Incredible Fierce Desire by Maureen Peters (1988)
This is one of those books which I’m probably going to over-praise just because it didn’t turn out to be nearly as awful as I thought it would be. The first strike against it is the title, which is both totally forgettable and makes it sound like the worst kind of bodice-ripper. The second strike is the cover – I don’t usually bother talking about covers because few authors have much control over them, but I really need to upload a photo of this one to Amazon so you can see it for yourselves. It depicts a strawberry blonde, blue-eyed woman in an attifet, standing mournfully in the foreground while in the background we see the silhouette of a block and a headsman holding an axe. It would be perfect for a book about Mary Queen of Scots but is so spectacularly wrong for a book about Anne Boleyn that for a moment I wondered if the bindings for two books had actually been switched. Judging by the copy on the back, though, that wasn’t the case, so either the artist was having a joke or else was up against a deadline and figured that a picture of one beheaded sixteenth-century queen was as good as another. The third strike, however, never comes. It’s not a classic by any means but it’s still an entertaining read in which Anne is thankfully not blonde and is still beheaded with a sword, not an axe.
This author, like several others, has written more than one novel about Anne Boleyn – her earlier one was Anne, The Rose of Hever, which drank deeply of the writings of Dr. Margaret Murray. This one was written almost twenty years later, by which point the academy had moved on from Dr. Murray’s hypotheses, and the author followed their lead. What emerges is an Anne who is strikingly similar to the earlier version, but who is in a vastly different milieu. There’s no reference to the Dianic Cult, no Divine Victims or sacred kings – the only such reference to survive occurs when King Henry mentions fleetingly that his mother’s mother, meaning Elizabeth Woodville, was reputed to be a witch. However, in this story it’s not implied that her witchery could do more than ensnare men who were considered above her expectations, and when Anne is similarly called a witch later on, it’s essentially for doing the same thing. As her popularity with both Henry and the common people declines in the last years of her life, she does angrily say that since they consider everything else that’s wrong to be her fault, no doubt they’ll consider the drought to be on her head as well – but there’s no implication that it’s true.
This Anne is, however, just as double-sided as the one in the earlier book. Sent to France at an early age, she’s accompanied not only by her sister Mary but by a dull, prim girl named Jane Seymour and her brother Edward; years later, she’ll remember Jane as a reliable companion if not exactly an exciting one, and bring her to court as a maid of honour. When Anne returns from France she falls in love for the first (and last) time with Henry Percy. Unfortunately for her, the King, who’s already finished with her sister, has spotted her and told Wolsey to stop any impending marriage. Percy is duly threatened, buckles at the prospect of his father’s wrath, and leaves. Anne, who has no idea that Wolsey was prompted by the king, goes home miserable and resolved that she’ll never love again.
And, of course, she never does. When Henry begins making himself a frequent visitor, she doesn’t take him seriously at first and is then angered by his invitation to be his mistress – “You have a wife, sire!” She isn’t playing a game, but genuinely wants to get rid of him – much to the distress of her father, who’s been disappointed by Mary’s lack of financial acumen when she was Henry’s mistress and was hoping for better things from Anne.
All of this changes on a dime on the day that Henry, having used every pickup line at his disposal and baffled by Anne’s continual refusal to be charmed, begins noisily mourning the fact that he has no legitimate sons and that he strongly suspects that there may have been some fault in the dispensation for his marriage given twenty years ago. “Suppose my marriage was proved invalid and I could offer you lawful wedlock?” “If the moon were made of cheese I would eat my share,” she responds, but after he leaves she discovers that the idea has a lot going for it; namely, the potential for her to take revenge on the one man who (she thinks) foiled her match with Percy. “If it were possible, then Mistress Nan Bullen, who had not been considered good enough for an earl’s son, could become a queen and her children inherit a crown … Wolsey, now a Cardinal, was her enemy. It was Wolsey who had first forbidden her marriage to Percy. Even if the King were to obtain a divorce Wolsey would expect Henry to make another foreign alliance. Wolsey then must be wooed and flattered, used to bring about what he least desired.” Not that we’ll be privileged to see much of Anne as a gracious wooer from now on, because it’s here that she falls off the same character cliff as she did in Anne, The Rose Of Hever. From a restrained, intelligent, at least somewhat ethical young woman she suddenly becomes a crazed, power-hungry harpy whose chief method of persuasion is to shriek at the taken-aback and hesitant Henry. Although she consults frequently with the Duke of Norfolk, and he begins as an enthuasiastic supporter and advisor – no position in the land is too good for a Howard, after all – she doesn’t take his advice about avoiding scandalous behavior with much seriousness.
