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Anne Boleyn: An Historical Romance by Mrs. A.T. (Katharine) Thomson (1842)

January 19, 2014

The Grail! This three-volume behemoth (it clocks in at just under a thousand pages) was written by the same woman who, fourteen years earlier, published a history of King Henry VIII, along with several other social histories resembling those written by Miss Benger and, later on, Agnes Strickland. Like several subsequent writers of pop history, she eventually decided to branch out into fiction and turned out a quantity of three-volume novels, none of which seem to be read today. However, she deserves a special mention among the authors here for being one of the very few people to write a straight novel about Anne before Agnes Strickland published her version of Anne’s life in Lives Of The Queens Of England (Strickland had begun to publish her books in 1840, however by 1842 she had only got to Volume 2, which ended with the life of Anne of Bohemia). Strickland’s books were tremendously popular and their effect on later novelists would be hard to overstate – Anne’s embarrassing sixth finger and special sleeves, her fictional stepmother, her fictional governess Simonette, her black satin nightgown, and Jane Seymour as the malevolent accessory before the fact to Anne’s murder can all trace their novelistic popularity to Strickland’s book. The elements for some of them were already in existence (and some Strickland accidentally invented) but she was the one who brought them into the mainstream.

With all that, the fascinating thing about Mrs. Thomson’s Anne is how very familiar she is. Even without the Strickland-esque trappings and fantasies, this Anne treads a familiar path; thwarted in love when the weak-willed Percy gives her up, she decides to devote herself solely to ambition, and, urged on by ambitious counsellors, ultimately manages to ensnare the King when he casts off the religiously-misguided but nonetheless noble and admirable Catherine of Aragon. Almost immediately he tires of her, and after Anne fails to produce a male heir, he nudges some of his henchmen to find a way to get rid of her. It even has Thomas Cromwell as a character, which is highly unusual for a nineteenth-century work – all right, he’s portrayed as a horrified bystander to her downfall instead of one of its architects, but it’s still something. Thomas Wyatt is Anne’s devoted admirer whom she doesn’t love, and who writes poems about her. Mark Smeaton does a turn as a leering, amoral lecher which wouldn’t look out of place in something from the 1960s. And of course it’s all witnessed by Anne’s devoted maid of honour, Mildred Wyatt – poor relation to Thomas and newly-converted Protestant who introduces Anne to the earthly bliss which is reading the Bible in English. The really jarring element to a modern reader is the constant anti-Catholic exposition from the author; few subsequent novels have nearly as much to say about the unnaturalness of nunneries and the perils of “mechanical” prayer. Previous works do – Anne Boleyn: A Dramatic Poem (1826) and Vertue Betray’d (1682) both have much to say on the evils of Roman Catholicism, but less on the subject of Anne’s ambition or willingness to marry Henry; on the contrary, both of them are married to Henry against their own will. This novel sees the uneasy union of commonplace anti-Catholicism and a (then) less commonplace depiction of an ambitious Anne Boleyn. It’s a shame that it wasn’t mentioned in The Creation of Anne Boleyn, as it was published seventy years before The Favor Of Kings (1912) and offers what is in some ways an even more interesting study in the evolution of popular perception of a historical figure.

Our story begins on Christmas Eve, with preparations in full swing at Allington Castle. “The Yule Log, or Christmas block, had been laid on the iron dogs,” frumenty is being prepared, and yew and holly is being affixed to every available surface. The young woman supervising the preparations, Mildred Wyatt, is sixteen years old and an orphan raised by her ten-years-older cousin Thomas Wyatt. “To Mildred, he was somewhat more than a brother, yet less than a lover, fond of her, but not attached.” This lack of attachment is no fault of Mildred’s, since she’s been pining for him for several years now, but Wyatt seems determined to keep her in the little-sister category and keeps trying to shoo her off to sing carols with the local rustics and his other ward, one Cuthbert Colepepper. In fact, Wyatt is due to leave for court on Christmas morning, carrying with him a masque he’s written for the courtiers to perform. Mildred begs to come to court with him, but he says she’d be in too much danger there – her “lowly fortunes” mean that none of the courtiers would seriously consider marrying her, but they’d doubtless be happy to attempt other things, and “I would rather see thee laid in the great vault beneath the church” than see her fall. So off Mildred goes to bed, to listen for Christmas carolers and engage in one of her favourite activities, which is self-abasement:

She clasped her hands in humility and self-abasement, that she had, on the blessed Eve of Christmas, dared to give up all her heart to aught save Him whose image she worshipped. Subdued, she knelt long and prayed, though in form, mechanically, yet sincerely.

