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All Or Nothing by Joanna Dessau (1997)

December 7, 2013

Young Anne Boleyn, sent abroad at the age of seven over her own strong objections, quickly realizes that the thing she hates most in the world is being powerless. “What did she want from life, she wondered? The answer leapt to her mind. To be noticed, to be envied, to be the centre of attraction, free, powerful, independent, with no one to say her nay.” The rest of her life is spent struggling to reach that state while being thwarted by both her sex and, of course, by Henry VIII.

The story begins, conventionally enough, with Anne and Mary Boleyn being sent off to France in the train of Princess Mary Rose; less conventionally, Mary Rose does not choose to make confidantes of either of them, so her frantic wish to escape her wedding is made known only to the reader. It’s only after her widowing and subsequent elopement that the stage is really cleared for the Boleyn girls, neither of whom find life in Queen Claude’s household especially thrilling, although Mary is looking forward to hitting her mid-teens and being able to have a run at the various young men of the household. Which she does, a little too successfully, since after Francois and a large assortment of others are done with her, the former decides that having her around is a bore and sends her home, where she promptly compounds her embarrassment by eloping with the unknown, low-status William Carey. Anne, left behind, decides that Mary’s behavior was obviously not a reliable template for her own, so she does a little self-examination and decides that her ultimate goal is to be … well, see the passage quoted above.

There are obstacles, of course; first, the fact that her eventual husband, whoever he is, might get in the way, and also the fact that Francois is starting to cast covetous looks in her direction, sure that she’ll give in to him sooner rather than later. Spending the next two years resisting him means that by the time Anne returns to England, she’s able to fend off over-enthusiastic suitors without even breaking a sweat – until she meets Henry Percy. In a section narrated by him, their engagement and eventual separation by Wolsey (at the King’s behest, we learn later) fly by, and soon Anne is back at Hever, genuinely unhappy since she loved Percy, and being bellowed at by her father for not accepting James Butler, who according to him is just as good a prospect as Percy and one which they need a hell of a lot more. Fortunately, his mood is lightened by the news that Mary has just become the King’s mistress – “What does it matter if this affair be short lived, so long as we all benefit from it?” His flexible attitude is shared by George, who’s soon to be married to the obnoxious Jane Parker but isn’t letting that dampen his mood: “Why, I myself shall marry soon, I am sure, but I shall not let that restrain me.” Before long, Thomas Boleyn is being raised up as Viscount Rochford and Anne is invited back to court, “done with love”, as it made her vulnerable earlier, and resolved to pay Wolsey back for separating her from Percy.

Which she ends up doing, naturally, once Henry sees her, summarily dumps Mary, and starts expressing an interest. Anne herself is genuinely surprised and, after a while, in a serious bind; she’s resolved never to sleep with anyone who isn’t her husband, but kings have a way of being importunate, and she’s also worried about her family staying in favour if she makes him angry. She decides to stand on principle and tell him that nobody sleeps with her except her husband – and then, as she had hoped, Henry decides that if that’s what it takes, by God, he’ll marry her. Not that the idea is totally new – as he tells Anne, casually considering the subject matter “I have been considering putting the Queen aside for some little time. She can bear me no more children and I must have a son. So I have been thinking of suitable princesses, but right half-heartedly, see’st thou.” He assures her that Wolsey will have to go along with the idea of an annulment, but even so it might not be politic to mention Anne’s name in connection with it just yet.

Off he goes to Wolsey, demanding an annulment, and before long Wolsey’s continued non-success is prompting Henrician outbursts like “Ay, and agree to it he must! If he do not I may leave the Roman Catholic church altogether, and so you may tell him, Thomas!” The prospect of this is quite pleasing to Anne, who thinks the church is “old-fangled and behind the times” and is a supporter of “the doctrines of the German monk, Martin Luther, who spoke sense, to my mind.” What appeals to her in particular is, unfortunately, left unexplored; there’s enough religious matter here to give the reader a decent outline of what’s going on but not much more. We hear a lot more about Anne’s clothes, and also about her outbursts and tantrums. As she gets her own household and ladies-in-waiting she feels free to unleash her temper at will, confident that she’ll be on top forever – George warns her gently that she’s not catching a whole lot of flies with her vinegar, but by that point half the court and roughly 95% of the off-stage common people loathe her. In fact, by autumn of 1532 it seems that the only people who really like to be around her are Henry VIII and Francois I, whom she meets again during the trip to Calais and who slobbers over her for a few minutes, for old times’ sake.

