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Phoenix Rising by Hunter S. Jones (2015)

October 6, 2015

This book springs from an intriguing idea: twelve perspectives on Anne Boleyn’s last days, organized according to the twelve houses of the Zodiac — Values and Possessions, Communication, the Family, and so on. The resulting book very unfortunately resembles Shakespeare’s Richard III in being deformed, unfinished and printed before its time.

The characters whose perspectives we see are all real, with the exception of a Mistress Bliant, a Welsh seer who is consulted by Henry on occasion and also once by Anne. The book opens with Henry visiting Mistress Bliant in order to be told the most auspicious day for Anne’s death, and after some untranslated Welsh spells and horoscope casting Mistress Bliant — who is Henry’s faithful servant, although she’s shocked that he would kill Anne — obliges with a date: May 19th. Henry is displeased; he wants it to be earlier, but the stars being what they are, Mistress Bliant can’t change her answer. We then move on to Anne, awakening in prison, still dreaming of Henry. She’s convinced that the whole trial and scheduled execution is simply an enormous drama staged by Henry — he’ll send someone to rescue her at the last minute, and after that he’ll consider her sufficiently punished for being too forward. We then move swiftly on through Cranmer, Cromwell, Elizabeth Boleyn, Jane Seymour and Henry himself (there are few repeat performances — Mistress Bliant comes back, as does Anne for some chapter portions).

The twelve chapters vary in how developed they are — a few, like Cromwell’s, consist of little more than a few paragraphs filled out by reprints of documents which can be found in the Letters and Papers, including several pages of accounts, the famous letters from Chapuys and William Kingston (fudged and edited in several instances) some less famous letters from Cromwell, and various petitions for the remains of estates left by Anne’s supposed lovers. All of which are interesting enough, but as I was reading these chapters, all I could think was “Why is this material here?” To someone who knows a lot about Anne Boleyn, these chapters are redundant — we’ve already read most or all of the material. And to those who don’t know much about her, there isn’t nearly enough context for the information, so it’s apt to simply make a new reader confused instead of informed.

SEX OR POLITICS? In spite of the inclusion of a few pages of accounts from L&P and some letters to and from Cromwell, sex definitely takes precedence — Anne and Jane Seymour both spend lots of time reflecting, in their own ways, on their glorious romances with Henry, and Henry’s own chapter has so little political awareness that it’s easy to forget just how enormous the political implications of his wife swap was. Even the snippets from Chapuys’ correspondence give no sense that there are any broader implications here, though he’s allowed to keep some of his more caustic observations about how strangely cheerful Henry the supposed cuckold is acting. (Though oddly, as we see later, Henry himself is genuinely unsure about whether she was unfaithful or not). Henry’s own reflections on the women are all about his emotional connection to them. Jane Seymour reflects that Anne was bound to fall since she would “meddle and rant about [Henry’s] business”, but we’re left with a very vague idea of what that business actually is. The appearance of Eric Ives’ biography in the bibliography and the brief scenes in which Cromwell is extremely pleased by Anne’s impending doom, as well as the fact that Henry is depicted as being surprised and distressed by her fall, suggest that the author adheres to the Ives hypothesis that Cromwell engineered Anne’s downfall on his own, in order to move forward with his plan for the monastery funds. However, if I hadn’t read the Ives biography, I wouldn’t have been able to guess that — it certainly isn’t made clear in the text.

WHEN BORN? The year isn’t stated, but her birthday is — according to her mother, she was born on “St. Anne’s feast day in July” (the 26th) which makes sense.

THE EARLY LOVE Unusually, both of Anne’s early, abortive romances postdate her first encounter with Henry — she meets him shortly after arriving at the English court, but doesn’t recognize him. He tries to kiss her in an empty hallway, and when she refuses he tells her jokingly that she’ll soon find out who he is. At the next joust, he has a ribbon from her dress on his lance, and later on he makes it clear that he expects her to become his mistress very soon. She doesn’t want this, but he foils her attempts at getting away. “In vain, I attempted to have Father wed me to the son of the Earl of Ormond. Once that marriage was denied,, my next attempt to wed was struck down by Wolsey … The further I ran, the faster [Henry] pursued … Somewhere along the way, we had managed to fall deeply in love.” Henry fools around with Mary in the meantime as a low-calorie substitute for Anne.

THE QUEEN’S BEES: Anne has her women in the tower who help her to dress (Anne pays very close attention to the symbolism behind her clothing), and Anne is startled to see at the end that some them appear distressed, so presumably these are the hostile attendants of record, but they’re never named. Jane Seymour is the only named maid we see, and she’s described as “empty-head” “the court flirt” and similar flattering epithets. The sections written from Jane’s point of view do little to increase our understanding of her character. Mostly she’s smugly reflecting on Anne’s impending doom, while making sure the reader knows that she’s not supposed to be sympathetic by being mean to the servants. “No need for me to waste a smile on someone so lowly. She should be honored to serve me.”

