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Moth To The Flame: The Story Of Anne Boleyn by Angela Warwick (2013)

August 31, 2016

In Florence King’s novel When Sisterhood Was In Flower, the heroine makes a living writing novels for an outfit called Moth and Flame Regency Romances, and while the setting of Moth To The Flame predates the Regency by several centuries, its Anne seems to be continually struggling to figure out whether she’s a intelligent, calculating court player or a naive heroine befuddled by the corruption around her and completely incapable of predicting the results of a single one her own or anyone else’s actions. It’s as if the author is afraid we won’t sympathize with her enough and so keeps jerking Anne back onto the steep and thorny way to heaven every time it looks like she’s going to do something really interesting. The resulting novel ends up with several split personalities, all of them sadly underdeveloped.

As in many novels, we begin at the end: Anne is in the Tower of London, alone except for a few hated attendants, reflecting on her impending execution and wondering how exactly this lunatic situation happened, when she receives a surprise visit from her oldest (and apparently only) friend, Margaret Wyatt, now Margaret Lee. Margaret, not Anne, is the one who’s breaking down, and in order to forestall more tears Anne suggests that they reminisce about happier times, at which we’re hurled back the summer of 1513, when Anne is six years old, still living at Hever Castle, and playing games with her siblings and the Wyatt children. Anne, although the youngest, is already quite used to being the center of attention — as her father reflects, Anne is “always the damsel to be rescued in all the children’s games. The others had to let her have her way unless they wanted a show of temper as black as her hair and eyes.”

Thomas quickly contrives to move the plot along and get Anne and Mary sent off to France with Princess Mary, and after the death of the old king and the ascension of Francois I, Anne stays on the household of Queen Claude, where she turns her childhood talent for being the center of attention into a slightly more adult skill:

She had quickly become aware that as one of the Queen’s two hundred and also as one of the youngest, she was unattainable to the accomplished court seducers. So at the end of a long and boring day she liked nothing better than to flirt with any court gallant who would take an interest in her. In this manner were gained some of Anne’s most useful accomplishments; the art of leading on the victim until he is sure she will comply then repulsing him fiercely as he thinks to take his quarry; sensuous sidelong glances from devastatingly dark eyes, tempting many a lecherous male to wish to know more of her immature body. All these characteristics and more were honed during those French years.

Mary Boleyn is already having a full-on affair with the French King, but when the latter decides to collect the set of sisters and propositions Anne, dismissing every objection she raises, she tells him “So be it, my Lord, but I beg to inform your Majesty that you will not be the first … we should just have time before prayers.” The news that he’ll merely be the latest in a string of lovers cools him off rapidly and Anne enjoys herself at dinner watching him try to figure out which of the court males got there before him. (The answer, of course, is none). It’s a frustrating moment when the reader eventually realizes that this represents the pinnacle of Anne’s scheming talents; once she goes back to England at the age of fifteen she’ll become much less perceptive when it comes to the possible fallout of remarks made to royalty.

Back to England she goes, however, due both to the increasingly strained relations between England and France and Thomas Boleyn’s need to marry her off to the heir of the Earl of Ormonde — although he hasn’t been her only potential suitor, as she learns quickly enough when Thomas Wyatt mentions having asked for her and been turned down. Anne’s reaction shows that she might not be quite as cool a customer as the French court would believe: “I would have been glad to take you for as a child I loved you truly. You and George were the dashing princes rescuing me from the dragon’s very jaws!”

She meets her future dragon soon enough: Henry VIII is portrayed here as being (initially) good-humored, musical, and very, very stupid. He finds Anne almost as charming as her sister and starts to pursue her — he doesn’t realize that her coyness is “not just coquetry; this was the essence of the woman herself. He, ever relishing a chase be it of a woman or beast, threw himself in to her pursuit with great amusement and enjoyment … Anne made sure she kept just out of his reach, relishing her power but seeing it as no more than a game; one which she had played many times before when in France. It added a little spice to her daily duties in the Queen’s chambers.” Except that said coyness seems not to be quite so ingrained once Anne (having quickly disposed of James Butler, a “miserable deformed little creature” by getting the king to send him packing) meets Henry Percy, bluff, redheaded northerner, and quickly falls in love with him. As an approving George notes: “Love had a miraculous effect on Anne. Gone were her flirtatious ways with others, her somewhat cynical outlook on life.”

