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Anne Boleyn by Vercors (Jean Bruller) transl. Alexander Maclehose (1985)

December 14, 2013

In this odd but diverting novel, the reader meets an Anne who is more purely political than any other portrayal I’ve come across so far. There are other Annes who are intensely political, but they’re also intensely emotional about other subjects. Not this one. The author justifies his interpretation in an introduction in which he explains that he came to see Anne as the prime mover behind England’s break from the papacy, its subsequent need to establish itself as a strong and independent island, and ultimately its development of a “rock-hard sense of nationhood that caused Hitler, like Napoleon, to falter; he saw in it the beginning of his end: saw it given to the rest of the world, with Europe and France, to take the measure of him one day.” Thus it was that Anne, four hundred years after her death, managed to have a hand in defeating the Nazis. Moreover, we’re told, this wasn’t just a fluky byproduct of her affair with Henry – forcing England to go it alone politically was a feature, not a bug. Marriage to Henry was merely a means to an end; much like her daughter Elizabeth, Anne’s real love affair was with England.

It wasn’t always that way, of course – as a child she was anxious to get to France as soon as possible.

Very soon my friend Anne was dreaming of leaving for France, land of elegance and splendour. When we played at rounders, table-tennis or tail of the wolf we had to say the nursery rhymes in French. Sometimes in the early morning we would take breakfast together. Shame on me if I asked her to pass me “the beef” and not “l’entrecote”, “the beans” and not “les haricots”, “the ale” and not “la biere”. She would scold me, reminding me that perhaps one day we would find ourselves at Court and would be taken, if we could not speak good French, for country cousins.

If you’re wondering who the narrator is, it’s Anne’s deliberately anonymous best friend from childhood, who’s concealing her identity because … it was never entirely clear. She’s clear that she’s writing during Elizabeth’s reign, and while talking about Anne wasn’t exactly encouraged, it wouldn’t bring down a ton of bricks on your head either. Anyway, that’s how it is. Soon they are, indeed, off to France (the friend as Anne’s own attendant) and after eight years in the country Anne has fallen in love with it and expects to spend her life there; she has a nasty shock when her father sends for her to come home, and an even nastier one when Francois I, in consideration of the deteriorating relationship between France and England, is all too willing to send her despite his previous friendship with her.

The tears Anne shed were not only of regret; they were much more of resentment and vexation. She had thought that France was adopting her and now it appeared she was no longer in demand. Her mind underwent a sort of revolution. She had felt she had become almost a Frenchwoman; now she discovered she was English again …. The future she had hoped to construct for herself in France had been refused to her? Very well! It would be in England, then, that she would carve out her destiny.

Carve it out she does. After a brief detour in which she falls in love with Henry Percy but he lets her down by caving in to Cardinal Wolsey’s demand that he back off and stick to his original betrothal, Anne spends her exile at Hever honing her flirting skills – there’s really no other way to put it – on Thomas Wyatt. She’s had a lot of practice flirting in France, but she decides that if she can make a conquest of Wyatt, she should be capable of seducing anyone in the court. What for? So that they can bring her into the inner political circle and allow her to influence them. And although Henry takes an interest in her as soon as she comes back to court – despite the fact that her sister is his maitresse en titre – “the honour of passing a night with the king was a bait to which, unlike her companions, she had no inclination to rise. What she wanted was that Henry should like her company well enough to introduce her into that upper crust of men who took decisions.”

As it turns out, Henry likes her company well enough to want to keep her entirely to himself, so Anne, who has already developed a deep interest in religious reform and an even stronger one in politics, decides that it might be time to aim for the stars and starts nudging him with the possibility of looking into an annulment. She also begins urging him to start building up his navy and shore up his defenses; to start establishing England as its own, powerful country rather than being part of the comet’s tail to either France, Spain or the Holy Roman Empire. “Come,” she tells her friend, “Do you know why I so admire that girl whom we burnt alive at Rouen? Not for her high deeds nor yet for her saintly conduct at the stake. I admire her because, until her time, France did not exist; France under that name was nothing but a land-area between three seas, nothing but a land-area like the Italian boot, like the Iberian peninsula itself made up of competing kingdoms. I admire her because before her time the King of France was only the first among dukes and like them reigned only over a province. I admire and envy her finally because it was only after her time that every Frenchman came to recognise himself under those two words: la France.” Breaking free of Rome is an essential part of her plan to unify England – as long as the Pope has authority over the King, England will be merely one ingredient in a “casserole” of European states.

