The Queen’s Confession by Philip Lindsay (1947)
At last! Thanks to a thoughtful friend who was willing to serve as my temporary address in the UK (the bookseller wouldn’t ship overseas for some mysterious reason) I now have a copy of this novel, which seems to have been thoroughly buried both by time and by the publications of Murder Most Royal and Brief Gaudy Hour two years later. And although I don’t think that its fate was deserved, it isn’t hard to see how it happened – among other things, the Anne of this book is one of the most frightened, jealous, and depressed women ever to walk the earth, and what’s more, she’s fully aware of this fact and hates herself for it. The book is narrated in the first person and has the common framing device of Anne reflecting on her life during her last few days in the Tower of London, but unlike most such setups, Anne makes no pretense of calm reflection and is at least somewhat aware that she’s an unreliable narrator (though the reader gradually comes to realize that she’s even worse than she lets on). This results in a quasi-hysterical storytelling style peppered with sad interludes in which she bickers with herself over such questions as what she really felt for Henry Percy and whether she really noticed certain glaring warning signs from the king at the time they occurred. Anne’s motto of “The Most Happy” is, in this case, certainly The Most Ironic.
“It seemed to be always raining on Hever,” is Anne’s first memory of her pre-Tower life, and it sets the mood for the book nicely. Hever, here, is not some country Eden where she can retreat from the follies of court life; it’s a miserable, sodden place with no entertainments and too many relatives, all of whom are displeased with her for having managed to get herself banished after failing to marry the “weakling” Henry Percy. They’re even more displeased with her now, since although the king is coming to visit (presumably for the sake of Mary Boleyn, now married off but with a suspiciously redheaded baby son) Anne despises him for letting himself be controlled by Cardinal Wolsey, and as a consequence is refusing to attend the feast and entertain him. After being badgered into playing some music for the handsome but somehow repellent king (he’s gorgeously dressed, handsome, and strong, but nonetheless she shudders at his “strangely womanish voice” and general air of having something not quite right with him) Anne is faced with a choice: should she sing a song composed by Henry himself, writer of thumpety-thump, uninspired verses, or should she choose a song by Thomas Wyatt, whose work she’s just overheard the king denouncing not ten minutes earlier? She tunes her lute and tries to decide what she should do.
Or perhaps it wasn’t quite like this, as we’re sharply reminded when the reflecting, imprisoned Anne stops narrating and begins to debate with herself over the accuracy of her memories:
— Think clearly, Anne: had you no premonition then that death looked from his eyes? You were afraid, your spirit crushed by the cardinal, but was the fear fear of the future?
It is so difficult to recall what I felt. One rebuilds the past in retrospect and is never certain whether what one builds be truth or what one thinks is truth. You should know that, my heart.
Were you afraid of the future then?
Nay … and yea. I was always afraid of the future. For all my bold posturing and outstaring and wicked wit, I was afraid. They were my armour, my weapons striking in fear lest others strike first.
So perhaps the sinister King Henry wasn’t quite that unattractive at the time, but since Anne will never know now, neither will we. Nonetheless, she makes a brave if foolhardy gesture by choosing to play a song of Wyatt’s. “Heretic!” is the king’s reaction. “So you are one of Wyatt’s following with that damned muddled iambic of his, those atrocious trochees, those slithered-over syllables that should be stressed! Why, my old tutor, Master Skelton, could make better verse than that!” Thus does their first serious encounter set the tone for the future – Anne being as defiant as she dares, and Henry determined not to let her think she’s won. The next day, she wakes up to discover that Wyatt is being sent abroad on diplomatic business and she’s being summoned back to court to wait on Queen Catherine, much to her displeasure. She doesn’t love Wyatt – how can she, she thinks, since he’s married and unavailable – but she enjoys his company more than anyone else’s and now she’s managed to lose even him. Back to court she goes, to wait on the queen, do embroidery, and dream of getting revenge on Wolsey before the king manages to get her into bed and make her another Mary-like nonentity.
And again, it turns out that she may be remembering wrongly, because somehow ambition managed to creep in there (despite her loud disavowals when arguing with herself) and before long, the theologically astute Henry is reviving his long-dormant scheme of getting an annulment from Catherine, and Anne tells herself that it can’t possibly have anything to do with her while simultaneously keeping the repellent king at a flirtatious arm’s-length and making sure to keep him fascinated. When she feels disgusted after he so much as touches her, she tells herself that “women’s bodies are betrayers” – her head is a much better guide to her feelings. When Wyatt returns, Anne dislikes seeing him intensely, and is sure that he dislikes her now too – a feeling somewhat justified by Wyatt’s beginning a serious flirtation with Anne’s fellow maid of honour Bess Darrell. Bess Darrell, along with the other maids of honour, is cold towards Anne – partly out of sympathy with the queen, and partly out of frustration at their own thwarted ambitions for family advancement. Anne is sure that Bess is jealous, though it’s actually Anne who is jealous of Bess and her affair with Wyatt.
