Anna Boleyn Relates The History Of Her Life by Henry and Sarah Fielding (1743)
“I am going now truly to recount a Life, which from the Time of its ceasing, has been, in the other World, the continual Subject of the Cavils of contending Parties; the one making me as black as Hell, the other as pure and innocent as the Inhabitants of this blessed place; the Mist of Prejudice blinding their Eyes, and Zeal for what they themselves profess, making every thing appear in that Light, which they think most conduces to its Honour.”
With these still-timely words, Anne Boleyn begins the short narrative which makes up the last portion of Henry Fielding’s Journey From This World To The Next. This book is exactly what it says on the tin: Fielding, posing as the editor of a manuscript found on discarded wrapping-paper, gives us humourous and satirical life histories from various people now residing in the afterlife. The most notable of these is Julian the Apostate, who recounts a long series of inglorious reincarnations as (among other things) a Fop, A Beau, a Taylor, and a Poet so ungifted that “there were few who would submit to hearing me read my Poetry, even at the price of sharing in my Provisions. The only Person who gave me audience was a Brother Poet; he indeed fed me with Commendation very liberally: but as I was forced to hear and commend in my turn, I perhaps bought his Attention dear enough.”
Julian’s narrative breaks off in mid-sentence, followed by a teasing footnote that the next chapter is “writ in a Woman’s hand, and … I am inclined to think it was really written by one of that Sex.” Ian Bell and Andrew Varney, the editors of my own edition of this work, believe that the stylistic differences in the Anna Boleyn chapter, as well as a subsequent history of collaboration between Henry Fielding and his sister Sarah (who went on to publish several novels of her own) point to the conclusion that the true author of this chapter was Sarah Fielding. Since it’s not absolutely established, I’m splitting the difference here and crediting it to both of them — Henry as the originator of the story and Sarah as the likely writer of this particular portion of it.
The editors tell us in the notes that “In keeping with Fielding’s Protestant historiography, his version of Anne Boleyn explicitly takes sides against the Catholic demonizing which presented her as the architect of the Reformation …. He also takes the orthodox Protestant line on a number of other controversial matters, including the date of Anne’s return to England from France and the nature of her relationship with Henry Percy.” (p. 231). Taking the “orthodox Protestant line” of 1743, however, does not mean that this Anne is the sort of woman her modern Protestant advocates would particularly admire. Her good works and charitable deeds are allotted all of one sentence just before the end, in which Anne comforts herself that to balance out her misdeeds, “from the Time I had it in my power, I gave a great deal of Money amongst the Poor, I prayed very devoutly, and went to my Execution very composedly.”
Roughly eighty percent of the “history”, however, relates to Anne’s early romances, and these take on a Protestant slant only in the sense that we understand she was still a virgin by the time they were concluded. Not that she was innocent by a long shot — after an idyllic childhood with affectionate parents (“my Parents were not among the Number of those who look upon their Children as so many Objects of a Tyrannic Power, but I was regarded as the dear Pledge of a virtuous Love”) she goes at the age of seven to France, to wait first upon Mary Rose and secondly upon Queen Claude. Herein she spends several pages giving us her account of her first love — an unnamed person at the French court, whom she falls for hard and very obviously. After a while, the unnamed gallant is “preferring her to all other Women … [and] now first my Female Heart grew sensible of the spiteful Pleasure of seeing another languish for what I enjoy’d.”
But the flame soon sputters; the Frenchman turns out to be “one of those Men, whose only End in the persuit of a Woman, is to make her fall a Victim to an insatiable Desire to be admired.” Anne begins to pine and become ill, but at her low point decides that living well will be the best revenge on him and upon the other ladies, who all enjoyed the sight of Anne’s ultimate rejection very much. “The only Method to pique the Man, who had used me so barbarously, and to be revenged on my spightful Rivals, was to recover that Beauty, which was then languid … to let them see I had still Charms enough to engage as many Lovers as I could desire.” She then sets to work sharpening her flirting skills — “I observed that most Men generally liked in Women what was most opposite to their own Characters,” she advises us, going on to say that serious men prefer sprightly women, amorous men cold and reserved women, and in a line that Jane Austen may have appreciated, “those sort of Men, whose Desires are centered in the Satisfaction of their Vanity … the only way to deal with them was to laugh at them, and let their own good Opinion of themselves be the only Support of their Hopes.”
After three years of this lively education, Anne is brought home to Hever by her father, who’s concluded his embassy in France. She finds it pleasanter than she expected, and like many a future heroine of romance, realizes that she’s at her happiest when living the tranquil country life and indulging in “such innocent rural Amusements; which, altho’ they are not capable of affording any great Pleasure, yet they give that serene Turn to the Mind, which I think much preferable to any thing else Human Nature is susceptible of.” This tranquility is disturbed by the advent of Lord Percy, who encounters Thomas Boleyn after becoming lost during a fox-hunt, is invited to Hever for dinner, and ends up staying for three days, following Anne around all the time and soon professing his love for Anne, who, though she lacks ambition at this point, enjoys his company and doesn’t mind the idea of becoming a countess. Percy asks Anne’s father for his consent, and the wedding is fixed for March (no year specified).