All of Anne’s subsequent actions have to be seen now in this light; instead of trying to get Rome’s approval she was doing everything in her power to make Henry incensed with Rome, because schism was her ultimate goal. And schism is finally achieved, a few months after the January 1533 wedding (held when Anne sensed that if she didn’t go through with it now, Henry might go completely off the rails). Anne is pleased, but sees a lot of hard work ahead and “I had not calculated the extent to which I must dissemble and be cruel if I am one day to impose my policy,” she says, and indeed a great deal of cruelty follows in the next three years, much of which she opposes but dares not contradict openly, since after Elizabeth’s birth her influence over Henry suffers a rapid downturn, except when he’s embroiled in a theological dispute. “The king remembers my existence when he is discussing some obscure point in the Pentateuch with the Bishop of London. He then makes me read through a quantity of works which he is too lazy to consult himself.” Nonetheless she keeps on planning and pushing; vetoing a potential French marriage for Elizabeth because she fears England being swept up among France’s territories should Elizabeth become queen, nudging Henry away from some potentially fraught promises to the Hanseatic League, and always trying to think three steps ahead of her enemies and keep her own position shielded until she can, one day, produce a prince. She’s immensely unpopular with the common people and she knows and, to a large extent, accepts it on the grounds that people hate change and they don’t know that she’s trying to make their lives better in ten or fifteen years.

After the prince miscarries, it’s clear to her that Cromwell, pushing for the alliance with the Holy Roman Empire, wants her gone – nonetheless, her arrest and the specific charges are still a shock. This is the only time in this version of the story that Anne actually loses control of herself, but when she pulls herself together for the trial she still manages to make her joke about being nicknamed “Queen Anne the Headless” and even has a nice addition – she’s ending up that way because “she had too much head for a woman.” She goes to the scaffold praying that her daughter will be able to continue the work that she began; few readers, I imagine, will feel too much suspense on that score.

SEX OR POLITICS? Politics, politics, politics. Not always rendered with complete accuracy, but nonetheless nice to see (Scandinavia gets mentioned, more than once! As do the German states!) This Anne is, if you’ll forgive a thoroughly worn-out cliché, a born chess player; she’s always thinking about eight moves ahead. Of course, the centerpiece of her strategy is her Xanatos Gambit intended to make Henry VIII break free of the Papacy, thereby forcing him to build up his naval power to establish England as a non-dependent country, thereby leading eventually (very eventually) to the defeat of Hitler.

WHEN BORN? Either 1502 or 1504 – the narrator isn’t quite sure, since she doesn’t know exactly when she was born and she only knows Anne’s birthdate relative to her own. As she tells us:

To find the exact date of Anne’s birth I must take a line on it from my own birthday and even about that I can’t be too sure. I suppose it was entered (though it was not the invariable practice) in the registers of the church where I was baptised. But that church had become Anglican, and in the reign of Bloody Mary had been burnt down, together with all its contents, including their registers. Now my mother had always told me that she brought me into the world on the day of the feast of St Blaise in the fourth year of the century, the year of the Great Floods. After she died I discovered the priest …. he told me that he remembered very well that the floods had afflicted England not in the fourth but in the sixth year of the century and it was on the day of Epiphany that he had baptised me. It is too late to confront my mother with this priest and since it was in the same church, now burnt out, that Anne Boleyn had also been baptised two years before me I have no means of verifying whether that was for her the second year or the fourth year of the century … Of one thing I am, however, certain. The date 1507 which appears in the marriage register in Westminster Abbey is wrong. Anne pretended to it so as to seem younger than she was (what woman does not do the same?).

The reference to St Blaise, patron saint of throat and neck problems, was much appreciated by this reader.

