Je Anne Boleyn: Struck With The Dart Of Love by Sandra Vasoli (2014)
The first of two volumes, this first-person retelling in Anne’s voice takes the reader from 1525 to early 1533, and covers Anne’s evolution from a star-struck maid of honour obsessed with the godlike and perfect Henry VIII to a star-struck Marquess obsessed with the godlike and perfect Henry VIII. And it’s much better than that description makes it sound.
Its opening is very strong, and also a clever call-forward to a certain Thomas Wyatt poem which I’m pretty sure most of my readers are already acquainted with. It’s November of 1525, and Anne is riding with the royal hunting party, “across the rutted, frozen November fields, foam flying from the horses’ mouths and clods of deep-chilled earth from their hooves.” The king is ahead of her, and she’s so transfixed watching him that she realizes too late that she’s about to catch up with him, which is of course a massive breach of protocol. Reining her horse in too late, she’s just behind him when his horse tries to kick at hers, missing by a hair, and the king notices what’s going on. Annoyed, he looks around to see what’s going on and who’s responsible.
Expressionless, he observed me for a very long moment. Then, though I may well have imagined it, just the very corners of his mouth crinkled upwards, nearly imperceptibly. My breath caught in my throat and I am certain my heart ceased beating.
God’s blood! What came over me in that moment?
I had scarcely a chance to recover, much less mumble an apology. Yet, the intensity of his gaze never wavered. Only at long last did he nod slightly.
“Greetings, Mademoiselle Boleyn.”
Thus is born Anne’s mad crush on Henry VIII, though like most crushes it’s one-sided (at first) and nursed only when she thinks nobody notices. In the meantime, life goes on; Henry Percy becomes quickly infatuated with Anne, and mistakes her hesitation at his proposal for consent, after which he foolishly blats the glad news of his engagement to Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey, after discovering that the king disapproves (hmm … maybe he noticed Anne more than she thought?) summons Percy’s father and the usual dressing-down and banishment from court ensues, though the marriage to Mary Talbot is never mentioned. Anne is unhappy about this, but not overly so – Percy could be tiresome and she didn’t love him, after all. Having spent most of her formative years in France, she’s learned to be a good observer and a better reader, and she has hopes for a husband who’s a bit better-read and cultured than the unfortunate wilting suitor of Northumbria could hope to be. That Christmas, she confides to her mother that “I sought a match made for love – for passion – and he had not been the one.” Elizabeth, not surprisingly, tells her that this is unlikely but that she’s sure Anne’s father will find someone suitable. Anne asks what would happen if her husband was both suitable and in love with her, and Elizabeth’s answer is that Anne would certainly be among the happiest of women if that were to case. Another call-forward!
Since Anne has no intention of being a mistress and that’s the only position that seems available for anyone interested in Henry VIII, she’s very cool in her responses to his letters at first, but since she spends a good deal of time analyzing what Henry’s handwriting is like and whether he looks like he was in a hurry or inattentive when writing, it’s obvious how she really feels about him. So if she’s so in love with him and he can’t marry her (no hint has been dropped of an annulment) why doesn’t she become his mistress? The explanation is a brilliant indicator of just how far gone she is on him: “such a relationship would sully the deep esteem in which I held the King.” She isn’t so much worried about how she appears, as how he does.
“I did not know what to do,” Anne tells us just before going to a jeweler and ordering the famous ornament showing a storm-tossed lady on a ship. She’s vague about what it’s supposed to symbolize, and at first I thought she wasn’t sure herself, just using the ornament as a coy non-answer to Henry’s increasingly frantic propositions. As it turns out, though, it’s meant to symbolize to Henry that she’ll brave every storm of life with him – as his wife, and nothing else. Hurrah, she’s engaged to the man of her dreams! But what about his inconvenient wife?
Weirdly, Anne has devoted almost no time up until now in wondering just how the question of Henry’s first marriage is going to be resolved. The thought of an annulment doesn’t cross her mind, and she notes herself that Catherine seems likely to go on living for a while despite her bad luck with pregnancies. About Catherine, this young, presumably healthy, totally besotted Anne has all the sympathy you’d expect from a contemporary young woman whose married boyfriend assures her that his wife doesn’t understand him like she does. But only after Henry and Anne become engaged does Henry discover that Leviticus forbids his marriage to Catherine and that it was invalid all along. Anne is startled, but not suspicious. “While I was flummoxed by this revelation, I did not doubt his sincerity. His expression was too grave; too full of regret and remorse to be misinterpreted.”
