Between Two Kings by Olivia Longueville (2015)
This isn’t the first book to tell the story of an Anne Boleyn who managed to live past May 19 1536, but I’m willing to bet that it’s the most unashamedly melodramatic. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you’re in the mood for a few hours of wish-fulfilling escapism, it’s hard to do better than a story in which Anne is saved from death at the last minute due to the sudden discovery that she’s pregnant, survives both the birth of her son and an attempt to have her executed again, moves to Venice under an assumed name, saves the King of France from assassination and then marries him (take that, Eleanor of Aquitaine!) and then, her heart grown hard by the suffering she’s been forced to endure, decides to take cold, lingering revenge on the enemies who put her in the Tower in the first place — namely, the Duke of Suffolk, Thomas Cromwell (here at his most Svengali-like; Henry VIII seems unable to think more than about twelve hours into the future without Cromwell’s assistance) and, inevitably, poor Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford. And, as all melodramas should, it ends on a cliffhanger — not only has she started a campaign of mental torture in which Lady Rochford is getting letters written in her dead husband’s hand and Cromwell is being besieged with anonymous pamphlets detailing his crimes against the presumed-dead former queen, but Anne herself is now directly in the crosshairs of Anne de Pisseleu d’Heilly, the now cast-off mistress of the French King who severely resents this mysterious interloper for coming between them. Oh, and Jane Seymour’s son is born severely handicapped, and Anne is now pregnant with a potential heir to the French throne. Personally, I cannot wait to see what insanity unfolds in Volume II.
That’s a bare sketch of the story, but I’ll go into more detail in case you’re wondering about some of the stranger plot points mentioned in that summary. Anne’s pregnancy is discovered on May 18 when she has a bleeding episode and is examined by a doctor, who then announces that she’s pregnant. This news is not met with unalloyed rejoicing when Henry VIII hears of it, but since it’s out and Cromwell thinks it would look bad to execute a pregnant woman, he agrees to keep her in the Tower until she delivers, then execute her. While Anne is having a delightful seven months of (literal) confinement, there’s work afoot behind the scenes: her old suitor Henry Percy, together with her now thoroughly chastened father, has begun engineering a plot for her escape. Part of this involves persuading Cromwell that Anne should be burnt as a witch, which Percy manages to do in a rather unconvincing example of out-talking Cromwell and making him think it’s his idea without pointing out the pertinent fact that a burned body is extremely hard to identify. After Anne delivers a living, healthy son in November 1536 (she names him Arthur as a flip-off to Henry VIII, and the baby is given into Mary Stafford’s custody subsequently) she’s drugged with the assistance of a friendly attendant and then smuggled out of the tower and on to a waiting ship, from which she’ll be borne off to an old friend of her father’s who lives in Venice and who, in the classic melodramatic tradition, owes Thomas Boleyn his life and is therefore willing to do him the favour of pretending that Anne is, in fact, his own daughter. If you’re wondering why nobody notices her absence, Anne asks Henry Percy the same thing when she comes to as she’s being dragged aboard ship. Percy’s response is that the body slated to be burned belonged to a female convict who hanged herself the previous day and whom they’ve dressed in a set of Anne’s clothes. “We just took her body and substituted it for your body,” explains Percy, sounding a little too creepy-casual about it (Percy, how many times have you done this sort of thing exactly?) Nonetheless, his efforts are appreciated.
Off to Venice goes Anne, and off to the chapel goes Henry VIII, who now believes he’s a widower and that he can marry Jane Seymour without any legal complications. Jane, who’s left the micromanaging of her engagement and then marriage to the king entirely in the hands of her brothers, believes that Anne was guilty and deserved to die — at least, she keeps telling herself that an awful lot. Soon enough, she’s pregnant, with the baby due in November, so it will be year younger than Anne’s son.
