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I, Anne Boleyn by Victoria Allen (1978)

March 12, 2014

At less than a hundred and fifty pages long, this book has a lot of action to pack into it, and while it doesn’t always succeed, it at least takes a valiant shot at showing a different perspective on Anne Boleyn’s relationship with Henry VIII. Instead of choosing one of several familiar scenarios – Anne has been thwarted by love and marries only for ambition, Anne marries Henry to spread the Gospel – this Anne acts out a depressingly common story: she marries Henry thinking that she can change him.

After a prologue in which the anguished Anne is spending her last night alive thinking about the past, we see her idyllic childhood with her older sister and brother and her governess, who for once is named not Simonette but Susan. The idyll ends early though – at the age of six, Anne is sent off to attend Princess Mary Rose to France and to stay on with Queen Claude, where after learning the usual lessons about how women are mere pieces on a political chessboard, she’s called back to England to be sent first to Hever and then to court. The reasons for her recall are mysterious, but she eventually learns first from her overjoyed brother and then from her less-than-overjoyed father that Mary, having already developed something of a reputation in France, has proceeded to double down by becoming King Henry’s mistress and getting pregnant by him (after which event she was hastily married off to William Carey, more than willing to provide a respectable cover for her). Anne herself has been recalled to Hever so that her parents can keep an eye on her and get her marriage arranged before any similar accidents overtake her, and a marriage is arranged in short order – to Henry Percy. After their betrothal is formalized, her father feels it’s safe to send her to court for a time before she gets married, but he’s reckoning with Henry VIII, depicted here as a slave to Priapus who leaves a mysterious crop of redheaded babies in every town he so much as rides through. Unfortunately, none of his many surviving sons have been born to Catherine of Aragon, but there’s still hope, as she’s pregnant once again and this baby might make it.

Anne attends Catherine during her pregnancy and develops a strong affection for her, but unfortunately all of Anne’s caretaking goes for nothing when Catherine gives birth to a stillborn boy after a long and exhausting labour. “I could not feel anything,” Anne thinks at the end. “Not anguish for the Queen, no sorrow for the King; but a great weariness at what had to be done now. For I must comfort Catherine, offer words of sympathy and encouragement to her. Yet what could I possibly tell her that had not been said to her countless times before?” She doesn’t get the chance to find out, since the enraged, drunken King Henry has found out what has happened and grabs Anne, demanding that she offer him comfort instead. “Anne Boleyn, come, you will obey your King! You will drink with me. We shall celebrate together!” He’s very drunk, and in a very ugly mood, and quickly moves on from mocking Anne for wanting to comfort Catherine to demanding sympathy for himself, since the baby was his as well and he’s not the one whose sin is responsible for the child’s being dead. Before long, he’s trying to undo Anne’s bodice and telling her that she doesn’t have a choice. “The Boleyns have risen in the world with the help of their King. And now he demands payment!”

Anne manages to escape by becoming indignant and telling him that her body is reserved for her future husband alone, and she soon learns what a mistake that was when Henry Percy is sent north for the duration and promptly married off to Mary Talbot. Then the king begins to move in, playing much more nicely than he did before but still under the assumption that Anne will give in sooner rather than later and that his marital state has nothing in particular to do with her. In fact, the idea that he should make her queen doesn’t cross either his mind or hers first – the one to see that potentiality is George Boleyn. “If it be the only way he can get you, if it be what you both want,” he tells Anne. “Only tread warily … Do not let Henry see the way his path lies, until he walks along it.” Anne herself, already confused about her feelings for Henry (repulsed by his cruelty, but loving his vitality and obsession with her) finds the idea easier to get used to than she expected. After all, she tells herself, it will actually help the country as well, not just her family. As she tells her skeptical parents, when they ask how she really feels about him:

I answered truthfully that my heart and mind were filled with a loving tenderness towards him; all I wanted was to make him happy, to give him an heir and to be a good and constant companion to him, guiding him in his leadership of the nation. I told her gravely that I was certain I could melt his hard heart, for I knew that once he held a son in his arms he would be a different person, a changed man. There would be no more cruel tortures, fewer executions, and his people would see how good I was for him.

The people themselves don’t see it that way, however; once Wolsey and Catherine have been bundled offstage and Anne is crowned, they refuse to cheer for her and she begins to realize just how much she has riding on her pregnancy. Luckily she has her cousin to help her out: Jane Seymour, infinitely patient, always saying the right thing and encouraging her to keep going. And of course, she has the cadre of court gentleman (including a very young and starry-eyed Mark Smeaton) who are happy to sit and talk with her when Henry has gone stomping and bellowing off in search of non-gravid female company elsewhere.