Oh Anne, you’re in for some shocks down the line. She won’t receive them in this book, though, since it ends with her pregnancy and secret marriage, after several hundred pages of revolving seasons and ever-increasing frustration with Cardinals Wolsey and Campeggio who are (Henry is convinced) trying to stall things deliberately. It’s Anne, of course, who finally persuades him to take his ball and go home. “It is over,” she tells him, and after a little friendly talk about how hypocritical clergy have no right to dictate to kings with real responsibilities, Henry casts off his religious fetters and decides that he’ll be the supreme head of the church. Anne is now sure enough that he’ll actually marry her that she decides it’s high time to give him what he wants and does so about halfway through 1532. It takes a few months to produce results, but by Twelfth Night of 1533 she’s feeling queasy and can’t fit in her old bodice any more. And a few weeks later, her maids are waking her early so she can sneak down to the chapel for a very quiet predawn ceremony. “I was wed,” she concludes, after an ecstatic description of her wedding. She doesn’t actually call it the happiest day of her life, but unfortunately for her, the reader knows that that description may be very nearly accurate.
SEX OR POLITICS? “A crown is not my reason” for binding herself to Henry VIII, Anne tells us, and also expresses surprise that she should have acquired “enemies at court!” Both protestations ring a little hollow, especially the latter. Why tell us about the years she spent watching and learning at the French court if she couldn’t even figure out that anyone ranking higher than scullion is going to acquire enemies?
WHEN BORN? 1501, and presumably fairly early in the year, since in January of 1532 Anne describes herself as now being thirty-one years of age, and getting increasingly nervous about her fertility. Mary is older than she, and George younger, though by how much exactly isn’t stated. (Let’s hope Mary isn’t too much older, since Elizabeth Boleyn will later describe herself as being forty-two years old in 1527, meaning that she was born in 1485 and gave birth to Anne at approximately sixteen years old).
THE EARLY LOVE James Butler is mentioned but never seen; Anne is, as usual, extremely dismayed at the idea of going to live in Ireland. Henry Percy is depicted as a moony type who falls fast and hard for the observant, witty Anne (“Anne, sweet Anne. I must marry you!”) but while Anne appreciates the prospect of being Countess of Northumberland, she’s not entirely sure how to answer his proposal, especially since she’s not sure what her father would think. The optimistic Percy, assuming that since she hasn’t told him no that means they’re now betrothed, blurts the glad news out to Wolsey and that’s the end of that. Anne is very angry over having Percy forcibly taken from her, but a little while after she’s more relieved than anything. Percy was nice enough, “but after two months of his seemingly relentless infatuation I had grown weary of the sight of his moping, lovelord face.”
Thomas Wyatt moons over her and writes her poems and she enjoys them, but the fact that he’s married “complicates” things (I should say it does) and Anne is shortly so wrapped up in the almighty, can-do-no-wrong king that nothing Wyatt does can have much effect on her, although she is moved by “Whoso List ….” which is given to her by Wyatt’s sister, not by Wyatt directly. Even this is put in the shade later on when Henry writes, and performs, “Greensleeves” for her.
THE QUEEN’S BEES Anne begins as one of these to Catherine of Aragon, and looks with true youthful disdain on poor Catherine’s aging face, loss of figure (six pregnancies with five lost will have that effect), constant praying, poor horsemanship, and oft-derided “self-righteousness.” As the story wears on, it becomes very apparent to the reader that the true crown of self-righteousness has been awarded to one character who most definitely is not Catherine, but Anne naturally doesn’t see that. Among Catherine’s attendants, Maria de Salinas makes a brief, disapproving appearance along a couple of others. Anne does have moments of feeling sorry for Catherine but these are very quickly replaced by snits and self-pity at the fact that she and Henry can’t spend Christmas together just because he happens to be publicly married to someone else.
Anne herself has lots of maids, even ones like Honor Lisle and Margery Horsman (the latter of whom is described as being particularly witty). Anne Gainsford and Anne Savile both make appearances and the author heroically refrains from the taking the easy way out by renaming or nicknaming them, so you have to be attentive enough to quickly distinguish between Annes when they’re in a scene. Margaret Wyatt (called Maggie here) is Anne’s best friend – both of them love clothes and Anne hopes to make her Mistress of Robes should she (Anne) ever be in a position to do so. Jane Seymour, interestingly, has not yet appeared at all.
THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR At first Anne has a Kentish servant girl named Charity Dodd, who is nervous about being elevated to lady’s maid but turns out to be a remarkably good hairdresser. Charity dies during the sweat in 1528 and is later replaced with Agnes Graeme, who comes with a recommendation from the Duchess of Norfolk and who makes Anne nervous despite her efficiency – she’s too cold and distant and a little too interested in where the jewelry and other valuables are located. Agnes soon leaves to go back to Kenninghall, and about a week later Anne discovers that Henry’s love letters went with her – though since she’s undoubtedly handed them off to some papal agent by now, it isn’t much use to pursue her, especially as she’s under the hostile Duchess’s protection. Later Anne acquires two maids named Emma and Lucy, but neither does anything particularly notable – so far, at least. Mark Smeaton also puts in a few appearances as her most talented musician.