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: None noted.

THE PROPHECY: When Anne is born with a caul, the midwife tells Elizabeth “They say those born with a caul will wear a crown.” A few months after Elizabeth’s birth, Anne consults with Mistress Bliant, who says that Henry and Anne’s child will be one of the greatest rulers in English history. Anne concludes that they must be going to have a son, and even on the day of her death is sure that Henry will pardon her, since they still haven’t had the son who will be a great ruler. (It does cross her mind briefly that Elizabeth could be the one, though). Thomas Cranmer gets a minor, unintentional one when he describes himself as “consumed by the fire of my inner thoughts.”

IT’S A GIRL! We don’t see Elizabeth’s birth directly but since Henry and Jane both refer to her as a “useless girl” it’s clear that her birth wasn’t a source of unalloyed joy. Later we learn through one of the Mistress Bliant’s visions that Elizabeth has second sight and has sensed her mother’s sentence and impending death although she hasn’t been told anything about it.

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? No.

FAMILY AFFAIRS Thomas Boleyn is his usual flinthearted, ambitious self — forbidding his wife to mourn Anne’s and George’s deaths since they were traitors, and interested in his children only insofar as they’re useful to him. Elizabeth herself refers to him coldly as “The Boleyn” and talks of her love for Anne and George, but she’s not exactly consistent in her feelings for her children either — Mary, the eldest, is described by her mother as lazy, worthless, and “the embodiment of the worst of the Howard and Boleyn families.” Whereas Elizabeth pities Anne for not bearing a living boy, poor Mary is dismissed because “even as Henry’s lover, she failed to give him a child.” It’s worth pointing out that we never see Mary directly so it’s hard to say if her mother’s assessment is remotely accurate. George himself is a charmer, “eager to please,” good-looking, doomed by circumstance. Elizabeth was also hit on by Henry VIII in his young days but failed to reciprocate, she “chooses not to believe” that Thomas Boleyn’s advancement had anything to do with Henry’s inclination towards Boleyn’s wife.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No. Though oddly, and despite the inclusion of Chapuys’ observations to the effect that Henry is extremely merry for someone who’s just discovered his wife’s infidelity, Henry himself is portrayed as being still in love with Anne and genuinely uncertain as to whether the charges are true or not. After all, “she is but a woman; they [her accusers] are noblemen, gentlemen, men of the law and sworn to my well-being. Why would they lie to me about the woman I love? They have nothing to gain, yet Anne has everything to gain.” Henry apparently hasn’t spent much time at his own court, where everyone had a web of political alliances and the potential rewards of lying to bring down a rival really should have been obvious.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: It’s always clear enough what’s happening, though the dialogue can be awkward. “So mote it be,” says Henry after Mistress Bliant hands him the paper giving the most auspicious time for Anne’s death, but a few pages later Anne is describing Cromwell as “a right nuisance,” which sits rather awkwardly with the former phrase. When Jane Seymour asks a servant to open the curtains, she says “Would you move the covering from the window? I wish to invite the beauty of this day into our home and into our hearts. This is the day all of England has waited for. Today, a traitor dies and King will be free to see his will done for the greater good of us all.” I refuse to believe that anyone has ever talked like this.

ERRATA: Jane Seymour is constantly and inaccurately referred to as Lady Jane Seymour, which she was not, and as Anne’s cousin, which she also was not. The time lapses are also a little inconsistent — the book is described on the back as being about Anne Boleyn’s last 24 hours but that time is stretched a little. More irritatingly, the Jane Seymour section features Jane awakening in full sunlight and then, a few moments later, going to her window to watch the sunrise. Mistress Bliant is said to be the mother of John Dee, whose mother’s name was not Bliant or anything like it.

WORTH A READ? Unfortunately, no. As I said at the beginning, it’s a very intriguing idea, and if it had been developed in more detail it could have been a really good book. As it is, the book is short but not sweet — we get a collection of random documents and some half-baked first person perspectives which don’t tell the Anne aficionado anything that’s new (and are in fact rather irritating in just how two-dimensional they are) and don’t tell the Anne novice enough to make what’s happening remotely clear. Furthermore, the material related to the zodiac is presented confusingly — doubtless it makes sense to someone who’s already studied astrology, but that’s not the kind of subject one can assume readers know anything about besides their own signs. There is a valiant attempt in the first chapter, in which Mistress Bliant is explaining to Henry why the 19th of May is more auspicious that then 18th for Anne’s death (“The placement in this chart of Venus and Mars necessitate an intense burst of energy, a show of force ….”) but it’s still somewhat opaque, and the divisions of the chapter categories into “Houses” isn’t explained at all. I doubt it’s easy to explain astrology in a nutshell and working everything into a text can be horrendously awkward, but since the book depends so heavily on astrology for its structure I think a brief introduction which explains the chart at the beginning, or better yet a glossary, would have been a very good idea.

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