As you can see from the references to “form” and “mechanical” prayer, Mildred is still Catholic, but fear not – she won’t be for long. Meanwhile, we see Thomas Wyatt galloping off to court and, while searching for the Queen so he can pay his respects, running into someone he already knows quite well. Although their greeting is friendly, we soon see that Anne is smarting from recent disappointment. It seems that she and Lord Henry Percy had recently agreed to marry and even got permission from Queen Catherine, but suddenly Wolsey intervened and Percy sent Anne a letter calling off the match. “I suspect my Lord Cardinal loves not to part with Percy, who is the brightest ornament of his household,” says Anne, but Catherine, once Wyatt sees her, has a strong notion that her own husband was behind it. “I would she were married to Percy, but Lord Cardinal wills it not,” she tells him, and she and Wyatt decide to see if they can somehow get Anne and Percy to bump into each other during the New Year’s jousts a few days hence.

Alas, they’ll be thwarted by My Lord Cardinal, who’s already spoken his “indefatigable young secretary” (Cromwell! How nice to see you in the nineteenth century!) and given him instructions that Anne and Percy are at all costs to be kept apart, and the joust is a thoroughly miserable affair. As Henry leers up at her from his horse, Anne miserably tells a fellow maid that now that Percy’s lost to her, “ambition is my only refuge,” and Wyatt takes a fall during one of his runs and is carried away on a stretcher while a surprisingly girlish young page is shooed away when she shrieks and tries to run to him. He’s in a fever for several weeks, during which Mistress Judith, his housekeeper at Allington, arrives at his sickbed to convey the news that both Mildred and Cuthbert Colepepper have disappeared from Allington, and for what end she doesn’t know. Wyatt can make a guess, though. “I will break every bone in his body! … Oh, God! Is Mildred, is she dishonoured? – the fairest, the purest, my cousin, my poor Mildred!” As soon as he’s able to get up, he’ll be setting off in pursuit – after he stands up for Percy at his wedding to Mary Talbot, that is.

The wedding goes off with it full slate of disastrous portents; true to form, Mary Talbot is unattractive and proud, and Percy stands “mute and stupefied” throughout the wedding service, afterward begging Wyatt to tell Anne that he didn’t do this willingly. Anne, however, is back at Hever with both of her parents telling her to get over Percy and keep climbing up the court ladder, and Wyatt has remembered that he’s supposed to be looking for Mildred and Cuthbert Colepepper. He finds the latter sooner than he expects, when he returns to London and takes refuge with the Crutched Friars when it turns out that the sweat has returned and is decimating the city. The Crutched friars welcome him, “little dreaming that he, whom they thus solicited to enter, should afterwards, on the dissolution of their order, erect a noble house on the site of their monastery” as we’re told in one of the novel’s frequent historical call-forwards. Not only does he find refuge, he finds Cuthbert, on the verge of death and whose unconscious form is being harassed by monks to request extreme unction. Instead, he dies, after which one of the monks hits up Wyatt for change by telling him that “the Devil hath [Cuthbert’s] soul, unless some pious friend by holy masses procure his absolution.” Instead, Wyatt rifles through Cuthbert’s pockets and discovers a letter from Mildred which has her address on it and which demonstrates that she and he hadn’t been living in the same place. Hope renewed, Wyatt sets off towards Mildred’s house and discovers that she’s lodging with the family of one Thomas Bilney. The effects of her stay with them can be guessed, as Wyatt discovers her reading “strange sight – the Book of Life in the mother tongue!” “Oh!” Mildred tells Bilney, “What a mist there was on my path of life before I knew Him! How confused were all my thoughts! But now, I see my guiding star on high!”

This sets the pattern for the Mildred we’ll see in the remaining 750 pages. Her English Bible is her talisman and power source, and with it to guide her she is perpetually sweet, devoted, charitable to those of all religious persuasions, a tireless proselytizer, and self-sacrificing in the extreme. She’ll be the one who introduces Anne Boleyn to the English Bible and Protestant doctrine, and the reason she’s able to do this is that Wyatt finally tumbles to the fact that Mildred has an enormous crush on him, and since he has no interest in rattling around Allington with someone whose love he can’t return, he decides to make arrangements for her to go to court. But the court, including Henry Percy, has followed Henry VIII to Hever, so Wyatt and Mildred have to go there as well. Anne takes the first chance she can to hunt down Wyatt and ask him “how the gay wedding went off” meaning Percy’s wedding to Mary (what else could it mean?) and Wyatt gets an attack of selective memory and tells her that Percy went willingly to the altar and was dressed very well, without adding that Percy was shaking like a leaf and would rather have married Anne. Subsequently, Anne decides to give up on Percy, and lets herself be snowed by the King’s attentions, even as she gradually realizes just how great his ambitions are:

When, for the first time, Anne comprehended a portion of the scheme which was to enable her to supplant her royal mistress, a sovereign eminently good, and gracious to her servants, her warm feelings were shocked, and her sense of delicacy outraged, by such a prospect of injury and injustice to be inflicted for her sake … but parental influence, evil counsellors, the habit in which we all indulge in making what is agreeable to our own pride, appear the right path; disappointed affections, which were changed to bitterness; wounded pride, which turned to the dreams of ambition as its solace, slowly, and drop by drop, wore away its resistance.