THE PROPHECY None so far, though George makes a joke which comes close when he tells Anne, still trying to get Wolsey brought down once and for all, to “keep your calm. Just promise me you will keep your head about you as best you can … rather than risk losing it altogether.”
IT’S A GIRL! N/A
DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? No, in fact her hands are unusually long and graceful, and she’s quite proud of them. (They sound a lot like Elizabeth’s hands in the famous portrait of her as a thirteen-year-old, not surprisingly). Anne enjoys designing her own dresses and does alter the sleeves, but not for the usual purpose. “I’d created a unique design in which the shortest part of the sleeve ended just above my knuckles. This exposed my fingers, which allowed me to feature rings to complement the gown, and I thought it made my hands look very graceful.” Speaking of clothes, Anne’s famous black nightgown – or a slinkier, sexier twin – makes another appearance, in the summer of 1532, when she sleeps with Henry for the first time. No buckram is mentioned, but it has plenty of satin. Also, Anne’s fondness for green and yellow clothing is mentioned frequently – this will almost certainly factor in to a certain scene which is slated to take place after Catherine of Aragon’s death in 1536.
FAMILY AFFAIRS Anne’s father is fairly typical of the genre – “Unquestionably, he was highly intelligent. Widely recognized as a consummate negotiator, tactician, and a courtier’s courtier; a warm and caring man he certainly was not.” Why he should have been, given the times, is a question left unanswered. He does show a great deal of concern that Anne will overdo her demands and end up with nothing, cautions her against being too obvious about her grudges, and steers her through the process of getting Henry to throw off Wolsey via charging him with praemunire.
Elizabeth Boleyn is described by Anne as being her “best friend” and when Anne asks her advice about what to do in re: Henry, gives a longwinded non-answer about how she needs to follow what her heart tells her and that women are underestimated and just as capable of ruling and making decisions as men. In one of the less happy lines of dialogue, Anne tells her mother that “I never knew you were so progressive!” (For some reason, Anne doesn’t remember Elizabeth’s opinions on womanly rule when Henry is bemoaning the fact that he only has a daughter to succeed).
Anne’s siblings don’t get much screen time, comparatively – George appears most often, since he can do things like tell Anne about the proceedings at Blackfriars so they can both snicker over the eternally “self-righteous” Catherine’s claim to have been a virgin after Arthur’s death. Like most Georges, he tends to be snarky and is very close to Anne, though unlike most he utterly failed to be charming – like Anne, he came across as a smug, purblind jerk. Realistic, but not fun reading after about page 300 or so. His wife Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, is barely seen and doesn’t seem to be among Anne’s attendants at any point – there are a few brief comments from George which imply that his marriage isn’t what it could be, and Anne herself, towards the beginning of the book, describes Jane as what sounds like a Single White Female in embryo. “Whenever a story was being told, it seemed to me she always had to interject a tale that would best it. Nor did I like the way I would catch her inspecting me when she thought I was unaware. Most annoying, the way she carried herself – her gestures and her clothing – all seemed to mimic mine. She seemed quite a jealous girl in my view.” Given the amount of research that went into the book, I have to say I was a little disappointed to see the Jealous Inadequate Lady Rochford warhorse trotted out yet again, but you can’t have everything.
Mary Boleyn appears a few times but doesn’t have much to say – like most Marys, she is “a lovely woman, honey-blonde like my mother and more delicate-looking than I …. Mary had always been somewhat naïve, and in my opinion, far too easily persuaded to enter into situations which were not advantageous to her.” She was Henry VIII’s mistress a few years earlier but not in love with him, though she didn’t mind the gifts she received (or the ennoblement of her father, though to be fair none of the characters are quite sure if Mary was the reason for that or not). Unusually, both of her children are the unambiguous offspring of William Carey, thought that doesn’t stop rumours flying around, much to Mary’s annoyance.
DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? N/A
WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE Anne’s narrative voice works well enough, even if she comes across as rather immature at times (ironically, since she’s always worried about her advancing and possibly declining fertility). The descriptions of things like her makeup routine, clothing, and travels are good even if they would have worked better in the third person (after all, how many people really think through their mascara application or describe what their own smiles looked like?) Anachronistic-sounding descriptions like one in which the Sorbonne is “Paris’s monument to conservative Catholicism” turn up on occasion, but not enough to be distracting. There’s one real weakness, though, and that’s the dialogue. Most of the dialogue which isn’t between Henry and Anne ranges from serviceable to awful, and even Henry and Anne don’t escape entirely – “Our love will bind us and etch our place in history,” Henry tells her after she accepts his proposal. Anne’s description of her mother as “progressive” is one of the anachronistic-sounding clunkers which turn up; and Maggie Wyatt, in her role as supportive female friend, is saddled with telling Anne that “when the two of you are together, the radiance you emit is unmistakable”, and that she must be in love with “a very special man.” There’s nothing outright wrong with any of this, but they’re terribly awkward.
