury at a certain crossroads in the Loire valley which they’re both familiar with.
If you’re wondering how she managed to tell him all of this on the scaffold — she didn’t. This particular executioner, Jean Rombaud, makes a habit of meeting with his “clients”, as he calls them, the day before their deaths so he can get to know them a bit and get a proper appreciation for the life he’s about to take away. His first look at Anne leaves him unimpressed — after taking a professional glance at her neck, he sees at first only “a tall, thin woman with greying hair who showed her more than thirty years and the toll they’d taken, the daughter she’d given birth to and those babes she’d lost in her struggle to produce a male heir for her King and husband.” Then she turns to look at him, and he gets it. “Eyes of such intensity, pools of immaculate blackness, sinking to unimaginable depths.” Unlike some of his “clients” Anne has pulled it together during these last hours and entertains him graciously, walking around the courtyard together, reminiscing about France and the various people she’d known there, and making jokes about the loss of her head and how relieved she had been to hear that a real expert would be coming to do it. But when she talks about the Loire, she comes to the nub of her problem:
For it was there, in your groves, in your fields, by your river, that I learnt to believe in something older even than this [crucifix] … Anne Boleyn, Witch, the Six-Fingered Hag. Well, there’s a truth hidden there, though not in the way that people fear, consigning all to the shadows where they keep their supposed sins. I am of both light and dark, of earth and fire, air and water … You must cut off this hand … There is a village called Pont St Just, near Tours. To the south of it lies a crossroads. There, at the next full moon, bury my hand at the exact point where the four roads meet.
She warns him that it will be a much more dangerous task than it sounds like, but he goes ahead and does it with a will; he’s half in love with her by then and it seems like the least he can do. And, as she predicted, it does get him into trouble. It doesn’t help that he’s already trying to outrun a Tortured Past with the whole executioner gig — by the end of the book, he’ll have tangled with Satanists, German Anabaptists led by supposed murderous polygamist King Jan of Leiden, and a whole lot of others, all of whom wish to acquire the magic of the six-fingered hand. As silly as the premise was it’s a fun, rather overstuffed novel, and I thought Anne’s brief appearance was well-done. My main critique of it, apart from the obvious, is that she never says anything at all about the other victims, and as they were executed two days before she was (and thus presumably one day before she met the French executioner) you’d think they’d be preying on her mind a little more, even if she was resigned to her own death by then.
The Queen’s Lady by Barbara Kyle (1994)
King Jan of Leiden and the Anabaptists of Munster turned up previously in, and were by far the best part of, this incredibly hamhanded production. It’s a standard Maid’s Narrative in some ways — the (as it turns out) ironically named Honor Larke, orphan heiress, becomes maid of honour to Catherine of Aragon and meets the bitchy Anne Boleyn in the process. The slightly less standard part of her background is that Honor was kidnapped for her fortune when young by an ostentatiously loathsome suitor and eventually discovered by the authorities and given into Thomas More’s care as his foster daughter. Honor’s flirtation with Reform is spurred by her horrified discovery that Sir Thomas likes to torture reformers in his basement when they’re insufficiently penitent and burn them when they’re not penitent at all (how she managed to live under his roof for eight years or so before discovering this isn’t clear), so she begins using her fortune to help reformists escape overseas. In this she’s aided by Sir Richard Thornleigh, embittered, grimly handsome and unhappily married owner of several ships, to whose cargo he’s usually willing to add a stray few people who were caught carrying English Bibles and the like. Honor herself ends up accompanying him on several of these excursions abroad (it’s unclear how she explains most of these months-long absences to the queen and her household) and also becoming an agent of Cromwell’s; specifically, she helps to destroy a copy of the dispensation which would help Catherine of Aragon’s cause, all while pretending to serve as Catherine’s agent as well. Yes, we are still supposed to be pulling for her smug self — I don’t get it either.
Still cherishing an affection for More, she ends up giving Cromwell the idea for the Oath of Supremacy, as she assumes that More will take it and thus be politically neutralized yet still able to live peacefully in retirement without throwing any more heretics into his basement. Then Reform will be ushered in and everything will be perfect from then on. Richard Thornleigh is somewhat less confident about this ultimate result than she is, but he still finds her inexplicably attractive, and when she proposes to him two days after his wife’s suicide, is actually quite receptive to her argument that the living should live and the dead can’t be helped any more, so why not get in the hay now? She promptly gets married and pregnant, much to the annoyance of More (who has been casting a covetous eye on her for a while now, to his own mortification). But alas, all cannot remain peaceful — various contrived events take them to Germany, where they’re just in time to be separated in the chaos of “King Jan’s” Munster. A number of genuinely interesting if horrifying events follow, during which Honor realizes to her horror that Protestants can be murderous assholes to each other, just like Catholics. Solution: Atheism! Obviously, God can’t exist, or people wouldn’t treat each other horribly in his name! I’m serious, this is as profound as Honor’s theology gets — this from someone who supposedly grew up in More’s house and corresponded with Erasmus on a regular basis. She and Thornleigh eventually reunite and sail off into the sunset to live a happy atheistic life together but not before Honor takes a final shot at visiting Sir Thomas, now in prison and going moderately crazy, and persuading him to take the Oath because it’s better to be alive than dead. His reaction is to call her a temptress and try to rip her clothes off and rape her, primarily, it seems, to keep the reader from feeling even a smidge of sympathy for him.
Oh yes, Anne! She’s in the book — not much, but she’s there. She turns up in a few scenes to establish that she is a strong woman with a supportive brother and horrible sister-in-law. What’s notable about her appearance here is her utter, almost aggressive lack of charm or wit — verbally, this Anne is hard put to rise to the level of the user manual for Civilization II. Here’s how Anne and Henry talk when he’s kissing her ducks.
“Woman,” he growled. “How long will you torture me?”
She watched a shooting star.
“Anne,” he pleaded. “Come to my bed.”
“You’ve had my answer.”
“But I don’t understand,” he whined.
Her tone was flat, businesslike, except for a note of weariness. “Your Grace cannot marry me, and the longer you single me out as you do, the more you jeopardize my chance of making a good match elsewhere.”
The heat is practically coming off the page, I tell you! At least this book had unintentional humour going for it, if little else. I know there are a number of sequels, but I doubt I’ll be reading them, unless it’s to find out whether Honor eventually discovers that atheists can kill people too. Since she and her brooding spouse are the only ones in the book’s universe, I’m not holding out much hope.