On a more elevated note, Anne takes an instant shine to Mildred, which bodes well for Wyatt’s intentions of placing her at court – though in this Anne has a rival in the form of Sir George de Cobham, a liquor-sodden oaf, “slow of speech, and thick of comprehension” who thinks Mildred looks like a nice little dish and asks Wyatt for permission to marry her. Wyatt urges her to accept him – he does have money, after all, and “although he hath been entangled in the common gallantries of youth, but thou wilt reclaim him.” Mildred, unsurprisingly, isn’t exactly bowled over by this endorsement and refuses to marry, holding on to her English Bible to give her strength. She gets along rather better with de Cobham’s friend, Lord Leonard Grey, who’s charming and literate and perfect in all respects except that he isn’t Thomas Wyatt. And soon enough, Mildred is soothing Wyatt as he learns to his shock that
“the pious, the pure, the charitable Katharine, the Queen, is to be torn from her high estate … Anne will be Henry’s bride! – by cursed priestcraft the nuptial knot is unloosed … [Anne’s] better nature is subverted.” (The author adds sadly that this was “sanctioned by the virtuous Cranmer”, but is vague about the fact that Cranmer had gone well out of bounds by the time he did this). When Wyatt confronts Anne, she’s less than sympathetic – he already knew she didn’t love him, didn’t he? – but drops a hint that the King has heard rumours of his feelings for her, and to avert suspicion it might be good if he got married posthaste. “If thou wouldst save me from suspicion, marry.” Wyatt, ever obedient to Anne, resurrects a moribund match with Elizabeth Brooke, and Mildred is sent off to be an attendant on Anne, who has just been made Marchioness of Pembroke.

Wyatt tells her that by doing this, she’ll help him protect Anne from the evil influences swirling around her, but she doesn’t make much headway in the following months, as she accompanies Anne first to the Blackfriars Court and then to York Place. Anne is largely enjoying her new status, even as Henry continually “endeavour[ed] to persuade Anne to agree to a private marriage, a measure which she long, with a commendable spirit, resisted.” Anne also begins getting the attentions of gallants like Henry Norris and Francis Weston, who are well-intentioned and frivollous, and Mark Smeaton, who isn’t. One of the earliest in a long line of Smeatons who are stupid, evil, or a bit of both, here’s our first encounter with Mark as he plays the virginals at York Place:

The performer, before whom the virginals were placed, was a being low in stature, and of a spare, diminutive form; his attire denoted the meanest rank, and his wan countenance had a sinister expression, though not devoid of talent. He was a creature of Lady Rochford’s introduction into the polite circles of the court; and that designing woman stood near, eager to applaud her minion, and to recommend him to the notice of others.

Later on he’ll be described as curly-haired and handsome, though lecherous and unwholesome to be around, so he’s not entirely consistent, but it’s clear the the reader that he’s bad news. Anne, however, is quite taken with him, but Wyatt, who’s on one of his frequent visits to court, is not. Wyatt also ends up inadvertently triggering the final break with Rome when the King asks Wyatt what he should do about the Vatican’s foot-dragging and Wyatt, concerned that Anne will be debauched by Henry if this situation goes on much longer, tells Henry that “you might repent you of your sins without the Pope’s leave.” Henry, delighted, makes the final break and marries Anne at Sopewell nunnery. Mildred, meanwhile, has noticed Thomas Bilney doing penance after recanting his heresy and goes to visit him, where’s he broken with shame at having recanted at all. After he’s arrested again, she brings alms to his stricken mother and attempts, fruitlessly, to persuade an evil bishop to let him out of jail since he’s clearly dying of illness, but the bishop insists that Bilney die on the church’s schedule, not his own, and Bilney is burned.

Meanwhile, Anne is preparing miserably for her coronation; Henry has already become tired of her and is infatuated with the (genuinely) sweet and beautiful sixteen-year-old attendant, Jane Seymour, and Anne is racked with guilt over what she’s done to the former queen and fears that her own tenure won’t be long. Wyatt is racked with guilt in his turn, because his wife has died in childbirth and he’s kicking himself for spending so much time away from her – he didn’t dislike her, but he just didn’t find her very interesting and preferred the court. Both of them are confiding in Mildred, who has managed to convert both of them to the Protestant cause by her unfailingly perfect patience and self-sacrifice. As Anne tells her, “I am at last a believer in those doctrines which thy pure heart, thy patience and sincerity, first recommended to my notice. Yet I dare not, as yet, wholly profess them. Blame me not. The time may come when in those ancient temples in which our forefathers worshipped, we may hear the words of Holy Write in our own simple mother tongue.” Anne thinks that all that’s left to her now is the do a lot of charitable works and hope that she’s forgiven for her maltreatment of Catherine.