Bess is Anne’s counterweight throughout the book – she gives up any chance of a decent marriage in order to be with Wyatt, is sent away from court when she becomes pregnant, and ends up by leaving altogether to attend Catherine of Aragon when she’s sent off to Kimbolton. Meanwhile, Anne is playing Henry like her own lute, shoving heretical theological tracts into his hands as fast as she can get them (she had a lot of time to read while at Hever, and became a convinced Lutheran in the course of it) while cannily pointing out the possible financial benefits of looking more closely in Cardinal Wolsey’s affairs. By the time Wolsey falls, Anne has her own household and is treated as queen in all but name, and although she always has the inner feeling of fear she manages to control it to a remarkable extent, along with her “treacherous” body – although she likes being touched by Henry about as much as being trampled by a horse, the physical urge to just give in and get it over with is vividly and, I have to say, very explicitly described considering when it was written. Finally she does, on the eve of their trip to Calais, and it turns out to be a horror show – or horror non-show, as it were. Henry, who’s always made such a great show of virility, is unable to manage anything (he actually swears that it’s never happened before) and the two of them have a dreadful night trying to make things work and gradually realizing that neither one is going to make the earth move for the other – ever, as it turns out. They waited too long. By the time she manages to get pregnant, any physical attraction on Henry’s part is essentially gone and Anne’s, of course, was never there to begin with. She consoles herself that as queen and mother of the heir, she’ll be able to spread Lutheranism through the entire country, and this will be her purpose in life.
The title of the first post-coronation chapter “O, Crushing Crown”, provides a hint that things don’t work out quite as planned. Although Henry takes the news of Elizabeth’s gender in apparent good humour, he’s soon gallivanting about with a lovely, unnamed minor noblewoman who’s very much of the old religion and who coaxes Henry to reconcile both with his daughter and Rome. Anne, desperate to get pregnant again, ends up enlisting her cousin Madge Shelton to lure Henry away (Henry Norris is somewhat dubious about this, but Anne promises him that Madge will have a good chance of getting into a serious flirtation without ever actually sleeping with the king. She turns out to be right). And eventually, of course, she does get pregnant again, but it all ends in the January 1536 miscarriage, by which time Jane Seymour is in the ascendant and Henry has convinced himself that his problems surrounding Anne are obviously her fault and that God has cursed this marriage. What to do, what to do … and the answer, of course, is to summon Cromwell and tell him get to work. Smeaton, whom Anne had had in her chambers for consolatory music, is the first to be arrested, and after he “confesses”, it’s only a matter of time before the other people he names are doomed as well.
Not Thomas Wyatt, however – in this book, he doesn’t even get arrested, which is fortunate for him because he’s the only one whom Anne is guilty of even wanting to sleep with. She denies it almost to the end, but finally her excuses all come crashing down, and she admits to herself that it was him she wanted all along, and that she would have been better off as his disgraced mistress.
Let me not repent what I have done, for God’s cause has come at least through me to England. Yet God’s cause seems very small when my breasts ache and my lips grow dry to think of Wyatt, of dear Tom Wyatt … Women should never put love aside. Would I could teach my ladies that, but they would not listen. Bess Darrell was right; her name gone, her children bastards, she is yet happy, happy, happy for she loved and was loved as, dear God, I have never been and never will be loved.
Her final wish is that Elizabeth will live a better life than her mother. “I pray you do not share your mother’s folly, do not put love by to bed with some great prince you hate. Be wise even though you lose your crown, and never, never reject love.”
SEX OR POLITICS? The book is absolutely loaded with sex, although very little of it is actually being had by Anne (and what there is is highly unsatisfactory when it comes to the point, and she’s left perpetually frustrated). Instead she’s driving herself crazy imagining what Thomas Wyatt and Bess Darrell are doing and insisting at the same time that she doesn’t care in the slightest, as well as feeling revolted every time Henry so much as lays a finger on her and insisting that that doesn’t mean anything. Religion runs it a close second – Anne, as well as George, Henry Norris, and several others, is firmly Lutheran; not just a vaguely-affiliated “reformer” but a full-blown hardcore Luther acolyte. Naturally she keeps the exact level of her dedication concealed from Henry, who detests Luther here, as he did in life. Nonetheless she considers her mission in life to be the purifying of the church (including getting the “Bishop of Rome” and various corrupt practices out of the way), and considers getting rid of Cardinal Wolsey to be a big step in bringing the country around towards Luther. The next important step is, of course, to have a son.
WHEN BORN? Late 1507 – she’s eighteen when the king visits Hever in the summer of 1526, but has turned nineteen by November of that year. George and Mary are both older, but by how much isn’t clear.