ERRATA It’s really well-researched, so very few true errors, but it could have used another round of editing – at one point, George Boleyn is called Thomas, and it’s implied that Thomas Boleyn’s mother Margaret Butler is dead when she in fact outlived Anne and George. And though it’s highly unlikely that Henry VIII wrote “Greensleeves” at all, let alone for Anne, it’s a good enough story to merit inclusion in a novel. It’s a shame the song itself has been such a victim of its own popularity that it was impossible for me to feel any emotion upon reading other than “Oh, that again.” There are a number of typos (“Emporer” for “Emperor” makes repeat appearances) as well as vocabulary slips: “lay” for “lie”, “gainsay” for “forgo”, and “foreshadow” used as a noun. The use of titles is also very haphazard – Anne is called “Lady Rochford” a number of times, and while she was certainly described as “Lady Anne Rochford” at the times in question, that title is not interchangeable with “Lady Rochford” – that was her sister-in-law’s title, not hers. A lot of other people’s titles tend to get submerged with a generic “Lord” or “Lady” and a randomly-chosen first or last name, leading to such bizarre hybrids as “Brandon, Lord Suffolk”, which is not how Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, would have been described by anyone.
WORTH A READ? There’s a lot to like about this one – the author did a really impressive amount of research, and the clothes, food, and of course Henry’s letters are all described with a vividness and exactness which make it very easy to picture what Anne was looking at and touching. Even the insane amount of detail which Anne tells us about Henry’s letters, which would seem like overkill with any other document, makes sense – they’re love letters from someone she’s obsessed with and doesn’t get to see nearly as often as she wants. Of course she’ll read them over and over and try and find clues and signs in the smallest errors or changes in handwriting. And while Anne does fall into the all-too-easy modern trap of mentioning works without appearing to have been remotely influenced by them (you’ve read part of “Utopia”, you say? Tell me more) she also quotes favourite passages from the Roman de la Rose, so one up to both her and the author. Anne’s zeal for church reform does follow a little too neatly on the heels of Henry’s sudden revelation that his first marriage was invalid. She convinces herself pretty thoroughly that it’s all about Noble Reform, but the timing is suspect. (She does mention having been up on the latest ideas while in France, but doesn’t seem inclined to pursue them on her own).
One of the most interesting aspects was the way Anne’s attraction to Henry was described. The Henry of the mid 1520s may not have been quite the golden god hailed by poets of varying talent in 1509, but in 1525 he was only thirty-four years old, and still considered very handsome and charismatic. The combination of both his natural attractions and his extreme power is, I think, too often underestimated by writers – their characters can’t help seeing Henry the way we see him, with full knowledge both of what he did and what he would come to look like. But at the time, to attract his notice, much less his favour, must have been absolutely intoxicating; it was as true than as now that power is a great aphrodisiac. Anne’s borderline-worship of him and refusal to believe that he has any faults except for the most benign were, in this context, extremely believable – and it certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s read the same books as she has and can also speak and write French with her; his trotting out some Aristotle as a way of flirting with Anne at one point is hilariously convincing. It’s significant that one of the reasons she doesn’t want to become his mistress is that it would “tarnish” her image of him. The usual scenario in these books is one in which Anne fears that giving in to him will make him become tired of her – take the bloom off her rose, so to speak, but this Anne adores him too much to consciously entertain such ideas. Instead, she fears that giving in to him will mean that she’s assisting him in damaging his own character – that ultimately, it will be her fault.
And therein lies the book’s massive weakness – it’s a little too convincing. I think it’s a strong story which would have worked far better in the third person than in the first; in the first, we’re limited to Anne’s point of view, and this Anne, clever as she may be, is allowing herself to be willfully blind to a huge number of things, tends to look on others as two-dimensional types who are either on her side (good, trustworthy) or not (boo! Hiss!) Her worship of Henry and demonization of Catherine for daring to be in his way, her whining that Catherine won’t enter a convent, and her derision of Catherine for being so fat and pious – all of this makes her sound petty, nasty, and, worst of all, dull. I know this is supposed to be a dramatic love triangle, but strip away the costumes and education and at bottom, this Anne seemed to have taken more etiquette lessons from Linda Kolkena than from Marguerite of Navarre. I mean, this is one of the very books about Anne during which I’ve consciously thought “My God, this character is an asshole.” Even Philippa Gregory’s Anne never inspired that reaction, but this one did. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, though; if nothing else, seeing her finally realize what Henry is capable of should be illuminating.
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