Certain factions at court are now at work to make sure that Anne’s reign is brief, and these factions are led by Jane Seymour’s brothers, the Duke of Norfolk and … Lady Rochford, a beautiful but vicious woman who drips with jewels, hates her husband for unspecified reasons, and is jealous of her sister-in-law’s virtue. They think that by far the best way to dispose of Anne is to frame her for adultery with one of the many young gentleman who are crushing on her, but unfortunately there’s an obstacle – Mildred. As long as Mildred is Anne’s faithful attendant, she’ll be there to testify to Anne’s adultery-free lifestyle, and so Mildred has to be gotten rid of. And what better way than a wedding? Since Henry VIII dearly loves a wedding and will impetuously marry random courtiers to each other if he feels so inclined, it doesn’t take much effort for Lady Rochford to persuade him that it’s high time Mildred married the still-devoted Lord Leonard Grey. The match is announced, and both parties are horrified; Mildred because she still loves Wyatt only, and Lord Leonard because while he’d be happy to marry her, he doesn’t relish the idea of her being forced into it. Since he’s as inclined to self-sacrifice as Mildred, he tells her that he’ll make sure the wedding doesn’t take place and will take the blame for it, and that she should go on as usual. She doesn’t, instead fleeing to Allington – a waste of effort, since Lord Leonard decided to flee to Ireland and so now both of them are persona non grata at court instead of just one of them. Anne, under the influence of her “sweet sister”, Lady Rochford, thinks that Mildred has betrayed her by running away. Mildred hears of this and is sad, but devotes herself to good works at Allington and doesn’t let herself become embittered.

This is in contrast to the erstwhile Princess Mary, whose mother has just died and who’s now chief mourner at her funeral – “early afflictions, wounded pride, and the influence of a gloomy and superstitious faith” are cited as the reasons why Mary’s “womanly nature” has been blighted. Mary’s bitterness is contrasted with Mildred’s sweet self-sacrifice, which seems rather unfair considering that Mildred is fictional and therefore doesn’t have any trouble being patient or forgiving. Before the funeral, Wyatt sneaks in to pay his last respects to Catherine’s corpse and also tell Cranmer (who’s in the vicinity) that he fears a plot against Anne. Cranmer, gentle and courteous as always, says essentially that he has no idea what to do about that. Wyatt leaves him and goes on to court, where the Candlemas celebrations are getting underway, spiced up by the news both of Catherine’s death and of Percy’s just-annulled marriage. Lady Rochford, skulking around Anne, keeps fishing for hints that Anne and Percy exchanged “vows” (of what sort is unspecified), and if that weren’t enough to make Anne’s adherents uneasy, she turns up at the ball in a colour calculated to shock, although she didn’t intend it:

In compliment to Katherine, and in conformity to French fashions, which assigned to the mourning for queens the colour of yellow, Anne was attired in yellow damask, a circumstance which her enemies knew well how to represent to her disadvantage.

The King, who’s described as “subdued”, is not pleased. Still less is he pleased when Anne undergoes a “premature confinement” otherwise not elaborated on, which has been partially caused by his cruelty. But the time the end of April (Anne’s birthday) comes around, she’s regained her spirits and ready to argue with Wyatt about Mildred (Anne is still angry at her) and Smeaton, whom Wyatt regards as a blot on Anne’s household. “The wretch flatters, fawns, sings; and every word of compliment, act of grace, even the audacious outpourings of his base soul in song, degrade, deceive you, and ruin!” Anne tartly informs him that “He hath an excellent gift of music … I would rather doff my cap to Smeaton, than to one your high-born courtiers, whose spirits would not be abashed.” Finally they agree to let the conversation lie and take it up again at the May Day tourney tomorrow.

The tourney ends unexpectedly with Smeaton, Weston and Norris being arrested (but not Brereton – he’s mentioned briefly earlier but never again, though presumably his omission here was accidental) and Anne going back to Greenwich in terror of what will happen to her – a series of events helpfully narrated for us by Thomas Cromwell, who’s instructing his nephew on the art of politics and explaining what he’s seeing in front of him. “Deep political schemes, long meditated, are coming into operation. Two factions contend for the mastery” – these being the Norfolk faction and the Seymour faction. Cromwell is naturally disgusted by these proceedings – “an expression of contempt sat upon his bold and manly face.” But as much as he loathes what’s happening, he doesn’t seem able to do anything to stop it, and Anne is promptly arrested the next day, along with her brother; on being informed that George faces the same charge of high treason that the others do, she faints, and is taken to the Tower. It’s never spelled out exactly what this charge entails, by the way – the word “incest” is never mentioned, and Lady Rochford’s plot to frame Anne is described very circuitously. An innocent reader of 1842 might well have missed the incest subtext altogether. Regardless, Anne goes to the Tower, and Wyatt is put under house arrest. Lord Leonard Grey, however, is not. Remember him? He fled to Ireland at the beginning of Volume III but has now returned and is working for Sir William Kingston. He decides that best course of action is to go to Allington and tell Mildred the news, and Mildred, unsurprisingly, asks him to bring her back and smuggle her into the Tower so she can help Anne in her hour of need. Which he does, Mildred carrying her English Bible all the while, and she consoles Anne before and after her trial – during which she gets yet another shock when, after she admits to the court that she was truly vowed to Henry Percy, a statement is read from Percy denying this and making an oath on the Sacrament, meaning that there’s no pre-contract between them and Anne’s marriage to the King is judged to be valid. She’s condemned, and after a last night with Mildred and a prophetic dream that Elizabeth will one day overthrow Papistry, she’s executed. She describes her offenses as “falsely alleged” and gives Mildred her prayerbook, but otherwise it takes place much as the history books tell us it did.