A calculated yielding to Henry then ensues, with Anne hating every minute of it, but fortunately she’s quickly pregnant and then married in short order – she ends up giving in before getting married after all, in a last-ditch attempt to make Henry pull the trigger and jettison his ties to the church. A wildly unsuccessful coronation then ensues, with the spectators doing everything but openly throwing things at her, and the birth of Elizabeth doesn’t make her mood any better. The three successive miscarriages afterwards make it much worse, not to mention that Henry, who’s used to being popular and adored, is taken back to discover that the common people don’t like seeing Carthusian monks disembowelled and old friends beheaded, and are muttering darkly about him. Obviously, he decides, this is all the unpopular Anne’s fault – and, to be fair, she has been encouraging him to some degree. “Have I not extricated you from a state of sin?” she shouts at him during one of their many quarrels. “Have I not made you the richest prince that ever was in England and been the cause of reforming the Church? And this to your own great profit?” By this time Anne is somewhat the worse for the wear, and Henry is reflecting that “A haughty, capricious mistress is exciting, but a haughty, capricious, barren wife is nothing but an infuriating burden.” The quiet, sweet Jane Seymour, newly met at Wolf Hall in the autumn of 1535, is such a refreshing change that after Catherine of Aragon’s death (with the yellow-decked celebrations being led solely by Henry, for once) and Anne’s subsequent miscarriage, he flat-out tells Cromwell to find some way to get rid of her, and if divorce won’t do it, it will have to be death.

Cromwell sets to work, picking out the men he sees her with most often (Sir Richard Page is included, for once, which was a nice touch) and orchestrating a confession from Mark Smeaton which includes several of them. Anne, who has spent the entire spring vacillating between despair at Henry’s behavior and giddily assurance that all will somehow be well soon, is arrested and sent to the Tower.

The subsequent scenes are much like the ones in many other books; Anne’s last days are comparatively well-documented, and this version doesn’t do much different with them – not that such a thing is necessary anyway, they’re dramatic enough without changes. The narrative does make the point multiple times that Anne now regrets her harshness with Catherine and Princess Mary, as she’s now experiencing what it’s like to be on the receiving end of Henry’s fury. The finale is unusual, though – Anne’s body, after her death, lies unattended until evening, when:

Two figures climbed silently up to the scaffold, into the blood-sodden straw and gathered up the mutilated remains of the woman who had once been so beautiful and beloved. An old arrow-chest lay empty and they stuffed her head and body into that.

Where to bury her? They did not know …

We’re never told, either – the book ends there, and the author’s note tells us that Anne’s burial place is unknown. Which is strange, because while it’s true that Victorian forensics weren’t exactly foolproof, if Anne Boleyn isn’t under the marker in St. Peter ad Vincula, she probably isn’t too far away.

SEX OR POLITICS? Sex. Bad sex, for the most part (we kick off with an awkward encounter between Mary Rose and Louis XII, who actually gets lines here, and progress to when Anne finally gives in to Henry and hates every second of it) but it’s still the main preoccupation. Religious quarrels play their part, but they’re distinctly secondary to the romances – George may tease the young Anne about being so prudish that she must be a Lutheran, but the reader is left with the strong impression that if the Pope had rubber-stamped the annulment from Catherine of Aragon, all talk of monastic abuses and doctrinal differences would have withered like a bunch of morning glories.

WHEN BORN? 1507 – she’s seven years old when she’s sent off to France with Princess Mary Rose. George is the oldest, born in 1503, and Mary is born in 1504.

THE EARLY LOVE Francois I takes quite a shine to her and spends a few years pursuing her, but after seeing how Mary was passed around the French court and then sent home when she became boring, Anne declines to reciprocate and is nicknamed “Mademoiselle Iceberg.” In fact, she’s pretty frigid for most of her career – the only one to crack the ice is Henry Percy. In an episode narrated from his point of view, he describes himself as “a country booberkin” and he bonds with the enticing, sophisiticated Anne over the fact that they’re both outsiders. He’s shocked but happy at her intention to ignore her betrothal to James Butler (whom we never see, but whom Anne is, as usual, determined not to marry) and blames the ultimate failure of their match on himself alone; after Wolsey’s blessing-out and his father’s threats, “I was craven, cowardly, poor-spirited, weak – call it what you will – I was well aware of my failings. I was bullied into hateful, cringing submission.” He allows himself to be hauled off to the north to marry Mary Talbot, after which “all was calamity and trouble for me” – a true enough description. At Anne’s trial, he gives a guilty verdict and collapses afterwards. Anne herself is shown after her banishment, remembering him with genuine affection and complaining bitterly to her parents; her mother is sympathetic, her father not at all.