Meanwhile, Anne is hiding out in Venice, masquerading as Anne de Ponthieu, daughter of Jean de Montreuil, but her cover is accidentally blown when she warns a well-dressed man in church that someone is sneaking up on him with a knife and is stabbed instead. It turns out that the well-dressed man is, in fact, King François I, who of course recognizes Anne from early times at the French court when his first wife was still alive. As it happens, Francois has just managed to pull off the annulment of his marriage to his second wife, Eleanor of Austria, and while helping Anne to continue hiding out, it crosses his mind that a secret marriage to the former queen of England might not be the worst idea in the world — after all, her son still has the potential to become king of England one day, not to mention that it would throw about a hundred spanners at once into the works for both Cromwell and Henry VIII since they’ve officially made an Imperial alliance. (The failed assassin was in fact sent by the Holy Roman Emperor, both out of principle and as revenge for the annulment of the marriage to Eleanor of Austria). Anne, thirsting for revenge against Cromwell, along with several other people, is quite pleased by this idea, and not just because of the political advantages, since as anyone who’s read a book about Mary Boleyn knows, François I seems to have spent more time in bed than out of it. It doesn’t hurt the cause of Anne’s son that Jane Seymour’s son, apparently healthy at birth, is quickly discovered to be seriously handicapped — not the sort of child Henry wants to inherit his throne.
Anne herself is quickly pregnant after her (second) secret wedding and much bodice-ripping, and she and François have embarked on the production of mysterious threatening letters to Anne’s enemies and tell-all pamphlets about the injustice of Anne’s “death”, but now François has thrown off his mistress, the Duchesse d’Etampes, and she’s decided that if he doesn’t appreciate her any more, perhaps the Holy Roman Emperor will be courteous enough to pay attention to the information she may have about this mysterious new queen of France, aaaand … cut! I don’t know when the second volume comes out, but I hope it doesn’t take as long as the second volume of Je Anne Boleyn.
SEX OR POLITICS? Mostly sex, or politics in the service of sex. The assassination attempt against François I, and the ensuing complications, are prompted by his rejection of Eleanor of Austria, and the cliffhanger political plot against him and Anne are largely powered by the malice of Anne de Pisseleu d’Heilly, François’ rejected mistress. Henry’s own attempts to interfere in France are largely, if unbeknownst to Henry, prompted by Anne’s actions. Anne’s and François’s sexual encounters take up almost as much page space as their political dealings. (Fortunately for Anne, this book doesn’t star her sister, so this particular version of François isn’t a rapist or sexual sadist).
WHEN BORN? It’s never specifically stated but I’d guess closer to 1507 than 1501, since Anne remembers herself as “a small girl” when first going abroad in 1513. Mary’s and George’s ages aren’t stated, either, although Mary is noted to be the elder.
THE EARLY LOVE The most important of these is of course Henry Percy, who proves steadfast and eventually helps Thomas Boleyn arrange Anne’s escape. He’s not the only one, however — after her engagement to Percy was broken off, she rebounded with Thomas Wyatt: “Tempted by Wyatt’s attention, she succumbed to her passion.” This liaison later comes back to haunt her when the king becomes seriously interested and of course she can’t admit to l’affaire Wyatt. The Duke of Suffolk either knew or suspected it, though, and dropped a lot of hints to the king which the latter ignored — at the time. Part of Anne’s anger and resentment against Suffolk stems from this. (It is slightly disheartening if extremely realistic that she’s determined to revenge herself on Suffolk for unfairly passing along information which was perfectly true).
THE QUEEN’S BEES By the time the story starts Jane Seymour has already ascended to the position of Queen-Elect, so we don’t get to see much of her in her maid of honor capacity. She’s a bit on the simple side and has no problem being puppeteered by her brothers; she’s got a touch of Candide about her, always ready to believe that the king is correct and that she lives in the best of all possible worlds. She sincerely believes that Anne is guilty of adultery until her brother Edward disabuses her of the idea (right after she gives birth to her son, no less). Jane is horrified and very reluctant to believe that her marriage was founded on a judicial murder, and has to admit to herself that had she known the truth, she still wouldn’t have tried to thwart Henry, since she wanted to be Queen. (Whether she could have thwarted him is not a question that’s deeply explored). She’s miserable at this knowledge and thinks her son’s disability may have been divine punishment. Whether she’ll be as successful as Anne in producing a more acceptable second child remains to be seen in the next volume, but since she’s still alive after this birth there’s at least a chance.