THE EARLY LOVE Anne is recalled to marry James Butler, but never actually meets him thanks to the negotiations falling through. Even so, she dismisses him as “a brute with red hair.” Henry Percy is a “handsome and strapping” young man who’s unhappily betrothed to Mary Talbot, and falls for Anne fast and hard – as does she for him (her first real emotional entanglement, though she confesses to numerous flirtatious episodes in France). Unfortunately for Anne, “under [Percy’s] martial vigour was hidden a spineless character,” and although he would happily fight dragons for her, his own father is another matter. After Percy is hauled home to marry Mary Talbot and Anne is exiled to Hever, the latter eventually decides that it was a good thing they had been broken up – “It saves me from having to discover that I’m married to a piece of old rag” – but she nonetheless resents Wolsey strongly for having put his oar in. After being exiled to Hever she talks – and flirts – with Thomas Wyatt, but doesn’t fall in love with him. She sees him as a challenge – “He is married, father of a family – a man of learning and judgement, a man not likely to be carried away.” The fact that he falls for her is proof to her of her own skill at seduction, which makes her confident that she’ll be able to marry for the good of England when the time comes, since she’ll be able to catch whatever powerful, influential man she wants.

THE QUEEN’S BEES Not much in evidence – the unnamed narrator is one, of course, and we’re also given sketches of Madge Shelton and Jane Seymour as the need arises. Madge is a hard-headed, sensible young woman who finds the king distasteful but is nonetheless willing to take him on for awhile if it means he’ll drop his mysterious, hostile mistress. Jane Seymour is represented as a newcomer to court whose sweet, fragile appearance loses its appeal when her stupidity (really it’s more like ignorance) becomes apparent. “Discontented by the high-flown language, mostly French, that was used so as not to be understood by outsiders …. she scarcely opened her mouth. And the queen, remembering that she herself had kept a hold on the king, through the months and years before their marriage, only by her subtle and lively spirit developed at the French court, thought that Jane’s doltishness would soon cause Henry to tire of her.” But somehow Jane, although only at court for about two months and feeling out of place, has managed to conduct an illicit liaison or two, for when the time comes for her to be married, the narrator tells us acidly that “like all young girls of the court, [she] must have reckoned it a sin to be still a virgin at twenty-five. So in order to marry Jane Henry need only require that her virginity be sworn on oath, and then, when the day came that he wanted to get rid of her, get together twenty young men to give evidence of perjury.”

Lady Rochford, usually the resident villain of the attendant ladies, has a much diminished role here – she still betrays George in the end via “a letter” which is read out at his trial when it looks like there’s a real danger of his being acquitted, but we’re only given a sentence or two telling us that she was jealous of George and Anne. Otherwise the only thing she does in the book is to indiscreetly refer to the king’s “hidden mistress” of 1534, for which she’s sent away for several months – she does not pick a quarrel with the very-much-present mistress, as she seems to have done in reality.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR The unnamed narrator starts off this way, accompanying Anne to France as essentially a child servant – she’s too young and too low-ranking to be a maid of honour. Later on, when they’re both adults, she becomes a lady of the bedchamber. And in a really original twist, Mark Smeaton is not a faithful servitor of any kind – he’s a less-than-courageous suckup who’s been trying to dissociate himself from Anne’s circle towards the end, as it’s clear that she’s falling from grace. The “a look sufficeth me” is a jab from someone who wants to end his conversation with her, not an expression of undying love.

THE PROPHECY Made by Anne herself, after the schism of March 1533. She’s happy that Henry has finally, officially broken free from the Vatican but worried that there’s still a lot to do before England’s fleet becomes A-list. “To become a formidable power she must labour long and hard … And I shall no longer be there to keep watch.”

IT’S A GIRL! Unusually, Anne receives the news calmly and continues levelheaded throughout: “No luck, but we don’t need to dramatise. Given time, Henry will come round to it … Which will be the legitimate heir? I shall have to fight on that front unless I have a boy.” Henry is much less clearheaded about it – as the unnamed narrator tells us, “The king felt deeply humiliated … When I saw him, his eyes flashing like lightning, his enormous fists raised high, he frightened me and I ran to escape. Doctors and midwives had fled too, just as scared as I at having to face the king in the first blaze of his disappointment.”