Percy, who’s described as having become a debased emotionless degenerate since he lost Anne, nonetheless has enough humanity left in him to go to Hever and beg forgiveness from Anne’s parents – apparently he was tricked into giving the statement denying their vows, having been told that denying it would save her life. Mildred, asked by Wyatt what she wants to do now, says she has no happiness other than to return to Allington, at which Wyatt tells her, “I could ill spare thence, Mildred.” “And with these few words,” the author tells us, “the devotion of years – the surrender of her youthful days to the vain effort to cheer a broken-hearted man, were to Mildred amply repaid.”

She won’t enjoy the broken-hearted man’s company much longer, as he dies soon afterwards, nursed by her to the end. Anne Boleyn’s parents don’t live much longer, either (though Elizabeth unhistorically survives to see Katherine Howards’s fall), and Percy goes gentle into the good night as well. One man manages to survive, though – Lord Leonard Grey. A few years after Anne’s death he slopes around to Allington once more, where since Wyatt’s death Mildred has been reduced to living in a cottage, but Lord Leonard still gazes on her “altered countenance” with delight. She marries him, “touched by the devotion of one whose love had so long been unrequited,” and together they spend their lives trying to “reform the bad, console the unhappy, and shelter the friendless.”

And that, friends, at long last is

THE

END.

SEX OR POLITICS? Religion, with a hint of politics. Events like the Blackfriars Court get an obligatory depiction, but the real focus of attention is on the characters’ religious inclinations. Anyone praying “mechanically” is Catholic, whereas those whose souls are suffused with the joy brought about by reading the Bible in English are Protestant. Thomas Cranmer serves as both a religious ideal and a political warning.

WHEN BORN? Anne’s age floats about a bit, but by the end of the book her birthday appears to be April 30, 1510. The “gay gentlemen” of the court are celebrating her birthday on the day before the May Day tournaments, and at her trial she’s said to be “scarcely twenty-six years of age.” King Henry is spared from the charge of pedophilia by the fact that the events of real life are telescoped here considerably. Mary Boleyn is said to be younger, and George is older, but ages and birthdays are not given. Mildred is sixteen years old at the beginning of the story, but it’s not stated how old she is at the end except that she’s “no longer a blooming girl,” but considering what she’s been through she wouldn’t have to be that much older. Considering how accordion-like the timeline is, it’s not really practical to try and deduce her birth year.

THE EARLY LOVE: Henry Percy is at the front here, with the rest nowhere. Despite Anne’s worship of him, he’s not a particularly appealing suitor – after he and Anne get permission from the Queen to marry, he’s nonetheless bullied into breaking it off by Cardinal Wolsey and accepts the alternative match pushed on him with much weeping and trembling. He swiftly goes on to earn the reputation of a “dissolute” man, the nickname of “Henry the Unthrifty” and is described at the end as being “a wreck of a man” who gets tricked by Anne’s enemies into swearing he never had a pre-contract with her and inadvertently condemning her. “In Lord Percy’s debased mind, no tender remembrance … was harboured in the breast.” Despite Anne’s protests throughout, along the lines of “O, that I had fled with Percy to Holland, Germany, any where – hid my head in some humble hut, rather than that this joyless fate should be my lot!” it’s hard to find much to say about this Percy except that, well, he could have been worse.

Thomas Wyatt is also obsessively in love with Anne, but she never returns his feelings and he knows it. He contents himself with pining, sending Mildred to court to help protect her, and writing “A Face That Should Content Me Wond’rous Well” (though the reference to her tresses “of cresped golde” is puzzling, since it’s stated several times that Anne has dark hair). “She loved me not,” says Wyatt to Lady Willoughby early in 1536, as he realizes that Anne is looking down the barrel of her own doom. “I, in folly, from year to year, wasted my days in hopes and dreams, which have long since been resigned – not forgotten.” Nonetheless he does his best to warn her about the plots being formed against her, and gets little appreciation for his pains until it’s too late.