Thomas Wyatt is the also-ran in this category – he sees Anne for the first time in many years after her banishment, but by then she’s decided that “she [is] done with love!” and reverts to iceberg status, never to thaw again, not even with Henry, despite her own early resolution that she’ll marry both for status and for love – “I will have all or nothing!”

THE QUEEN’S BEES: We don’t see much of them – the men (both doomed and not) are much more apparent, but the women tend to get one walk-on scene apiece and then disappear. We see the shy and pale Jane Seymour, who only comes to court after Henry meets her at Wolf Hall in late 1535, and Margaret (Wyatt) Lee makes a few appearances as well, playing her customary role of sensible best friend who tries to restrain Anne on some of her wilder flights. Anne Gainsford walks on for the episode with the stolen book, and then disappears. Bridget Wingfield appears, though she fades away quickly and we never hear anything of the famous letter to Lady Wingfield when Anne is arrested. Madge Shelton has a walk-on appearance; she’s young, pleasant, and not much fazed by the prospect of becoming the king’s mistress at Anne’s behest. “I think his Grace is well enough,” says Madge, “though running sadly to fat. But ’tis something to have a King as a lover and I do want to help you.”

Catherine of Aragon has a nice scene or two with Maria de Salinas in which the latter is shocked and upset that Catherine is taking Anne’s rise so calmly until Catherine enlists her to be the fourth at a card game to which Anne is also invited, and at which of course she’ll have to display her sixth finger while holding the cards.


THE PROPHECY None notable, except for the usual predictions that Anne’s first baby will be a boy.

IT’S A GIRL! Henry, experiencing “a flash of his better nature” tells Anne that “We are not too old to have other babes who will be sons.” Anne, who finds the experience of sex distasteful to begin with and had a “difficult and painful labor” on top of that, is less than reassured by this piece of news.

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Yes, and the usual sleeve to cover them.

FAMILY AFFAIRS: Thomas Boleyn is a utilitarian social-climbing opportunist, you know, his usual self, but a bit more fleshed-out than usual. For one thing, he actually is noted as speaking French, and for another he’s much more energetic – bouncing around at the news that Mary has started sleeping with the King (the English king, that is) teasing his wife about how Henry “takes to our family, does he not?” while giving her a nudge and a wink. His wife is less amused, pointing out that Henry only gave her a kiss or two and that, regardless of how much her husband would have welcomed the benefits, she was never anyone’s mistress. While she’s not intimidated by him, she’s definitely the more reflective, melancholic parent, and also the one shown as being more concerned about her children’s happiness as opposed to their matrimonial value.

When it comes to marrying for love, Mary is the winner, hands down – she does it not once, but twice, making the match with William Carey herself (much to the annoyance of her father, as Carey is supposedly far beneath her) and manages to justify her subsequent affair with Henry as being a different sort of love; she doesn’t actually use the classic saw distinguishing between “loving and being in love” but she might as well. Her second marriage to William Stafford is basically a repeat of the first, except that this time Anne is really furious, both at Mary’s throwing herself away a second time and at her pregnancy. This Mary is also a physical contrast to Anne, but not in colouring – she’s as dark and sloe-eyed as Anne herself, but is described as being, in a phrase, much better developed. The description of Mary made me think of those buxom, bedraped Peter Lely portraits of Charles II’s assorted mistresses – she sounded like a forerunner of those more gently treated ladies.