Her approach to Catherine of Aragon is to shriek at Henry to get rid of her, ditto her approach to Princess Mary. She shrieks at Henry to get rid of More and Fisher and the Carthusians. She shrieks at Henry when it turns out that Cardinal Campeggio has managed to steal Henry’s love letters for the delectation of the Pope and his hangers-on. She shrieks at her brother when he suggests that maybe she’s getting a little high-handed doing things like ordering noblewomen around and blessing cramp rings, especially since she isn’t even queen yet. Very damagingly, she shrieks at Norfolk and loses his support after deciding that she doesn’t need him anymore and doling some dower lands out to his stepmother instead of him. By the time she becomes queen, Henry’s love for her is gone, assuming it ever existed – “He never loved me, only desired me,” she tells herself miserably before starting in on some more planned humiliations for Princess Mary. (It is, incidentally, only after Wolsey’s death that she realizes Henry’s involvement in her own broken engagement to Percy, but by then she’s ready to shrug it off, as there’s not much she can do at this point). In fact, the only reason he married her is because she staged a well thought out “spontaneous” surrender and got pregnant shortly thereafter. It isn’t just Henry who dislikes her, either – the common people aren’t too impressed and blame her for every political upheaval they hear of; of course, in this rendition, she is responsible for most of them, having screamed at Henry until he imprisoned/killed/humiliated whomever it was that was inconveniencing her that week.
Fortunately for her, she has faithful maids of honour who can be counted on to be discreet and keep things calm around her, including, of course, the no-account, unattractive “sheep”, Jane Seymour. Discovering the “sheep” canoodling with Henry is enough to bring on a final miscarriage (she has three altogether after Elizabeth) and after that, the clock is ticking while Cromwell, who has just gotten Catherine of Aragon out of the way (albeit it’s implied more than stated – it was baldly stated in the first book) tries to figure out a way to dispose of Anne and give Henry freedom to marry for a third time.
It’s only after her arrest that Anne starts to remember her former self even a little – she makes her apology to Princess Mary via Lady Kingston, and wonders that she could have behaved so poorly – but by that point she has little enthusiasm left anything; she’s tired, beaten, and exhausted by the strain of the last ten years. By the time she has to walk to the scaffold, she has no objection to going, and getting it all over with.
SEX OR POLITICS? Sex by a short head, albeit of fairly poor quality – “she had never found any great pleasure in the act of loving.” Anne’s “incredible fierce desire” is for power and vengeance but the story is stronger on the personal and weaker on the political, though there is a decent quantity of political content and it’s notable in that it actually develops her relationship with her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk – he begins as her friend and promoter, advising her on what strategies to use with the king, but their relationship fractures when Anne has become queen and goes against Norfolk’s wishes with regard to some dower lands belonging to his stepmother. “You’re a fool to turn and knock me away from the ladder I helped you climb,” he tells her, but Anne promptly informs him that “I do not reign as queen by your favour, my lord!” Which is true enough, but that doesn’t mean he won’t give her a few enthusiastic kicks once she’s on her way back down that ladder. But this Anne is no true politician; she talks a good game about wooing Wolsey and then getting rid of him after he’s served his turn, but we certainly don’t see her doing much of that. Instead, we mostly see her raging at Henry for not getting rid of him as fast as she thinks he should. She hates Thomas More and Princess Mary because they hate her, and she pursues her enemies without any sort of long-term strategy or consideration. George Boleyn and Henry often urge restraint and talk about strategy, but Anne is fueled almost entirely by feeling, and the only strategic plans she ever implements are those cooked up for her by someone else; she can’t even begin to do it on her own.
WHEN BORN? 1507 – Mary and George are both older. Jane Seymour is also aged up a bit and is given the same birth year, so that she and Anne can go to France and become companions, if not exactly best friends, at Mary Rose’s and then Claude’s court.
THE EARLY LOVE Henry Percy, green-clad, blue-eyed, charming, and totally unable to stand up to his father. Anne despises him for giving in but loves him to the end – years later, she calls out his name while ill and hallucinating. Wyatt also loves Anne and tries to warn her against the perils of untrammeled ambition, but, as usual, his love is one-sided and his warnings in vain.