But before that month, a spanner is thrown into the works: Percy’s father tells him to attend court for an evening event, and Percy invites Anne to go along with him. A few days later, a startled and unhappy Percy is telling Anne that Cardinal Wolsey has summarily forbidden him to marry her, parental agreement be damned. Neither of them has any idea what this is about, but Anne soon discovers the truth when her father summons her to a private conference, to “let me into a Secret which was as little wished for as expected.” In short, would she like to become Queen of England? Anne tells him that she has no desire to go back to court and has a sufficiently well-born suitor already in hand, and that “I found this Discourse very displeasing.” But her father isn’t having it — calling her a “romantick Fool”, he presses her with the information that Henry, after seeing Anne, has decided to divorce Catherine and has told Anne’s father to get her to court as a maid of honour so that Henry might have convenient access to her.
Anne, although distressed by her father’s suddenly-apparent mercenary qualities (he “only looked on me as a Ladder, on which he could climb to the Height of his own ambitious Desires”) is nonetheless tempted. “I was very sincere in my Declaration, how much it was against my Will to be raised so high; yet now the Prospect came nearer, I confess my Heart fluttered, and my Eyes were dazzled with the View of being seated on a Throne.” Her father departs, telling her to pack her things for court, and Anne, recovering from her attack of ambition, goes off to tell Percy what sort of trouble they’re in.
I expected he would have received the News with the greatest Agonies; but he shewed no vast Emotion; however he could not help turning pale; and taking me by the Hand, looked at me with an Air of Tenderness, and said, “If being a Queen will make you happy, and it’s in your Power to be so, I would not for the World prevent it, let me suffer what I will.” This amazing Greatness of Mind had on me quite the contrary Effect, from what it ought to have had: for instead of increasing my Love for him, it almost put an end to it; and I began to think if he could part with me, the matter was not much. And I am convinced, when any Man gives up the Possession of a Woman, whose Consent he has once obtained, let his Motive be ever so generous, he will disoblige her.
Percy’s disappointingly gentleman-like conduct leaves Anne adrift and unsure what to do, and finally she decides on the path of least resistance; to leave Percy behind and go to court — she can’t stand the sight of the king, but that’s not a problem, as “this Aversion he believed to be Virtue; for how credulous is a Man who has an Inclination to believe? And I took care sometimes to drop Words of Cottages and Love, and how happy the Woman was who fixed her Affections on a Man in such a Station of Life, that she might show her Love, without being suspected of Hypocrisy or mercenary Views.” She also pretends to take Catherine of Aragon’s part in order to keep Henry thoroughly inflamed (long experiencing of learning how to manage men is definitely paying off here). Even less sympathetically, she sets up Princess Mary by sending informers among her women who set her up to say unflattering things about the king, afterwards making sure that the king hears every word of what she said, while insinuating that Mary was speaking not of her own accord but on instructions from her mother. Since “nothing is easier than to make a Man angry with a Woman he wants to be rid of,” before long Henry is banishing Catherine, procuring his own annulment and making Anne a marquess and — after his “Desires grew very impatient” — his queen.
As in many subsequent renditions of the story, Anne’s queenship proves to be a poisoned chalice. She’s always hated Henry — she makes that very clear — but at least before they were married she could coyly withdraw or go to the country without him for a while. Now she’s stuck with him every single day, and it doesn’t cause her aversion to lessen. Anne despairingly compares her situation with that of a fox-hunter who spends all day riding only to discover that his reward is “a stinking nauseous animal.” At least the hunter has the satisfaction of leaving “the loathesome Wretch to be torn by his Hounds, whilst I was obliged to fondle mine, and meanly pretend him to be the Object of my Love.”
Furthermore, the disgusting creature she has to embrace is the only person she can talk to — now that she’s been elevated so high, there’s no woman she trusts with her confidences, since they all have their own ambitions which don’t necessarily align with hers. In attempting to brave the “Snakes and Adders” around her, she sometimes overdoes it and appears so frivolous that the king is virtuously shocked by her light behavior. Anne doesn’t mind — the less she sees of him, the better, even when he shuns her after their son is stillborn. Of course, this is the moment for him to notice Jane Seymour (who is unnamed, and whose role is largely passive), and when the “Court-Sycophants” notice that Anne’s influence has declined, they leap in with accusations of misbehavior based on Anne’s having “talk’d ridiculous Stuff with a Set of low Fellows,” which she acknowledges was foolish, but no more. Henry, anxious to believe the charges, has her packed off to the Tower with the five men, including her own (unnamed) brother, whom she assures us was only ever a friend to her. The results of her trial are foreordained, although the king decides against burning her alive and decides instead to have her humanely beheaded — “he was graciously pleased, from the great Remains of his Love, to chuse the mildest Sentence.”
Anne is almost relieved to go; her time as queen has featured “so little Enjoyment” and so many regrets (“my ill Usage of the Lady Mary, and my jilting Lord Peircy” among them) that even her charitable works and virtuous conduct as queen don’t seem like the sorts of things she wants to go on living for. And in the end she realizes — as many subsequent Annes also would realize — that despite the “Coquetry and Gaiety”, violent passion, and unlikely elevation to queen, her only real happiness came when she “lived retired in the Country, free from all Noise and Hurry; and while I was conscious, I was the Object of the Love and Esteem of a Man of Sense and Honour.” The eighteenth century and Philippa Gregory aren’t as far apart as you might think.
This is the end of Anne’s narrative, but we learn in the postscript that Minos, gatekeeper to the Afterlife, decides to admit Anne “on the Consideration, That whoever had suffered being a Queen for four Years, and been sensible during all that time of the real Misery which attends that exalted Station, ought to be forgiven whatever she had done to obtain it.” Satirical to the last, she departs, and with that the book ends.
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