Elizabeth’s birth causes Henry to burst into a rage, and while he apologizes afterwards (proceeding to get Anne pregnant again), Anne has become all too cognizant of the fact that Henry is not changing any time soon and may not even if he does get his prince. Which he does not – she miscarries a boy in early 1534, and loses a boy at full term in February of 1536, by which time the friendly Jane has started to become strangely evasive, and Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell, never friendly at the best of times, have taken to walking in on her during a lot of awkward moments — Smeaton serenading her, George embracing her, and similar incriminating activities. Still, she doesn’t quite understand what they’re looking for. “I had known that the Archbishop despised me as much as had Wolsey, had known also that he and Thomas Cromwell often visited the King. But that they had discussed my own future never entered my head.” But when Smeaton disappears and later is produced by Cromwell, complete with a rack-induced confession, she realizes too late what’s going on.

Arrests, trial, and final night all go by in the space of a couple of pages – the only notable feature is that, for once in a pre-2007 book, the incest charge is not produced by Lady Rochford; in fact, she’s not depicted as making any accusations at all. Cranmer is the framer of that one, and when he comes to hear Anne’s confession, she sees “evil in his face.” She refuses to tell him anything, and on her last morning she dresses in splendid crimson clothes, puts on a black cloak, prays that Elizabeth will one day know the truth, and waits by the door, listening for the knock which will open the door for her final walk.

SEX OR POLITICS? Sex, but not an awful lot – it’s a pretty short book, after all. Politics is largely elided except for the absolute essentials.

WHEN BORN? True to Thomas Boleyn’s complaint, Elizabeth appears to have brought him “every year a child” for some years at least. On May Day of 1512, Anne is six, George is seven, and Mary is eight, giving them birth years of 1505/6, 1504/5, and 1503/4. It should be noted that the ages aren’t totally consistent; Anne is later stated to be nineteen in 1526, and at one point she and George are both said to be thirty-one at the same time (though if George was born less than twelve months before Anne, which is always possible, then this could work).

THE EARLY LOVE Henry Percy is upgraded from illicit betrothed to parentally-approved betrothed: before Anne leaves for court, her father tells her to keep an eye out for him and treat him politely, “for his father and I have arrangements made concerning the pair of you.” Percy turns out to be everything she could have wished; tall, handsome, well-spoken, and happy to spend time whispering sweet nothings with Anne in the palace rose gardens. His disappearance from her life is much more mysterious to her than it is in most books; far from hearing of (or seeing) his confrontation with Wolsey, all she knows is that he has to leave court for vaguely specified reasons, writes less and less, and finally sends word that he’s married Mary Talbot. It’s only later that Anne realizes that Wolsey sent him away so the king could have a free run at her.

Henry Norris also develops an entirely honourable crush on Anne while the king is in the process of getting the divorce rolling, and proposes to her without much hope of success. When she turns him down, he takes it without much surprise, and promises that “I will watch over you” when she’s at court. Years down the line, the villainous Cranmer will notice Norris’s liking for her and use it as fodder while helping Cromwell work up charges against Anne.

THE QUEEN’S BEES Jane Seymour is the major player here – for the most part, the only one. She’s depicted as being Anne’s cousin, and there’s a real affection between the two of them. Anne relies on her for dressing and sympathy, with Jane scolding Anne back into energy whenever Anne is too tired or morose and Anne teasing Jane about various young men. Towards the end of 1535, Anne notices that Jane seems to be disappearing a lot more than usual, but assumes she’s just having a livelier social life than usual, and when she realizes what’s actually going on she’s too crushed to be angry. We never see Jane directly again – she’s occupied being moved into different safe houses so that Henry can visit her at his leisure, and of course Anne never gets to see or confront her towards the end. She doesn’t hold a grudge though, evidently seeing Jane as more sinned against than sinning: “I feel no rancour, no spite against her. I love Jane; I feel she will be good to Henry … and to my babe, Elizabeth.”

The only other attendant of note is Lady Rochford, described as distant, unsociable, and not suited to George, but nonetheless one of the knot of people who still stick by Anne even when her stock is dropping rapidly in the spring of 1536. And to all appearances, she never stops sticking by her – she’s never mentioned in connection with the incest accusation, or any kind of accusation at all. Whether this was an oversight or an attempt to make her character more subtle I have no idea, especially since Cranmer is shown as the chief framer of the incest charge, but Lady Rochford is introduced comparatively late in the book and without the accusation, she doesn’t do much to justify her inclusion in the story.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR Anne has a childhood nurse-governess named Susan whom she remembers affectionately, though she mostly disappears from the story after the first few chapters. Unusually, Jane Seymour also does very well for this category – at least until late 1535, when she begins avoiding Anne for some reason.

