About a month ago, a commenter (hello, Bullen1993!) asked me a couple of questions: Which is, in your opinion, the most accurate Anne Boleyn novel? And what is your personal Top 10 of Anne Boleyn books?
The first question will have to wait for another time, because so far it’s proven impossible for me to decide. There are so many different potential meanings of “accurate” in this situation that I could write a book just trying to differentiate them, let alone actually awarding the victor’s palm to any one piece of fiction. Furthermore I have serious doubts about my ability to accurately decipher which book would actually deserve it, especially considering how much “accuracy” can depend on what it’s currently fashionable to emphasize and to play down.
The second, however, I’m happy to answer, so here, in no particular order, are my personal top ten. Endorsement should not be taken as a guarantee of accuracy, but I’m pretty confident you’ll find them to be good reads. Well, most of them; the Boker play is rougher sledding but I still like it. Looking over the list I see that my personal favourites trend heavily towards the “Anne as cold yet strangely fascinating political adventurer” end of the spectrum.
1. Anne Boleyn by Evelyn Anthony (1957). As I’ve mentioned before, the first Anne Boleyn novel I ever read and the one which probably did a great deal to fix the “awesomely nerveless politician” image of her in my head. It has a fair number of small inaccuracies but nothing too violently opposed to reality, and in a bonus which I didn’t appreciate at first reading, Jane Seymour gets real, albeit quietly terrifying, characterization.
2. Brief Gaudy Hour by Margaret Campbell Barnes (1949). Ah, the power of first impressions — Evelyn Anthony’s book might have been my first step into Boleyn fiction, but for many other teenage girls it was Barnes who introduced them to a similar, if somewhat less controlled, Anne. One of the best dramatic renditions of the trial and execution I’ve read.
3. Anne Boleyn: A Tragedy by George Boker (1850). I doubt that this play will ever see the stage again, but while it has its share of problems, I can think of very few fictional renditions which do such a good job of emphasizing the uncertainty of all these events. It’s easy for us to think of Anne’s fall and death as being virtually destined by a combination of character and circumstance, but that’s with looking backwards and trying to discern a pattern from events which are all past. People living at court, however, with its ever-shifting alliances and careers which which could be made or destroyed depending on how the king felt that morning, must have seen something far more confusing and horrifying.
4. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009). I don’t think this is going to hold up as well as the Booker Prize committee apparently does, but for now, at least, this is one of those books which can pull the reader in so thoroughly that she ends up vaguely astonished when she looks up from the page and sees the people around her aren’t in sixteenth-century dress. Anne is a fairly distant figure here, nervous, tense, disliked by her ally Thomas Cromwell (he thinks her French accent unnecessarily affected) but nonetheless respected by him. The writing is so strong that I found myself thinking “Of course she was like that, how else could she have been?” and even the non-trivial inaccuracies in this and its sequels, Bring Up The Bodies (2012) were easy to ignore while reading. Afterwards was, of course, a different story.
5. The Concubine by Norah Lofts (1963). An excellent novel which will never, never win the “accuracy” award, what really makes it stand out is the interplay between Anne and her fictional maid, Emma Arnett — one of the very few imaginary characters to more than justify her own existence.
6. Blood Royal by Mollie Hardwick (1988). I have an outsized love for this book because I love its portrayal of Elizabeth Boleyn, and because the author manages to have Thomas Wyatt as one of her narrators and yet prevents him from coming across as completely obnoxious.
7. And Wild For To Hold by Nancy Kress (1991). The only thing better than a well-portrayed Anne The Wily Politician is a well-portrayed Anne The Wily Politician brought forward in time. Very, very well-done and keeps you guessing until the end, much as the real Anne must have done in her own time.
8. Murder Most Royal by Jean Plaidy (1949). How could I not include this? Solid and entertaining.
9. Threads by Nell Gavin (2001). One of those love-it-or-hate-it books, which I ended up loving despite the six thousand or so factual errors which ordinarily would have had me sputtering.
10. The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory (2001). Speaking of love-it-or-hate-it? Here’s the Holy of Holies in that category. Everything its detractors say about it is true — including me, since I wrote a very snotty review of it for an online magazine not long after it came out. But you know what? As a packaged historical daydream, it is absolutely spectacular, and its historical errors, while legion, are no worse than those in numerous other books, including a couple on this list. And now I’ll excuse myself before infuriated Anne partisans chase me off the stage. Happy reading!