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Yes, a double nail which she hides with her sleeve, as is customary.

FAMILY AFFAIRS Thomas Boleyn is a right bastard, as usual, and in addition to being craven and ambitious and using his children as mere pawns, he’s also largely responsible for the death of Anne’s mother, who is described as having borne twelve children in twelve years and having lost nine of them as infants, finally dying herself. “After killing his good and beautiful Elizabeth through constant pregnancies and losing no time in remarrying, he was concerned for his children only so far as they could help him in his personal ambitions.” Anne’s stepmother is mentioned a couple of times but has no lines. Mary and George both have fairly abbreviated appearances – Mary is described as the family beauty, who becomes Henry VIII’s mistress and acts as if she were his queen (unusual for Mary). After bearing his child she’s gradually shuffled back to William Carey, and that’s the last we hear of her until her indiscreet pregnancy and marriage to Stafford in 1534. Anne tries to procure some money for her after she’s sent away. “She has been dismissed from the court. I could do nothing to help her; all I obtained from the chancellor, and that with great difficulty, was a niggardly pension for her and her trooper.”

George appears even less; his diplomatic missions are summarized, but he has very little dialogue. It’s clear, however, that he gets on well with his sister, and his trial scene is more or less by the book.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No – she was seeing the men so much because they were the last fragments of her support (except for Smeaton, who’s loftily dismissed as a weakling for having “confessed” under torture).

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE I enjoyed the style – how much was the responsibility of the author and how much of the translator, I don’t know, but the style was intelligent and clear, even if the narrator inevitably sounded more like a historian than a sixteenth-century lady-in-waiting. Several fairly familiar scenes were given new twists which, if not necessarily the most convincing interpretations historically, nonetheless made sense in context. One I especially liked was the scene in which Anne, who in this rendition has been dreading the news of Catherine of Aragon’s death (since it will render Anne vulnerable to the machinations of potential future wives) is given the unwelcome news:

Two knights rode at top speed to report the death to the palace. A young page gave the news to Anne while she was washing her fingers in a golden basin. She remained silent a long time, her hands held up and still wet, while she considered this news. Then with a sudden violent movement she emptied the water into the silver bucket and to the great astonishment of the boy threw the golden ewer and basin across the room, crying out: “Take them for yourself! I never want to see them again!” And throwing herself into an armchair she held her head in her hands.

Anne was indeed washing her hands when she got the news, and she did give the ewer and basin to the messenger. What her mood was when she did so is not recorded, but rewards like that weren’t usually given for bad news. Still, I liked reading it.

ERRATA Some basic trivia is inaccurate: Brereton’s first name is given as Edward, and Elizabeth’s conception clearly takes place after January 25, 1533 – which would have meant a seriously premature birth. Jane Seymour’s arrival at court is dated to after October 1535, when in fact she had been there for a number of years, and the episode with the unnamed mistress of 1534 is somewhat distorted. This mistress – the “very handsome young lady” of Chapuys’ reports – is said to be especially insidious because nobody knows who she is, and the King keeps her in a house somewhere apart from the court; presumably this makes it easier for her to pour her anti-Anne propaganda into his ear without interruption. Someday I’ll need to write about this woman, because the author falls into the common trap of assuming that because we don’t know who she was, Anne and her contemporaries didn’t either. But that could not have been the case – the fact that Anne and her sister-in-law teamed up to try and get the woman banished from court is sufficient proof that they both knew who she was and that she was at court in the first place. There was very likely nothing mysterious about her at the time – the mystery was created subsequently simply by Chapuys’ failure to record her actual name in his letters.