THE PROPHECY Not prophecies so much a series of fragmented visions which Anne sees at certain moments: when a May Queen is crowned, she feels “a torturing pain” shooting through her, the sight of a horse bleeding on straw prompts a sudden mental image of a head rolling there. They’re rather effectively done, more so than most fictional visions, which have a tendency to be overly clear. In this case, there are reasonable alternative explanations for these moments (a headache, and the fact that even if Anne has never seen an execution she’s surely heard about them) and it’s only at the end that she pieces them together and understands what they were warning her against.

IT’S A GIRL! Anne is cowering in fear the moment she hears the news, and she’s not wrong to do so. “Madam, you have failed your king!” is Henry’s reaction, and he almost hits her but manages to restrain himself at the last minute. He mellows out a bit later on, but it’s clear that the reason he enjoys playing with Elizabeth is that he enjoys children in general, not because he’s especially thrilled to have her.

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Yes, she does. “I had always hated [my hands], and now I unclenched them from behind my back and held them out before me, staring at them critically. Each hand had an extra tiny thumb!” Mary, as a child, teases Anne that she has “witch’s hands” but no serious accusations result then or later on. The hanging sleeves – trailing all the way to the grounds, in this instance – are designed not by Anne but by her mother, and end up accidentally setting the fashion in France.

FAMILY AFFAIRS: Elizabeth Boleyn is anxious and affectionate – worrying about Anne leaving home, concerned about Anne’s assurances that Henry will change after they’re married (and of course, she’s absolutely right to worry, as Anne herself realizes later). Thomas Boleyn is ambitious as usual, but remarkably low-key compared to his other incarnations – while he does send Anne off to France at the age of six, he gives her some good advice about buttering up the mistress of the maids and adjusting to French life, and when Mary becomes the king’s mistress later on he’s less than thrilled – he likes to move up in the world, but he likes to do it in a somewhat more orthodox manner. Similarly, both he and his wife are extremely cautious about the king’s pursuit of Anne, unsure where it’s going to end and not sure if Anne will be able to handle the fallout. In fact, the only person who’s entirely in favour of the whole affair is George, who sees both opportunity for advancement and the cool factor of having his little sister become Queen of England. I should make it clear that he’s still portrayed as an appealing character – teasing his sister about trading a May crown for the real thing, his ambition more a product of high spirits and lots of energy rather than any wish to push anyone else down.

Mary Boleyn is barely seen – Anne meets her at the Field of Cloth of Gold, where Queen Catherine makes a few pointed remarks in Mary’s direction, but only later does she discover that Mary has become pregnant by the king and subsequently been married to William Carey. The now-offstage Mary is described as being happy enough with her situation, and we don’t hear from her after that. Mary’s conduct is, however, the reason Anne is recalled from France in 1522 – her parents don’t want Anne following Mary’s example, and so bring her back to Hever so as to keep an eye on her until she can be married off.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE A number of typos and words running together make the book a bit difficult to read on occasion. Otherwise I think the quoted passages give enough flavour – stiff sometimes, but generally clear, although Henry’s dialogue tends to be a bit overwritten. (Henry himself is rather overwritten, but this is hardly the only book where that happens).

ERRATA The author states in her note that while Jane Seymour was not Anne’s cousin, the relationship between them may have been similar. This isn’t the only book to depict them as cousins, anyway, and it was so nice to see Jane Seymour as a constant presence and not just a malevolent shadow materializing in Act V that it didn’t matter much anyway, but it should be made clear that the two were not, in fact, cousins. Anne herself is stated to have suffered from “the pox” which from her references to pitting and scarring appears to mean smallpox, not the venereal disease, but Anne does not appear to have suffered from either, though she did catch the sweat. Titles aren’t always used accurately – Sir William Carey is promoted to Lord William Carey, Lady Mary Talbot is demoted to Lady Talbot, and so forth. The depiction of Cranmer as actively working against Anne for years is absolutely baffling; he was nothing if not indebted to her, and while he didn’t exactly stick his neck out for her at the end – Cranmer was not exactly Horatius at the Bridge at the best of times – there’s no indication whatsoever that he worked against her, and assisted in her downfall.

The timelines are a bit spaghettied up – Mary Rose Tudor marries Louis XII in 1512 and is widowed in 1514, Anne’s birth year changes by implication several times, and when she returns to England in 1522, Catherine of Aragon is said to be forty, although she was actually thirty-six. Catherine is also given a much later pregnancy than she ever had in real life, which seems to begin in 1522 and end around 1526. The courtship of Anne and Henry is also severely compressed.

WORTH A READ? This is one of those books which seems like a decent story which is still in embryo – it needed about a hundred more pages and more fleshing out of the different characters (or possibly cutting down, in the case of that incredibly weird depiction of Cranmer) to give it a chance to distinguish itself from the pack. I do think it might have been able to do so, but as it’s unlikely to see any serious revisions now, it’s not really worth seeking out on its own unless your interest in Anne Boleyn novels is hardcore.

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