THE QUEEN’S BEES: Anne does not want but still gets her aunt Elizabeth Boleyn (presaging that lady’s “waiting” on her during her imprisonment”, and the “thin-lipped, rapacious” Lady Rochford, who is named Janet in this version, though I think that was likely a deliberate attempt to distinguish her from Jane Seymour. Otherwise, Anne requests “Ann Saville, and Isabel Perrot, Mary Wyatt, Jane Seymour and Simonetta for my chief ladies … They are women I have had about me before. They know my ways and I can trust them not to gossip.” Though as it turns out, she can’t trust them with the king – Jane Seymour, of course, ends up semi-accidentally enticing him into ending his second marriage (and Anne) and Isabel Perrot has a premature, redheaded baby named John, born seven months after Elizabeth. As the Duke of Norfolk spitefully informs Anne, “His Grace wished to prove that he was still able to father sons.”
THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Simonetta the governess, who teaches Anne French as a child and, unusually for this character, stays with her to the end – as a last courtesy to Anne, Simonetta and Mary Wyatt are brought in to wait on her in the Tower after she’s been condemned. Simonetta curses Jane and the Seymour family – “I cry bad cess upon all of them!” Anne’s reply is less emotional. “Poor Jane! How very upset Henry will be if she does not give him a prince.” Mark Smeaton, a handsome “gypsy lad” seems more than trifle smitten with her as well but unfortunately his service ends quickly and painfully once he gets into Cromwell’s coils.
THE PROPHECY Anne melodramatically “prophesies” in one instance, during a rare instance in which she actually Norfolk’s instructions on how to bait Henry into doing what she wants. She and Henry are having their umpteenth quarrel over Wolsey, in the course of which Anne says “I will prophesy one thing! If you keep me here for people to whisper about and point their fingers at while you write your thesis and confer with your Council and allow the Cardinal to make your bed then you will end up with no mistress and no wife!” She then flounces off the Hever and later on gives Henry a good scare by getting the Sweat, after which he decides he’ll listen to her and shake off Wolsey as soon as possible. Several years later, after Elizabeth’s birth, Anne inadvertently produces another prophecy when she finds out that …
IT’S A GIRL! Anne’s attendant ladies are worried about who will have to break the bad news to the King, but this Anne is unusually collected and decides to do so herself. “Give the child to me,” she tells her stepmother, and when Henry walks in Anne heads off a bad reaction by cheerfully announcing “We have a daughter, Sire! A virgin born in the Chamber of the Virgin … That’s a wonderful omen, Sire!” Henry is taken aback and obviously not thrilled, but following Anne’s lead he manages to keep it together until the very end of the conversation, when Anne predicts that “Next year we will have a boy,” and Henry says “Next year then! Mark it, Nan!” I loved this scene so much because Anne actually does prophesy Elizabeth’s future importance (“A wonderful omen!”) but it’s a completely accidental byproduct of her attempt to cover her own posterior.
DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Yes, as the six-year-old Edward Seymour takes care to point out as their group is travelling to meet Mary Rose and take ship for France. “Did you know you had six fingers on one hand?” he asks, to which Anne replies “That’s because I’m a goblin child. I was brought here by one of the Old Ones and left so they could steal away a human child.” Later on, the young Jane apologizes for her brother’s rudeness. Anne also has a mole on her neck and (as she later tells the king, when trying to discourage him) small breasts, which are listed as defects right along with the previous two things.
FAMILY AFFAIRS: The Duke of Norfolk is far more prominent here than he is in many books – he doesn’t just hang out in the background looking sour, but he actively encourages Anne once he gets wind of a possible marriage and their eventual falling-out is due to quarrels over an inheritance, during which she snarls at him in her best Chapuys-painted fashion. Thomas Boleyn is … really, it’s like the exact same guy just keeps floating from book to book. Calculating, mercenary, and always happy to grovel for mercy when the occasion requires, this one is even worse than most – he’s the one who tells Anne to her face that “You have miscarried of your savior,” before leaving her and following Henry. “Cold” doesn’t even begin to describe that. His one weakness is, as it often is, his second wife – Anne’s stepmother here has no name but has a resemblance to Lady Bo of The Concubine in being sweet, loving, lowborn, and much happier in the kitchen than in the court. Like Lady Bo, her real power lies in her cooking – she may not feel comfortable being in the presence of the King, but she’s confident that her brawn and her almond cake will pass muster.
