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Top Ten

January 8, 2014

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!

From → Essays

  1. Bullen1993 permalink

    Thank you for the top ten!!!!!!!!!!
    I have only read Mantel’s books and some pages of The Other Boleyn Girl… Not very friendly to poor Anne, I think Mantel showed only her faults and it’s infuriating how she “forgot” to mention her moving speeches and her fight quth Cromwell about monasteries (because, ypu know, this would do SAINT CRONWELL to look like a devil and we dont want it, do we, MRS. Mantel? So, let’s make Anne to be a bitch-witch!) … But overall, Mantel’s books are good, addictive, and I want to read the third one (Specially I want to know what she has to say about Kathryn Howard and Anna of Cleves). I had read wonderful reviews about Lofts, Plaidy and Campbell Barnes’ versions of Anne’s life so I think I’ll read them… I have Barnes’ “King’s Fool”, when Will Sommers tells his story and his relationship with Henry and the wives… One day I’ll read it!
    Sorry for answering so late!

    • sonetka permalink

      That’s the big difficulty of making a list like this — trying to strike a balance between “this is a really good novel” and “this novel has accurate historical information” — the two don’t always intersect very well. Mantel does some fantastic worldbuilding but the center of her story is so atrociously wrong that I almost didn’t include the books. I’m talking about the masque, of course. I don’t have that much of a problem with Cromwell just disliking Anne and only noticing the worst of her; being someone’s ally politically doesn’t mean you necessarily care for them. But the way everything is framed so that Cromwell looks objectively wonderful can grate. I’ll definitely read the third because I like Mantel’s Jane Seymour very much and, like you, I think her takes on KH and AoC will be interesting since I doubt she has much of an axe to grind with either of them. Cromwell’s own fall should be fascinating, but unless she does a real switch I’m pretty sure it’ll turn out that he’s being framed because of his own nobility or that he’s actually tired of his life and is doing the 16th century equivalent of suicide by cop.

  2. Bullen1993 permalink

    Couldn’t agree more, sure Mantel’s Cromwell is saintly till the end… I think Mantel will make a shrewd, manipulative yet likeable Jane, a shy, almost-absent (but clever) Anne of Cleves and an annoying Katherine Howard…given that she gives some wives more brains than that they’re given by other authors (e.g. The Seymour) I think there’s a possibility that she will write KH as a conniving b*tch (but is a little possibility).

    PD: I read your post about Karen Harper’s “The Last Boleyn”, I bought it and I really liked her story… Thanks! Sometimes the book was slow but it improved a lot when Anne showed up! She’s very well portrayed despite some historical inaccuracies. Anne was the star of that book, and I like her evolution.
    What do you think about Brandy/Emily Purdy’s books? Are they a good option? She has one about Lady Rochford and has just written another on Elizabeth Boleyn…

    • sonetka permalink

      I wouldn’t call them a good option, especially if you get hung up on accuracy — they’ve got a lot of energy to them but go completely crazy with the sex scenarios (though if you’ve ever slashed Katherine Howard/Anne of Cleves, you’re in luck, because that one turns up in the Jane Boleyn book). And I wouldn’t be surprised at all if KH is a conniving [expletive deleted], especially considering just what a disaster she ended up being for Cromwell, so it would be understandable if a book written from his point of view treated her unsympathetically. I wonder if Cromwell The All-Knowing will somehow get an idea of KH’s past behavior before he dies — though it would be nice if he weren’t three steps ahead of everyone else on at least ONE subject!

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