While Anne is still in prison, she’s waited on by her real attendants — Lady Anne Shelton et al, with the addition of the fictional Lady Eleanor Hampton, who’s there to be part of Percy’s and Thomas Boleyn’s plot to smuggle Anne out and swap someone else’s body for burning purposes. She’s very sympathetic to Anne, unsurprisingly.
The only other English maid of honor we see much of is Anne Basset, who achieved posthumous fame from the Lisle Letters and their chronicling of her mother’s everlasting attempts to get her and her sister placed at court. The real Anne Basset arrived at court in the autumn of 1537, just before Jane Seymour’s death. The book’s Anne Basset arrives a good bit earlier, early enough to become Henry VIII’s mistress for a decent amount of time while Jane is occupied with pregnancy.
THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR None notable.
THE PROPHECY No straight-up prophecies but since part of Anne’s mission is to get cold, cold revenge on the people who wronged her, she does end up getting messages in “George’s” handwriting sent to his widow which could look pretty spooky and prophetic if you didn’t realize that Anne is, in fact, alive. Cromwell and the Duke of Suffolk also get the treatment in the form of mysterious pamphlets detailing the reasons for Anne’s innocence, but those don’t have the same supernatural tang to them.
IT’S A GIRL! Anne remembers Elizabeth’s birth as “the happiest day of her life” but while we’re not given Henry’s reaction directly it’s clear that it was far from being the happiest day of his. It’s nothing compared to Henry’s fury at the birth of Jane Seymour’s child, however. After Dr. Butts informs him of his suspicions that the child is “mute, and perhaps deaf,” Henry erupts. “What could change for the better if the child is deaf and dumb? He won’t be named Edward! He can be called any other name but not Edward! Edward is a name for a Prince of Wales, for a healthy child!” He then storms out. Later on he declares that the baby will be named Richard, a name of ill omen for English royalty. He doesn’t come right out and say that he hopes the child will die early, but it’s pretty clear nonetheless. In true Henrician fashion, he later berates God for punishing him with this child and when he was only trying to obey the Almighty’s express wishes when he married Jane. As for Anne’s surviving son Arthur, Henry is tempted to acknowledge the child, especially when he hears that he’s looking strong and healthy, but as ever Cromwell is on hand to remind him that the baby was probably fathered by somebody else and so young Arthur goes off into countryside obscurity with his aunt Mary.
DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? No.
FAMILY AFFAIRS Anne remembers Thomas Boleyn as the usual calculating schemer who pushed her to have an affair with Henry in order to better the family’s future and refused to stand up for her when she was arrested and tried. Furthermore, he refuses to become the guardian of her child once it’s discovered that she’s pregnant. However, he gets a chance to redeem himself by repentantly arranging for Anne’s smuggling abroad so that she can evade her scheduled execution, and as Henry Percy explains the rejection of guardianship was just a feint so nobody would suspect him of being unduly sympathetic with his daughter. Thomas’s awakening was apparently prompted by his wife’s having a fit of hysteria after George’s execution on May 17th: “Elizabeth screamed and cursed him; hysteria overcame her, and she fell on the floor in the hall of the castle, sobbing uncontrollably and whimpering in heartbreak … cursing him again and accusing him of all mortal sins. She screamed that she wished him dead instead of her dear son George and her beloved Anne.” This is all we see of Elizabeth in the story, though presumably she’s informed at some point that Anne was not actually burned at the stake.
George Boleyn dies before the beginning of the book so we don’t learn much about him, however, his widow is definitely an old school Lady Rochford who consciously betrayed him to free herself from her marriage (she hates George and his numerous affairs so much that she willingly courts financial ruin and total dependence on her family in the future, just to be rid of him). She’s already teetering on the edge of sanity before the mysterious messages in George’s handwriting start showing up. We see comparatively little of Mary Boleyn but learn that she’s both pleaded for Anne’s life and won guardianship of her infant son. Anne thinks highly of her and regrets that she banished her from court over the Stafford business.
DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No, and pretty much everyone who isn’t Henry VIII knows it — Cromwell knows, Percy knows, and François I, remembering the young Anne at his court, dismisses the whole story as impossible before he even learns that she’s still alive and gets a chance to hear her side of things. She did, however, have a passing affair with Thomas Wyatt before getting involved with Henry and reasonably enough chose not to mention it at the time.
WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE The descriptions and exposition are all reasonably good and clear, except for an annoying tendency for titles to be misused and foreign words to be slipped in when they don’t add much except to emphasize that characters we should know don’t speak English are not in fact speaking English. (“What did that man do to the signora?” asks a Venetian woman, just to remind us that she’s speaking Italian). The dialogue is fairly flat and heavy on exposition. “I hoped that my father would legitimize me after our reconciliation. However, my hopes were premature,” says Mary Tudor to Chapuys in one scene, and later in that same scene Chapuys will describe Dom Luis of Portugal as a man “who would be a great husband to [Mary].” A lot of the dialogue is like that — there’s nothing really wrong with it, but odd false notes are struck a little too often.
ERRATA Not applicable for the most part, since this is an alt history and the whole point is that none of it ever happened. The use of real titles was wobbly, however — Jane Seymour is “Lady Jane Seymour” even though she wasn’t (Ladies in general have a distressing tendency to be Lady Firstname Lastname on one page of Lady Lastname on the next page, even thought these were not the same thing). Anne de Pisseleu d’Heilly is oddly referred to as “Duchess d’Etampes” (as in “`François,’ said Duchess d’Etampes”) when you’d think an article would be called for: Duchesse was her title, not her given name. According to everything I’ve read, her supposed alliance with Charles V is very, very far from being established fact, but the stories are there and in a book which is frankly counterfactual I found it entertaining enough to see her coming into the alliance in an alternative way. As for Francois himself, his marriage to Eleanor of Austria was never annulled, though considering their estrangement and the fact that he had been forced to marry her in order to get his sons out of prison it wasn’t wildly implausible that his fictional counterpart should at least attempt it.
And while it’s possible that the ripple effect of Anne’s prolonged survival caused some different behind the scenes maneuvering, Anne Basset is portrayed as being already at court at the time of Jane Seymour’s winter marriage to the king, and as becoming the king’s mistress some months later when Jane is about halfway through her pregnancy. In reality, Anne Basset did not arrive at court until Jane was almost ready to give birth, making her tenure as Jane’s maid of honor an extremely short one.
WORTH A READ? In the extremely small subcategory of Anne Boleyn Novels Set In An Alternate Timeline Where She Lives, I admit that my preference lies with The Boleyn King: a major weakness of that series is that its sharp-tongued, hyper-alert middle-aged Anne is taken away far too soon and the series suffers badly for it. It also can’t quite make up its mind as to whether it’s a frank melodrama or a series exploration of the political ramifications of Anne’s having a surviving son, interspersed with a lot of sex scenes. Between Two Kings suffers from no such authorial whiplash; it’s melodrama from the start and only keeps kicking into higher gear as it goes on. Nobody who reads past the first five pages of this will have any reason to complain that they didn’t know what they were getting. Furthermore, it has the distinct advantage of featuring characters of whom the vast majority were real people, even if some of them are somewhat misplaced in the historical timeline (Jean de Montreuil lived in the fourteenth century and Anne de Pontheiu in the eleventh, but their characters are only placeholders, really). In The Boleyn King, too much of the story was taken up with the adventures of imaginary young people, none of whom (except the Boleyn King himself) would have existed even if Anne had lived. In this story, major protagonists and antagonists are all people who were distinctly real, and the cast is a much deeper one than my summary indicates; clearly the writer did her research on that score. As ridiculous as the story can get it’s nonetheless enjoyable to see how their life arcs are played with. The story isn’t finished yet, but it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if most of them end up in exactly the same places they did in history, and all the fun will lie in seeing the different paths they’ll take to get to identical destinations.
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