Mary Boleyn is seldom onstage, and we mostly hear of her from reports by other characters. After becoming pregnant by Henry, she doesn’t just passively let opportunity float away, like most iterations of her character; instead she deliberately sabotages herself by throwing herself on Queen Catherine’s mercy and then begging her to arrange a marriage for her with the man she really loves, William Carey. Her father is angry at this, since by marrying she gave Henry some deniability about the paternity of her child and the baby is simply young Master Carey and not another Duke of Richmond. After Carey’s death in the sweat, she elopes with William Stafford – again, we don’t see any of this firsthand, just hear others discussing it. Anne feels a “a curious little pang of pain” at Mary’s having made another love-match, albeit an extremely impecunious one, but shrugs it off. Certainly she never tries to help her.
George is the lighthearted, intelligent brother who spends as much time as he can with his sister in order to keep away from his wife; he’s the one who’s always trying to reel her in when she starts getting too high-handed. When at one point she screams at him that she is “Queen in all but name!” he retorts that “I am Prince of Persia in all but name!” and warns her not to get too far ahead of herself because she’s making enemies left and right. He also holds her back when she considers harming Princess Mary.
DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No – although, as she observes on the May Day before her arrest, since it’s become clear that the King no longer has any use for her people are being much friendlier than they were when she was riding high. This has led to a lot of gentlemen hanging around her who weren’t there previously. While this sounds most unlike the behavior of most Tudor courtiers, it does sound like there’s a possibility that most of them are acting as Job’s comforters and enjoying the drama of Anne’s humiliation all the better for being close to her.
WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: There are some clunkers – when Henry is still trying to make Anne his mistress and is fishing desperately for a compliment, she comes out with something much less than rapturous and he responds, “You sound as if you were writing a character for me to some prospective employer.” That line really belonged in a nineteenth century book, not a sixteenth. But there are also lots of throwaway moments and lines which I really enjoyed. Anne at seven years old “saw life as brightly coloured days with patches of dreaming between, like glowing stones laid higgledy-piggledy on black ash. One such stone was a tall, beautiful woman who must have been her mother bending to embrace her and the scent of perfume in the air. Another was of her father in a scarlet tunic eating an apple, peeling the skin from it with a knife and tossing the peel over his shoulder to see what letters would form.” Not Dostoevsky, but nice and evocative of the snapshot quality of many childhood memories. And when the four-year-old Elizabeth is informed that her “new mother” Queen Jane has died, her entirely logical question is “Did she have her head cut off?”
ERRATA: The timelines are somewhat slippery – Jane Seymour gets involved with Henry about a year ahead of schedule, More resigns the Chancellorship when Anne is pregnant, and Anne’s pregnancy itself has some peculiar dates, as in this telling she becomes pregnant in January and is actually married in February, with the documentation backdating it to January in order to make the baby’s conception legitimate. Except that, as mentioned in an earlier post, even this would make Elizabeth at least a month premature and probably more than that. Her health, and odds of survival, would not have been good, and it’s highly unlikely that Anne would have taken to her chamber two weeks before a birth that early.
There’s no evidence that Jane Seymour went to France (this is another story that has its origin in Agnes Strickland), and Mark Smeaton is hanged instead of being beheaded. The executions for the men are out of order, in fact – George Boleyn dies last, instead of first, as he did in life. It was protocol at the time – higher rank meant no waiting. And of course, there was no stepmother and no Simonetta. Henry VIII is, of course, given an imaginary illegitimate son named John and also credited with being the father of Ethelreda Malte — while that’s not an error, strictly speaking (how can anybody know for certain) it’s worth pointing out that that last is not generally accepted as fact.
WORTH A READ? It’s a good, soapy romance with a lot of unexpectedly good lines and a nice sense of humour about itself. My main objection to it is how Anne’s character shifts so quickly, and this was a weakness in the author’s other book about her as well. She shifts to a two-dimensional raging expletive so quickly that it’s like you’re reading about an entirely different, albeit still entertaining person. If you don’t mind that, it’s a good book to while away an airplane or a train ride.