THE EARLY LOVE James Butler is mentioned briefly in retrospect – he’s “as savage as the country from which he came” but Anne tells her parents that she’ll become a nun before she marries him, and they back off. The Percy affair is over by the time the book begins, and Anne herself can’t quite decide if she loved him or not. “Had I really loved that lean mournful Percy? Or had his loss made me believe I loved him, like a child who does not value her toy until she breaks him?” His position had made him attractive to her, she admits – why shouldn’t it? But whatever feeble flame flickered for the “weakling” Percy, it’s clear that her first real love is Thomas Wyatt, though she spends most of the book denying it. Sadly for her, he’s her last love as well.
THE QUEEN’S BEES Elizabeth (Bess) Darrell gets by far the most attention, as she takes up with the spurned Thomas Wyatt and is sent away once she becomes pregnant by him. Anne hates her as much as she tells herself she hates Wyatt – Anne thinks that it’s because Bess has thrown herself away, but it’s really because she’s given in to her id and slept with the unsuitable, very married Wyatt like Anne has always wanted to do. Madge Shelton is an intelligent girl who’s quite ready to take on the job of drawing the king away from his current mistress without actually sleeping with him, and manages to do so (of course, as Anne points out, avoiding Henry’s bed isn’t quite as difficult as popular opinion would have it). Lady Rochford is, of course, the usual malevolent presence – although this one is quite pretty and flirtatious, and much of her malevolence stems from the fact that Anne managed to hook the king whereas Lady Rochford only managed to catch his attention for an evening or two. Jane Seymour is “a curd-faced wench of good family” who’s twenty-five years old (Anne accuses her of being almost thirty when having a shouting match with the king) but by demureness and a high-pitched voice manages to give the impression of being much younger. Anne loathes her, not surprisingly, but at the end pities her somewhat for the trap she’ll be walking into.
THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR Her maid Nan, whom she nurses through the sweat. Nan is actually Anne (Nan) Gainsford, who here appears to have gone a few rungs down the social ladder and isn’t a maid of honour, but merely a maid.
THE PROPHECY: None notable, except for the episode with Anne Gainsford and the “book of prophecies” and the usual predictions that the baby will certainly, no doubt about it, be a boy.
IT’S A GIRL! Anne is horrified when the baby turns out to be a girl – “Had I had poison by me then, gladly would I have swallowed it, for the astrologers, the wisewomen, all had lied.” Henry, however, conceals his disappointment by turning it into a success – they’ve proved that they can have a healthy child, and that “all our enemies who prophesied we would breed a monster are proved liars. God is with us.”
DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Yes – “I was not beautiful, nor am I now. See that little extra finger on my right hand. It is but the beginning of a nail and very adroit I became in concealing the deformity, so that even many close friends were not aware of it. Why then did men love me? Often I have questioned my glass and wondered, fearful lest some sudden calamity would reveal me to them as I was, sallow-faced and frightened …” While she often keeps her hand “huggled up in her sleeve” she doesn’t design the sleeve, nor is it especially long. She also has “moles on cheek and throat” and a slightly protruding tooth, but none of that hampers the sex appeal which is only somewhat welcome to her.
FAMILY AFFAIRS: Her parents are the usual power couple, but they have a bit more depth than they usually get – Elizabeth Boleyn is the leader, not inclined to put up with any nonsense and willing to berate Anne mercilessly and threaten her with exile if she doesn’t behave the way the want (i.e. in the way that most increases her marketability) but at the same time, Anne is quite conscious that her mother wouldn’t really do anything to her, as she’s still a valuable commodity whether she wants to (for example) come downstairs and play music for the visiting king or not. Thomas Boleyn is slightly less ambitious than his wife, but not by much – he enjoys life in the country, but likes the court pretty well too. Anne learns a lot of diplomatic tricks from him (such as letting her enemies talk themselves blue while saying nothing and then striking back when they’re exhausted and argued out). In the grand tradition of ungrateful offspring, she uses these tricks against her father when she’s fighting with him.
Mary Boleyn isn’t much of a presence – she’s described as a trusting fool, willing to believe anything any man says to her, although less usually she’s also dark and resembles Anne strongly. Anne regards her in much the same way as she does Catherine of Aragon – with a mixture of pity for her weaknesses and irritation that she doesn’t do more to fix them. George Boleyn is, like Anne, a card-carrying Lutheran, and their tempers are so congenial that she says that they might as well have been twins. He is miserably married to Jane, and both of them are fooling around with other people – although unusually for George, he doesn’t object when Jane has a brief flirtation with the king. Rather, he’s pleased – she’s out of his hair and might get a few gifts out of it into the bargain.
DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No. In one of the more depressing passages I’ve read in this collection, Anne says that spiritually she’s dying as a virgin, as she never slept willingly with the king and never slept with anyone else at all.
WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE The whole thing is mildly tinged with purple, and sometimes there are bad outbreaks. One oddity was the exclamation “Tprhurt!” It wasn’t a one-time typo, it appeared several times and was obviously meant as a scornful dismissal. I can’t imagine where that came from. But many of the scenes are excellent, and there’s a morbidly humourous moment in which Anne, sleep-deprived and possibly hallucinating on the last night of her life, thinks she hears the voices of her murdered compatriots.
“I am here, Anne. Death is a little thing.”
“Yes,” moaned Smeaton, “but a terrible thing.”
You too, Mark, are you there? And did they hurt you?
“I thought my brain would burst. Forgive me, lady, that I lied, but I could never stand pain, being no gentleman, as you all said. Mayhap if you had not always kept on telling me that, I’d not have been so weak; but you set distrust of myself in me, for I loved you, Anne.”
ERRATA The major one has to do with the timeline – Elizabeth Darrell was one of Catherine of Aragon’s maids (one of the three who were with her when she died, as it happens) and she did have a long-running affair with Thomas Wyatt, but that affair seems to have postdated Anne’s marriage at the very least, if not her death. Certainly they had no children until after Anne had died. It’s easy to see why the affair is backdated – so that the behavior of the two women can be contrasted – but it really couldn’t have happened like that. Elizabeth is called Princess of Wales, which she wasn’t; she was a Princess of England (until she was two years old, anyway). Henry Percy is described as heir the Duke of Northumberland, when they were still Earls then, and Catherine of Aragon is described as having been reduced to being a duchess rather than Dowager Princess of Wales. Some of the first names are off – whether intentionally or not, I’m not sure; some authors do this to prevent having too many people with the same first name, but given that William Carey’s name is here changed to Henry Carey, I don’t think that’s the case here. Elizabeth Blount also becomes Eleanor Blount. And while Anne’s memory is supposed to be faulty, there are a few odd moments which even a revised memory shouldn’t be responsible for; notably, during the scene in which Henry first comes to Hever, his outfit is described in elaborate detail – once just before Anne speaks to him, and once just after. By the descriptions, he’s wearing two completely different sets of clothes, and since he wasn’t changing while Anne was talking to him I think this was a case where the author was getting carried away and forgot to edit out one of the descriptions later, though I’m surprised no sharp-eyed editor caught it later.
WORTH A READ? As I said in the beginning, you can see why this book hasn’t had the staying power of its competitors; Anne’s self-hatred, self-deception and perennial depression, as well as her final revelation that real physical love is worth more than any other kind of intellectual or career accomplishment, makes her a fairly unfashionable Anne for today (I was certainly cringing a bit at her final revelation). Some of the pages are absolute thickets of overwriting. Nonetheless, there was a lot about this book which I loved. First and foremost, poetry! Yes, there were the standby poems – “Whoso list to hunt” and “Why come ye not to court” but in addition there were folk songs (sung by both Henry and Anne) other, not-so-famous Skelton poems, the stories of King Arthur (Anne fends Henry off at one point by telling him that she thought of him as Sir Gawain, who of course would never force an unwilling lady fair onto a table for carnal purposes as Henry would like to do), and the classical authors whom Henry would certainly have studied but whom he rarely seems to reference, except here. Secondly, the unreliable narration. It could become turgid and tedious in places to read Anne’s debates with herself, and it could have done with a lot of cutting, but I liked the continual construction and reconstruction going on as Anne edits her memories and then tries to reconstruct the real ones later on. Whether she’s swearing she would never so much as think of poisoning an enemy, only to say later on that she’s glad she never followed through on her idea of poisoning Mary, or accusing Bess of jealousy and Catherine of Aragon of being a liar when it’s clear to the reader that she’s talking about her own faults and not theirs, she sounds convincingly, if unpleasantly, real. And the final scene, in which she talks to the ghosts of the five executed men (or thinks she does) was really well done.
Lastly, the background felt very solid. Henry’s jester, Will Somers, makes some appearances, and while his jokes aren’t exactly knee-slappers in modern terms they sound true to the period (lots of puns, among other things). There are some lovely smaller moments, like when Anne learns that Wyatt has been imprisoned in Italy and finds herself consoling a hysterical Bess Darrell while wondering why exactly she’s doing this since Bess is just going to hate her even more afterwards (she does), or when Anne first arrives at court and has to take her turn taste-testing the queen’s food at every meal, how much she enjoys making a ceremony of it and imagining that she actually is the queen for just a few moments. Anne and George gossip about Catherine’s hair shirt, and trade stories of their respective privy chambers. Even with the overdone writing and some rather of its time material, it was still very absorbing.
I don’t think this book will be reprinted any time soon, so the question of buying it may be academic, but if you happen across a copy, definitely give it a look. You may not love it, but it will give you plenty to chew on.