Although the author says in his introduction that tried not to bolster his case by adding or inventing anything, a number of things are fudged or inaccurate. Thomas Boleyn is said to have abandoned his daughter’s cause even before her arrest, and there’s no indication that he did so. Catherine of Aragon is represented as having undoubtedly lied about the consummation of her first marriage, and the “witnesses” are mentioned who heard Arthur’s boasts. Not mentioned is the fact that these witnesses were all testifying twenty-five years after the fact and under strong pressure to remember the story in a way favourable the king’s case – not that this means they necessarily lied, but it doesn’t make things quite as firmly established as the book implies. Princess Mary is also stated to be unintelligent and badly educated; whatever you think of her later career, it’s clear that she was neither of those things.

WORTH A READ? Looking over my summary, I’ve probably made the book sound dreary; one long political lecture from Anne. In fact, the political pronouncements are pretty well mixed in with the other pieces of action – the trouble is that they really are the core of the book, so when writing a summary it’s necessary to keep going back to them. But there are lots of good set-pieces (masques, court visits) and new spins on old chestnuts, as in the passage I cited above where Anne gives the messenger the ewer, and her conversation with Smeaton. And while I don’t believe the book’s central thesis, it was lovely to luxuriate in a book where there was a sense of a larger world in the background, and where Anne and Henry and all the others were aware of the constantly shifting power balances and theological complications in the many other European states, and that it wasn’t simply a matter of “The Catholics” fighting “The Protestants,” as it is in too many other books, often to the point where you expect the two sides to come out in actual football uniforms.

That being said, the books has weak spots. Its insistence on depicting everyone except Anne as being somehow weak or unworthy is a major one; Catherine and Mary are examples, of course, and Henry VIII is also treated roughly this way, as he’s portrayed as being coarse, fickle and not too intelligent. He only develops an abiding interest in his navy because Anne keeps pushing him to, and he only follows through with the schism because she tells him to, and so on for every other major event of his life during this period. Moreover, while Anne receives the credit for positive developments, she’s oddly powerless during the bad ones. She doesn’t want the Carthusians to be executed, nor More and Fisher (though she’s fine with the Nun of Kent being killed) and although her reasons are practical enough – she doesn’t want to incense the populace, and also wants to give the potential victims a reason to be grateful to her for a reprieve – it still is terribly convenient for making her sympathetic to a modern reader. And Henry VIII, though his sins were scarlet, shouldn’t be robbed of one of his better characteristics. Building up his navy was a lifetime project for him and while Anne may well have encouraged him, it’s unlikely that she was the sole reason his ships were built. Ultimately, I believe the book’s hypothesis fails; Anne has to be too perfectly far-seeing, and the people around her too gullible, for it to work. But it’s a fascinating read nonetheless.

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From → Book Overviews

  1. Glad you got round to reading this one – it’s a curious one because it’s not the conventional novel per se but written more as a pseudo-biography. In fact, if you were in a hurry, you would think it was a biography. Currently reading The Kiss of the Concubine by Judith Arnopp, where it’s nice to meet the acquaintance of Anne’s potty old grandmother again. (She’s always festering in corners at Hever and getting on everyone’s wick). I always find it fascinating that she outlived her own grand-daughter.

    If you’re after a new category, Anne as a Bitchy Interloper, is a good one as there is plenty of choice here. I’ve also just rooted out my copy of Kathryn in the Court of Six Queens by Anne Merton Abbey which deserves a re-read.

    Sorry to hear about the indisposition – I could send over Dr Butts (with the King’s Own Plaster) or Lady Bo, with one of her honey and lemon concoctions. At least you don’t have to sing to the King, pretending to be a boy!

    • sonetka permalink

      Lady Bo would be lovely. I’d even appreciate a chance to talk to her husband as long as she was a nice buffering presence right there :). I saw Kiss Of The Concubine on Amazon and was wondering about it; I have enough books right now for about six more weeks and need to start getting more.

  2. Benedict Cowell permalink

    For me Anne Boleyn was the only queen of Henry VIII worth bothering about, and Vercors made a good case for seeing her as the architect of modern Britain together with the queen of George II Caroline of Ansbach. Their husbands were over rated. Henry VIII is lionised by the British but he was, like all the Tudors, a wash out. I doubt whether Elizabeth was a Tudor either biologically or intellectually.

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