Her cynical outlook on life has dissolved to such an extent that once Percy is mysteriously sent packing by Wolsey, it never once occurs to her that this might have been done at the king’s behest, despite the fact that he’s been slavering after her ever since she came to England. She even rejects the idea explicitly when George suggests it: “No, it’s not the King. Why should he be jealous of Harry?” Anne’s last, desperate attempt to hold on to Percy after they receive the news (via a friendly George Cavendish) that he’s to be sent away consists of badgering him into sleeping with her in an out-of-the-way spare room; if she gets pregnant, their families will have no choice but to let them marry. “There is no shame in bearing a child to one’s husband.”
Sadly for them, no child results and so Anne is sent off to Hever, vowing vengeance against the Cardinal in a very Scarlett O’Hara-like moment: “As God is my witness, I hope one day that it will lie within my power to destroy his life as surely as he has destroyed mine!” In the meantime, she flirts with Thomas Wyatt and pens bored replies to the king, who’s now writing her the famous sequence of love letters and who she still doesn’t realize is the real reason she and Percy were separated. After a year or so, he visits and invites her back to court, and she assents because she’s bored and has realized that she can’t wreak her revenge on Wolsey very easily while sitting in a house in Kent. She can do it much more efficiently by stringing Henry along for a while.

She knew that once she returned to court she would be virtually at the King’s mercy and would need all her wits about her … it would be great challenge; a light hearted game, she decided. The ultimate triumph would be to restore her family’s good name and maybe even wreak some small revenge on Cardinal Wolsey.

Her first step when she returns is to choreograph and perform a dance which, while it isn’t quite the Dance of the Seven Veils, is intriguing enough — “she was reminded of a troupe of Moorish dancers who used to regularly entertain the French court and swiftly incorporated many of their sensuous arm and body movements.” Henry is goggling by the end of it and is soon throwing himself at her feet and promising her everything under the sun. Anne is thrilled, as she explains to George:

“The only way I can pay him [the Cardinal] out for his treatment of Harry Percy and me is to sever his influence with the King … and at the same time, by denying the King my body, which he already desperately desires, I am sweetly punishing him for his treatment of our sister! Now do you see George? Something inside me is driving me to this; something which is a mixture of ambition and hatred claws me to the King like ….” she cast about in her mind for the phrase she sought, “ …. like a moth to the flame. I cannot now alter my course.”

“Take care, Nan,” he begged, taking her hand in his. “Remember what happens to that moth. It is destroyed!”

Meanwhile Wolsey, unaware that Anne is plotting her vengeance, is busy doing a bit of plotting of his own: having seen how precarious the succession is with only Princess Mary to hold it up, he digs up the relevant Biblical passages and informs Henry that alas, his marriage may well be invalid. (Oddly, Henry decides that Princess Mary doesn’t count not because she isn’t a son, but because she’s sickly and may die young, so it’s just like being childless, in a way!) Wolsey’s aim is marry Henry off to Princess Renee of France, and Henry is just fine with that himself until he mentions this fact to Anne, who is becomes furious that he wants to marry a foreigner even though that’s what kings have always done and she’s almost French herself. “If you want more girl-children to go with that half-Spanish daughter of yours, you are going the right way about it!”
To Henry’s objection that there are no English princesses available, Anne retorts that Edward IV married an English non-princess and that worked out well enough (at least while Edward IV was alive, but she wisely doesn’t get into the ultimate fallout of that match). Henry decides that he’s got a solution to this conundrum: “Will you be my Elizabeth Woodville, Nan?” he asks.

And here’s where the book utterly fails to deliver on any earlier promise, because Anne, who’s supposed to have learned her wiles at the French court and was able to fend off the advances of the most powerful man in the country before she’d technically hit puberty, who’s supposed to be an expert at reading and manipulating people, is genuinely shocked by this proposal. “For once she found herself truly speechless.” After coyly admitting to herself that there’s something attractive about him after all, she says yes, on condition that Wolsey isn’t told, but really, this moment breaks the book. There is no way the Anne depicted earlier in the book and who led Henry down that conversational path should have been surprised by that proposal, but this one is, because the author can’t allow her to be too unsympathetic.

Things proceed fairly straightforwardly from then on: Wolsey encounters the usual obstacles, is thrown down at Anne’s behest once it’s become clear that his usefulness is at an end (and she still thinks he was the only one responsible for the break with Percy). Henry, as it turns out, is the donor of the famous “B” necklace: “`Let the world think it stands merely for Boleyn,’ he whispered. “But to you and me, it means Betrothed!” And as in many other renditions of the story (as well as possibly in real life) Anne finally gives in to Henry while they’re in Calais, waiting to return to England and unable to do so because of the bad weather — and she does so in the famous black satin nightgown so often mentioned before, the “fabulous black nightgown and matching sheer loose robe which she had commissioned as part of her trousseau.” When the news comes of Anne’s pregnancy a few months later, they’re secretly married and for a while, all is comparatively well, even after Elizabeth’s birth, which Henry takes surprisingly well, at least for a month or two.