THE QUEEN’S BEES: Mildred is, naturally, the chief of these – the only one whom Anne can trust (how many fictional maids answer that description! But I think Mildred may be the earliest example). Jane Seymour appears at court at the age of sixteen, early in 1533, already the object of Henry’s interest (he had ordered her father to send her to court after seeing her at Wolf Hall). Jane is very gently handled here, described as “sweet” and “innocent” – the reason for this likely lies in the author’s description of her as being firmly devoted to the Protestant cause. At the end, she and Henry are engaged, and we’re told that Jane was ultimately fortunate in her fate. “Let not posterity judge too harshly of the fair flower, which God in his mercy called, ere she had been wholly contaminated …. It was not without a contest that Jane surrendered to despotic sway her freedom and principles.” (This doesn’t mean she was physically forced, but rather that her ambitious brothers badgered her into it).

The only other named lady-in-waiting is Lady Rochford, who is everything that we’d expect and more. Not only does she cover herself in gems in order to “throw her spells on various men”, she’s also deathly jealous of Anne. “Such jealousy and malignity as the vicious are known to feel against the innocent, rankled in the heart of the profligate woman. `Would I could ruin thee!’ was the thought that rose to her lips – exchanged, indeed, for bland sentiments and flattering caresses.” Lady Rochford’s greed for jewels and lovers pairs a little strangely with her desire to see her sister-in-law and husband torn down, considering how much her status depended on theirs, but presumably she’s too much in the grip of malice to really think her strategy through. Also strange is the quick-witted Anne’s utter belief in her sincerity even after she contrives to elbow Mildred away from court and start lying to Anne about her erstwhile best friend. The exact nature of her trial testimony against George is left unstated, and we’re told:

Mysteriously have the documents disappeared which contained Lady Rochford’s allegations; and we can only guess the details of her horrible testimony. The tyrant who listened to the shameful and profligate accuser of some of the noblest of his subjects, carefully destroyed the evidence which was of too transparent a construction to be disclosed to public view.

It’s an interesting and frustrating passage – like many historians after her, the author doesn’t seem to have considered the possibility that the “horrible testimony” may never have been there to be destroyed. One can hardly blame her – numerous authorities had already stated that Lady Rochford testified to her husband committing incest, full stop – but the hint that something was a bit amiss about Lady Rochford’s testimony is notable.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Wyatt’s housekeeper Mistress Judith, who raised Mildred from a child and is one of those comically accented yet thoroughly grounded individuals who provides a nice balance to the dramatic agonies of Wyatt, Mildred, and everyone around them. Anne also has a servant at Hever named Janet, described as an old maid grown sour in the service of the Boleyn family, but who nonetheless is at least graciously tolerant of Anne’s run-on chattering about Percy and the King.

THE PROPHECY: A number of gloomy presentiments are present, but the big one comes from Anne. Explaining to Mildred and Wyatt why she finds the “Book of Prophecies” so unnerving, she says “Blame me not, for I know my doom. It has been predicted to me. Often, when the wine cup is passed from lip to lip, and mirth is at its height, when the halls vibrate with the dance, and the song calls forth echoes from the vaulted roof, does my doom appear before me. Nay, I see the stage, the scaffold, the block, the headless and bloody trunk.” Who made the prediction is never stated. On the last night of her life, Anne tells Mildred of a dream she had of her grandfather, who told her “Anne, thy daughter will be blessed – her birth will be found lawful … and she will be the overthrow of Papistry.”

IT’S A GIRL! We don’t see Henry’s reaction directly (we see very little of Henry directly, as the author acknowledges in her afterword) but as she’s recovering, Anne tells Mildred “Were my Elizabeth a son, the King would love me better; – but never mind – never mind, Mildred; she will be such a daughter as there never was! … His Grace chides me – that he is disappointed – nay, really Mildred, unkind to me, in this my state of weakness.”

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? No. This is a very rare example of a pre-Strickland novel, and the sixth finger hadn’t yet become part of the novelistic canon, so no. The wen isn’t there either.

FAMILY AFFAIRS: Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn are both ambitious to a fault, but the major villain here is Elizabeth. Thomas is “pliant” and much more affectionate towards his children than their mother: “a grave and a weak, but kind-hearted rather than prudent … the absence of domestic sympathy in his wife had, perhaps, endeared his children the more strongly to his heart.” His affection isn’t strong enough to withstand his own craven desire to remain in favour with the King, however (the author several times makes withering references to the fact that Thomas Boleyn would later attend Prince Edward’s christening – “which should tell us all that we need know about him.”) He’s inclined to defer to his wife, who as a beautiful, forceful woman who was born to a much grander family than his own and is described as “the personification of family pride.” When Percy comes to apologize to them after Anne’s fall, Thomas is a feeble, unhappy, confused old man, and Elizabeth refuses even to listen to him, preferring instead to condemn her daughter outright (although she gets slightly emotional when George is mentioned).

George Boleyn is remarkably consistent over the centuries, and this one is no exception. He and Anne are much more similar to each other than to their sister Mary; he and Anne are “so beautiful, so loving, so alike!” He dresses, loves music and poetry, and as a bonus he’s a good looker too. We hear that he has “a manly brow, full of intelligence and sweetness, qualities, however, which could not rescue him from a tragic and untimely end.”

