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Two Scenes In The Life Of Anna Boleyn by L.E. Landon (1837)

June 4, 2014

Short and sour, this little story is a preview to the colder versions of Anne we would see written in the twentieth century — she’s innocent of Henry’s accusations, but ultimately guilty of having brought her fate on herself through ambition and pride. It bears a ghostly resemblance to Annie Boleyn’s New Year (c. 1880), except that the holiday being celebrated is not New Year’s but Valentine’s Day, and Anne is even less sympathetic.

We open, as in the later story, with Anne sitting before a fire, thinking about how much she’d rather not be there. She’s at Hever Castle, and is desperate to get out of there, because “If I had stayed at court, I feel sure my royal conquest would have been completed; but shut up here I am losing my chance — some new beauty will soon take my place. Les absens ont toujours tort.” She’s fiddling with the contents of her jewelry box while she says this, and in an awkward moment she comes across the ring marked “Fidelity”, which Henry Percy gave her while they were courting “on the banks of the Seine”. After a moment, having decided that it’s no use looking for jewelry anyway as nobody’s there to see her, she’s surprised by Henry VIII himself, who tells her happily that he managed to sneak in via “a subterranean passage in the room below” (a cellar room, I would imagine) and reminding her that it’s Valentine’s Day, requests her to “wear his token, and be my true and faithful Valentine.” Since the token in question is a valuable “carkanet” covered with rubies, Anne is quite happy to go along with this program (as well as the king’s assurances that soon all of England will be honouring her) but is taken aback when he requests Percy’s ring as her token to him. She hesitates, he sulks, and she quickly spins a story about it being her mother’s and then gives it to him. Henry then flits away, with a “good night, my fair Valentine!” leaving Anne only with guilty memories of Lord Percy’s dark eyes, which “seemed to reproach her falsehood,” and a bleeding scratch on her arm where the carcanet has scratched her. And for once, Anne recognizes “the omen” in what’s just happened.

It’s not enough to change her course, though. The second scene, once more in a chamber before a large fire, takes place in the Tower of London, alternately remembering happier times in France and coming to and realizing that she really is here and in prison. She’s waiting for an answer to her “From the Lady in the Tower” letter, and is trying to talk herself into thinking it will work. “He used to twist my long fair hair round his fingers, and call it beautiful; — he cannot let the coarse hands of the executioner sever the locks that have so often mingled with his own! I bound one round the letter which I sent him this morning.” But although she’s innocent, she’s nonetheless suffering from remorse.

“I am innocent to him,” murmured she, “but not so, my God, before thee. Untrue to Percy — false to my royal mistress — how does the sad patience of Katharine of Arragon upbraid me now! Vain, frivolous — I have lived for the pomps and pleasures of this world — and now I have my bitter requital.”

“Hope deferred is sickness to the heart” the narrator informs us, accurately enough, and Anne has a long, agonized evening before her, waiting for the answer to her appeal. Eventually, “Sir John”, the governor of the tower, comes holding a paper which he can’t bear to tell her is her death warrant, and a packet with the royal seal. She breaks it open, and out rolls the ring with “Fidelity” engraved on it, along with a message: “Henry Tudor returns to Anna Boleyn the ring which Lord Henry Percy gave her.

A bare-bones story, short and to the point, but nonetheless it has some facets which make it stand out. First of all is the fact that Anne is both operating entirely on her own and is virtually without religion: while the Anne of, for example, Anna Boleyn Relates The History Of Her Life (1743) also makes only cursory references to religion, it’s clear that her parting from Percy was not originally her idea, but rather the urging of her ambitious father. In Annie Boleyn’s New Year, with its rather similar fireside scenes, Anne has been swallowed by ambition because Cardinal Wolsey forced her apart from Percy. In this one, there’s not even a hint of such a thing. She’s a free agent, without any noble religious motives, and without so much as a half-sentence mentioning her father to excuse her actions. In fact, her only noted parent is her mother — and, curiously, she doesn’t seem to be alive.

When Henry picks up the “Fidelity” ring, Anne blurts out that it is “not worth your grace’s acceptance,” and when the beetle-browed lover snarls that he would hate to “interfere with any tender recollections,” Anne fires back by saying that “the ring was my mother’s — I would not part with it, but to your grace — my whole heart with it.” She gives it to him, leaving him content and the reader wondering. From the past tense used, it’s clear that Anne’s mother is dead. Since Agnes Strickland was still several years away from mistakenly killing off Elizabeth Howard at a young age and giving Anne an imaginary stepmother, could there have been another source which mistakenly gave Anne’s mother an early death? Or had the author concluded that Anne’s mother had died, as it was the most sympathetic explanation for Anne’s behavior? It would have been in keeping with the times — remember how impressed Dickens was with Browning’s repentant woman in A Blot In The ‘Scutcheon. “I was so young / I had no mother, and I loved him so!” Something of this mentality can be felt, sixty years later, in My Friend Anne (1900) in which the loss of Anne’s mother means that she’s propelled by her male relatives into the care of her grasping and unethical godmother. There’s a strong feeling there, as well, that if Anne had a more tightly bound family with both parents living, she would never have strayed off their conventional path.

Anne’s unusual family situation is matched by her unusual physical description. While she has no sixth finger or mole — Strickland had not given them her authorial blessing yet — she does give a very rare “Yes” answer to the question “Was Anne Boleyn a redhead?”

The lady was fair — of that peculiar and rosy fairness which belongs to auburn hair. The cheek seemed almost transparent, so various was the crimson that ebbed and flowed on its rounded surface …. Her long hair, without any restraint, fell upon her shoulders. It had that sunny shade which changes in every light; — by day, it was a soft warm chestnut, which at night looked like threads of gold.

Annes with rose-leaf complexions and even occasional blue eyes weren’t unusual at this time, but even in the nineteenth century, her hair was still usually described with adjectives like “raven” and “gypsy”. (Prior to the nineteenth century the details of her appearance were barely described at all, except in the most frustratingly generic terms). One wonders if the author had been looking at romantic paintings of Anne or had simply studied her standard portraits a little more closely than usual and noticed that in some of them her hair, whether through intent or through gradual fading, was a lot closer to light brown than to black.

Motherless, apparently fatherless, and without siblings, this Anne is completely alone, completely self-created, and happy to be so. Her brother and other “lovers” are not even mentioned, nor is her daughter. She has no compunction about using Henry, and in punishment he has no compunction about ridding himself of her once he discovers it. Her pride and greed leads to her punishment, the way putting your hand in a flame will get you burned; because it’s the way of nature and can’t be avoided. The young ladies who read the little book and the Christmas Keepsake in which this story appeared doubtless took note.

From → Book Overviews

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