Bliss does not last, because Jane Seymour, who’s affiliated with the vaguely-delineated “Catholic Party” has set out to ensnare Henry and bring him back to the True Faith, from which Anne is drawing him (in a most unlikely scene, Anne manages to sell Henry on reading some tracts by Luther). Jane is, probably contrary to history, the “very handsome young lady” who was Henry’s mistress or something like that in the summer of 1534, when Anne was pregnant again. Here Anne does not lose a child at full term, or not yet. She has two miscarriages which are late enough that they’re clearly boys, and while Henry is sulking, Jane is cozying up to him — conveniently twisting her ankle so he has to carry her inside, and other similarly subtle things, but always holding him off since she is, naturally, saving her virtue for her future husband. Anne, of course, is on to her strategy at once and sets out to fend her off any way she can. This is what finally is Anne’s undoing; while pregnant for the third time, she can’t bear to see Henry dancing with Mistress Seymour and insists on taking the floor, despite her condition, and dancing with him herself. “You are going to risk losing our son for the sake of denying Mistress Seymour the opportunity of dancing with her King?” says Henry, to which Anne’s forthright but extremely stupid reply is “If you wish to put it that way, yes!” She dances all evening and goes into premature labor that night, and the baby boy is lost. She succeeds in getting pregnant once more, but this last baby is lost after she receives the shock of hearing that Henry has fallen while jousting; Jane is thrilled to deliver the news of the baby’s demise. After that, it’s only a matter of time — although curiously, Henry once again fails to take the initiative: just as Wolsey originally suggests the annulment, Cromwell is the one to suggest that the Queen’s “indiscretions” might bear some looking in to. By the time Anne is arrested, George’s admonition that she has “flown too close to the flame” is no surprise to the reader, who’s left with a confused impression that both Henry and Anne are characters who can’t figure out themselves exactly what they’re supposed to be like.

SEX OR POLITICS? A bit of both, with a light gloss of religion — a very light gloss, since the author has Anne endearing the reformers to Henry by talking up Martin Luther’s writings. The book does give a nod to the fact that Henry had previously denounced Luther, but come on now.

WHEN BORN? Following the lead of older novels, this Anne has a 1507 birthday — she’s six in 1513 when her father sends her to Archduchess Margaret. George is the oldest, having been born in 1503, and Mary is the middle child, born in 1504.

THE EARLY LOVE Thomas Wyatt as a childish early love — it transpires that he asked Thomas Boleyn for Anne’s hand while Anne was still in France and was summarily rejected (and just as summarily married to Elizabeth Brooke by his own father) before Anne ever had a chance to hear of it. Anne would have been glad to marry him; the same cannot be said of James Butler, whom her father announces as her betrothed after she’s been back in England about a month. Butler is unprepossessing, to say the least: “his garments were some twenty years behind the times. His person was also most displeasing; he had a scar which extended from his right temple to the side of his mouth and good deal of the ear on that side was also missing.” To crown his sins, he’s at least three inches shorter than she is. “I will not have him,” says Anne on hearing the news, saying (along with many other Annes) that she didn’t spend eight years in France just so she could “moulder away” in some Irish bog. She’s much more taken with Henry Percy, to the point where she talks him into sleeping with her in the hopes of conceiving a child and forcing their parents’ hands so that the two can marry. The scheme doesn’t work, and Percy allows himself to be pressured into a miserable marriage to Mary Talbot, after which he promptly exits stage left and isn’t seen by us again until Anne’s trial, where he appears as broken, seriously ill man (which he was) who, though “barely thirty … looked sixty.” When the peers are giving their verdicts, Percy collapses when his turn comes to speak and is carried out, “a shivering, snivelling wreck.”

THE QUEEN’S BEES Margaret (Wyatt) Lee is in the Tower with Anne the night before her execution; it’s Anne’s reminiscences with her that lead us into the first chapter. Margaret is portrayed throughout as Anne’s only real friend at court. Jane Seymour has several prominent appearances as a conniving climber with a “foxy little face”, who sets out deliberately to entrap Henry (she feigns a sprained ankle at one point so that he has to carry her back to the palace, and that’s one of her more subtle moves) but only Anne has the wits to see what she’s trying to do — which is unfortunate, since it’s Anne’s effort to show up Jane during a dance that lead directly to her miscarrying a baby boy. Madge Shelton appears briefly as a rather simpleminded blonde (she’s said to resemble Mary Boleyn greatly) whom Anne brings to court to distract Henry from the charms of the equally blonde Jane Seymour. Lady Rochford is there as well, and she’s of the old school variety; prying, spying, jealous of George and Anne’s affection for each other (she originally loved George but alienated him with her “shrewish ways”, not elaborated on) and maliciously and unhistorically lying her head off — so to speak — during her testimony at Anne’s trial.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR Mark Smeaton is a minor example; he has a doglike devotion to Anne and collaborates with Thomas Wyatt on some musical entertainments for her.