George is described as dark, slim and debonair, and is unhappily married to Jane Parker, who is described vaguely as being shrewish and making him unhappy, but we don’t see much of her, nor are the reasons for their unhappiness clarified. Whatever they are, they’re enough to make her risk a lot by damning George for incest and passing on the remark about the king’s periodic bouts of impotence. George manages to go one better on the original by not only reading the written words aloud but giving a little ribald commentary to go along with it. “Is the King’s cock so sacred that it must be spoke of? He has used it oft enough, the Lord knows. Mayhap it is wore out!” This George, like many others, has concluded that if he’s doomed anyway he may as well go out with a bang.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No – sex itself is not something she particularly enjoys and her delight in masculine company has been entirely platonic (unusually, one of the friendships here elaborated on is with Jean du Bellay, which was nice to see, as they did get along well at first. I doubt she confided in him to the extent of telling him when exactly she planned to finally seduce Henry, but sometimes dialogue has to serve the plot). Furthermore, during the readings of the indictments we’re given the full panoply of dates on which she was supposed to have done committed adultery, and Anne silently rebuts most of them for being inherently impossible, which of course they were.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE It’s a romance; the prose can be flowery – lots of use of “certes” “anyhap” and similar words. Though actually, what I found most awkward was not the particular words but the constant switches in point of view; we have third-person from Mary Rose’s point of view, third person omniscient detailing the young Boleyn sisters’ lives at Queen Claude’s court, a first-person narrative from Henry Percy, then a switch back to third-person describing Anne’s life at Hever, then a switch to first-person narrative from Anne, then another switch and so on and so forth. Multiple viewpoints can be a great way to make the story more engaging, but here there are just too many switches and they can get very jarring, especially when there doesn’t seem to be much reason for them. Why have Anne’s first-person narrative for the late 1520s and then switch to third-person for the early 1530s? It seems unnecessary to keep splitting the narrative like that. It also leads to awkward moments where first-person narrator Anne uses language a lot more appropriate to a third-person narrator, as when she describes her brother like this: “George gazed at me, his dark eyes earnest in his handsome, olive-skinned countenance, his blue velvet doublet taking a red glow from the flames in the hearth.” It doesn’t quite sound like a sister describing her brother, let’s put it that way.

However, there were aspects I really liked – Anne likes to pepper her conversation with bits of French (all the better to fascinate the gentlemen with) and there are funny moments; eleven-year-old George Boleyn having to be reminded to stop devouring everything in front of him and help his seven-year-old sister get something to eat, the sleepless middle-aged Henry being distracted from fantasies of Anne by a snoring page, at whom he throws a shoe, and so forth. It’s lively and enjoyable, even if you have to put up with clunkers like “I shall leave the Roman Catholic Church altogether!”

ERRATA: The text’s maintaining that Anne’s burial place is unknown was a puzzler – there have certainly been retellings which had her body secretly taken home for burial (Norah Lofts was a proponent of this, if I remember correctly) but none where it wasn’t even pretended that she was buried in the Tower grounds. Thomas Boleyn is created Viscount Rochford in 1523, not 1525, Princess Mary is dark-haired, and Lady Rochford is called “Lady Jane” which she wasn’t. The primary errors concern Mary Boleyn – her first marriage is presented as a forerunner of her second, with a lovestruck Mary eloping with a young man who wasn’t considered nearly good enough for her. This just was not the case; she may have loved William Carey, or she may not have, but in either case he was a perfectly suitable match, and one which was endorsed both by her parents and by Henry VIII himself, as one would assume from the fact that he attended their wedding.

WORTH A READ? The Anne is fairly boilerplate and Henry is dim, the prose is nothing special, but I still enjoyed it for the moments of comedy, the attention given to usually-voiceless characters like Louis XII, and utter lack of sap. I wouldn’t go out of my way to find it, but if you happen across it, you could do a lot worse.

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From → Book Overviews

  1. “utter lack of sap”

    Sold! I’m going to a secondhand bookstore this coming weekend, and this sounds like it would be a good read if it happens to be there. After editing a romance manuscript all week, I’m about tapped out on sap (er, so to speak).

    • sonetka permalink

      If that’s what you want, I’d actually recommend Evelyn Anthony’s Anne Boleyn — equally hardheaded, better written, and much more likely to be available in a secondhand bookstore!

  2. Bullen1993 permalink

    Interesting review! I love this blog! It gave me the idea of buying The Last Boleyn… A very entertaining book, and a very good depiction of Anne I think…
    Which is, in your opinion, the most accurate Anne Boleyn novel? And what is your personal Top 10 of Anne Boleyn books? Thanks!

    • sonetka permalink

      Oh wow, those are tough … give me a little time to think about it and I think there’s the making of a new post there :).

  3. Ah, you have the same large type version as me. It occupies the same place as Dilys Gator’s Witch Girl. I can’t remember in which novel it was in, but there was a scene where after Anne is executed, everyone goes off for a spot of dinner (Kingston included), just leaving Anne where she lay in the hot sun, with all the flies. The “downing of tools” is such a part of English culture that it makes it feasible to believe!

    • sonetka permalink

      I love it. “The Union says we take lunch after four hours, and IT’S BEEN FOUR HOURS. You want to take it up with the rep? What do you mean, put a tarp over her? FOUR HOURS.”

      That scene doesn’t ring a bell but that doesn’t mean I don’t have the book; I may have it and just not have written it up yet. I hope I have it, anyway!

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