Mary Boleyn, described as being Anne’s younger sister, is barely present in the novel – her existence is acknowledge several times, mostly when other characters are making invidious comparisons between her and Anne – “Mary is puerile, commonplace, cautious, insignificant. Anne is high-spirited, generous, imprudent and warm – and two such beings never can agree,” says Lord Leonard at one point, and Mary’s bygone affair with the King is hinted at – “whether his Majesty wavereth between the youthful beauties, the die is cast and Mary hath been rejected – Anne chosen.” Of course, from the phrasing, it’s not clear whether Henry did much more than look at Mary admiringly. However, we see Mary only once – at Anne’s coronation, when she shares a chariot with Lady Rochford, and the latter tries to get her to spill some tasty gossip about whether Anne was ever attracted to Wyatt. Mary, commonplace and insignificant though she might be, doesn’t rise to the bait and tells her blandly that there was never anything between them that she knew. And that’s the last we see of her.

An Aunt Ursula Boleyn is also living with the family at Hever, and the main purpose of her existence seems mainly to be griping about her nieces and scolding them. At the end, she becomes one of the hostile maids who wait on – and spy on – Anne when she’s in the Tower. (While it’s true that one of Anne’s hostile attendants was her aunt, she wasn’t named Ursula, so I’m not sure why the name was changed).

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: A lot of it is fairly turgid – I’ve quoted some of the more purple dialogue, though I haven’t bothered with the long, long descriptions of the settings – the first scene in any new locale will inevitably have a three or four-page hemorrhage of description preceding any actual activity from the characters. The descriptions are interesting in themselves and were probably more appreciated when it was written, since there’s a lot of interesting historical trivia in them, and novelists often took a lot of time to back into their subjects with elaborate scene-setting. But for a twenty-first century reader, they didn’t do much more than drag the story back and kill any momentum it had been gathering. The pious exposition hasn’t worn terribly well either. However, there were a few moments when I wondered what might have been if the author had let herself go a little more. For example, in the scene where Mistress Judith tells Wyatt that Mildred and Cuthbert have (supposedly) eloped, she’s described thus:

Hers was the soul of Elihab, the friend of the pious Job, transmigrated and incarnefied in a portly female form. She related her alarm and anxieties with the minuteness of a connoisseur. The art of working up the disturbed and fretted spirit to agony, is one in which the sex are peculiarly adept. Men pass over details. Women are too conscientious to spare their hearers one pang.

Not quite Jane Austen, but I was still amused.

ERRATA: For all the author did more research than most, this is an old-fashioned romance in that it’s much more “inspired by” than “based on” anything that actually happened, and a number of the things that actually did happen take place at dramatically wrong times, which can change their significance greatly. The chief example here is Henry Percy’s denying a pre-contract with Anne on oath, and taking the Sacrament afterward to show his sincerity. He did precisely that – not in 1536, when Anne was in danger of her life, but in 1530, when Anne was essentially the Queen-elect and Percy’s own wife petitioned for an annulment on the grounds of his supposed pre-contract with Anne. Percy’s denial was entirely to Anne’s advantage at that time. Which is not to say that there was no 1536 denial, there was, but the previous denial was already on the record, for what that was worth. And despite the petitions, the Percy marriage was never actually annulled – it ended with his death in 1537. Another unorthodox marital end was Wyatt’s – far from being dangerously single for most Anne’s youth, he was married quite young – and acrimoniously, as it turned out. While he eventually separated from his wife (who did not die in childbirth, but outlived him) their marriage was never annulled. In fact, the whole pre-contract business is handled very clumsily, since it’s not at all clear in the first volume that there were any vows to break – Percy is shaking at his wedding and Anne is pining after him, but never does either one of them say that this can’t happen because they were pre-contracted. It simply isn’t mentioned, not even briefly so it can be discreetly hushed up by their families, so it was jarring to discover in the last volume that they had, in fact, really been pre-contracted and presumably their subsequent marriages really were invalid. There may have been subtle hints in the first volume which I missed, but I read it pretty thoroughly, and really cannot remember anything. I have no idea what caused this inconsistency, unless it’s that portraying Anne as being an even partially-willing bigamist might not have gone over so well with the readers.

Many, many events are telescoped – Anne is made Marchioness of Pembroke right after Henry decides to marry her, the annulment chase and break with Rome take about six months, and overall the whole story doesn’t seem to last more than about five years at the absolute most. And there are numerous small and not-so-small errors of fact, which are too numerous to list here, but among them are these: Jane Seymour was born a good deal earlier than 1520, Princess Mary was not chief mourner at her mother’s funeral (according to Antonia Fraser’s history, the chief mourner was actually Lady Eleanor Brandon, daughter of Mary Rose Tudor), and while Anne may or may not have worn yellow after Catherine’s death, it was not the colour of mourning of France. The celebration held after Catherine’s death was not on Candlemas – that was still a month away. The author also seems not to be very familiar with church feasts; she has Wyatt, in late summer, telling someone he’ll attend them “by the feast of the Annunciation”, meaning right away, when the Annunciation is actually celebrated in late March. I think that may have been a mixup with the Assumption, which is in August, but it was still distracting. That isn’t it, but it’s enough for now.

One note: Lord Leonard Grey was real, and a descendant of Elizabeth Woodville’s first marriage (meaning his blood connection with the king was just enough to be dangerous to him — and he did in fact end by being beheaded). The author says in her afterword that she took the liberty of making him younger, as the real Lord Leonard was middle-aged by the time the events of the book took place. The real Lord Leonard also appears to have had virtually nothing in common with his fictional counterpart, to the point where it’s difficult to see why he was chosen as the romantic lead when the author could just have easily invented someone for Mildred. Nonetheless, here he represents a first: instead of a real woman marrying an imaginary man, he’s a real man who marries an imaginary woman.

WORTH A READ? If you’re interested in early historical and religious novels, and especially in early fiction about Anne Boleyn, this book is a gold mine, but when it comes to general-interest reading – no, please don’t do that to yourself. It’s not that it’s badly written, but it’s certainly not written particularly well, and it is cruelly long. Mildred is such a static character that reading about her is draining; she prays, gives of herself, reads her Bible and does what her beloved Wyatt tells her, always, with no hope of return. Her character doesn’t develop in the slightest; even at the end, she seems to be marrying Lord Leonard largely because he’s the only male lead still alive and because he represents a last opportunity to make a man happy by giving of herself.

Anne is different, but the problem with her lies in the fact that we don’t see her in action enough. There’s a lot of description, but the book is shy about actually showing us her surrendering to her ambition or mistreating Princess Mary (which she later confesses she has done, in the oft-rendered scene where she asks Lady Kingston to be her proxy in apologizing to Mary). Her best moments are when we see her with Wyatt – she knows he’s pining after her, is impatient with him, and has no problem sending him about his business if the occasion demands it. But otherwise we mostly hear of her unpleasant actions, while what we see ourselves are her good actions and her unhappiness.

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From → Book Overviews

6 Comments
  1. I’m impressed that you made it all the way through! I probably would’ve given up around the end of Part I.

    The quoted descriptions of Catholicism fascinate me, though, especially this business about formulaic, mechanical prayers. Is that a criticism you’ve seen leveled before? Obviously there was a deep divide between Catholics and Protestants, but I’ve always heard that it was issues of doctrine; complaints about formulaic prayers is a new one on me.

    On the other hand, Mechanical Catholics would be an excellent band name.

    • sonetka permalink

      It was something of a slog, though I’ve probably given the impression that it’s worse than it is. It’s pretty decently written and certainly nothing like some of the horrors which are still in print, but it’s much easier to read bad literature of your own era than mediocre literature from another, and at least today’s bad literature tends to be comparatively brief.

  2. Annalucia permalink

    Re: mechanical prayers. That was one of the things for which RC practice was denounced – that they were mumbling prayers in a language they couldn’t even understand, while the Reformers prayed in their own language and were therefore more heartfelt and sincere. Of course by the 19th century the Church of England was as ossified in its prayers and rituals as Rome ever was, though I don’t know if that was an issue for Mrs. Thomson.

    “Mildred” doesn’t sound right for the Tudor period – it’s an old Saxon name, but those had pretty well disappeared by Tudor times, hadn’t they? – and weren’t really back in fashion until the 19th century.

    • sonetka permalink

      It doesn’t sound right, but it’s possible — like Lindsey says below, there was at least one Elizabethan Mildred (and speaking of “it sounds anachronistic but it’s not”, Mary Tudor had a maid of honour named Mabel Browne). And yes, it was the saying prayers in Latin and not understanding them, whereas reading the Bible in English made everything instantly clear and let you pray spontaneously from the heart. The Little Professor, on my sidebar, has forgotten more about Victorian religious novels than I’ll ever know, and she describes this sort of thing as the Magic Bible trope.

  3. It may be possible that it’s a response to the Acts of Parliament, in the 1830s, giving more freedom to Catholics? For mechanical prayers, you could call it the Mumpsimus effect!

    Lord Burghley’s wife was called Mildred so it was not an unknown name in Tudor times but probably more popular in Victorian times. Perhaps the author included it because of that.

    • sonetka permalink

      It could well be — I should clarify that though it’s anti-Catholic, it’s not virulently so; the author tells us numerous times that virtue can appear anywhere and holds up Catherine of Aragon and Thomas More as being basically Wrong But Wromantic, and the criticism of monasteries and nunneries is on the “deprived of a natural part of life” grounds, not Maria Monk stuff. The Little Professor, on my sidebar, is the one who really knows about Victorian religious novels; I’d love to read her analysis of this one someday.

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