THE PROPHECY There are several references to how Anne always insisted on playing the queen during childhood games and how it parallels her adult life, but nothing that presents itself as overtly supernatural. There is a moment when Mary Boleyn tries to predict the sex of Anne’s and Margaret Lee’s unborn children, and the fetal Elizabeth is apparently positioned in such a way as to appear half girl, half boy — Norah Lofts’ novel The Concubine had a “diviner” feeling something similar, as a prophecy that Elizabeth would be a woman who took up a man’s role.

IT’S A GIRL! As in many books, Anne sobs in disappointment when she realizes that she has a daughter — “Oh, my little one, what trouble have you brought upon your poor mother by not being the hoped-for boy?” but more unusually, Henry takes the bad news extremely well.

Humbled by this miracle of life, the King could not bring himself to reproach the child for her sex.

“But what a daughter!” he breathed in amazement. “She is so large and well-formed, and so strong! Look, Nan, is she not the most beautiful creature you have ever seen? ….We are young, sweetheart, and no doubt this little one will soon have a brother to share her nursery …. You must be fully recovered before we try again. We have many years ahead of us, there is no hurry.”

Of course, six weeks later he’s sniping at Anne for not wanting to get down to business the moment she’s able to stand up for more than fifteen straight minutes and telling her that “my first wife” would have been more cooperative, but it’s still a nice moment.

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? Not quite a a sixth finger, but a small deformity along the lines of what George Wyatt would eventually describe as “some little show of nail.”

It was a tiny deformity on the little finger of her left hand; at the extreme outside edge, the nail was split, forming a small horny growth. When she had been younger her brother had teased her that it was the beginnings of a sixth finger and that she would grow up to be a witch.

Once again Anne invents a “hanging sleeve” and has sets of them sewn in several colors; her proudest moment is when Queen Claude wears the new fashion in sleeves one evening. Anne also has a very small mole which she covers with a pearl necklace, given to her by the King’s sister Marguerite. In the case of both the mole and the nail, it’s pretty clear that nobody is bothered by them except Anne herself.

FAMILY AFFAIRS Mary is described as someone Anne wants to emulate, as she “chose her own husband” but Thomas retorts that she only was able to do that because no nobleman would have her after her behavior in France. In accordance with novelistic tradition, Mary was the mistress of both the King of France and the King of England, and gives birth to a suspiciously red-headed son while Anne is in bored banishment at Hever. After this, Mary follows her usual path of being the maternally-inclined woman who grows disgusted of courtly hypocrisy and chooses to devote herself to her family. In one respect, though, she stands out; unlike most Marys, she’s a genuinely gifted musician and a good lute-player. Not that we get to see her performing all that often, but it’s nice to see her having expertise in something besides lying on her back. Elizabeth Boleyn is described as having briefly been Henry VIII’s mistress back in the day, though not many people know of it. The affection doesn’t seem to have lasted. And Thomas and George and indistinguishable from hundreds of other renditions: Thomas the cold, practical calculator, scheming to get his children into high positions via career choices of marriage, and George is the witty, supportive brother whose unhappy marriage was wished upon him and is in no way his responsibility.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No, just a little courtly flirting — albeit not with Smeaton; she finds the idea of her even treating him familiarly to be hilariously insulting.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE The editing is terrible; the formatting and grammatical slips are on practically every page, as well as occasional word-swaps like “flaunting” instead of “flouting”.

There are redeeming moments, like one early on with King Henry actually showing his skills in music. Mary and Anne of course flatter him at the beginning by playing a song of his own composition but later on he impetuously scolds a young court musician for having his lute out of tune, after which “he could not resist taking the lute from the lad and tuning it himself before beginning to play a song of his own composition. A stool was brought for the King and he sat absentmindedly absorbed in his music. Anne and her friends signed silently to pages to bring them cushions before settling on the floor at the feet of their king.”

Dialogue can be a bit dire, however. When Anne asks Percy if he’s really engaged to Mary Talbot:

”Regrettably, yes,” he affirmed. “But maybe when I tell my father of our love he will reconsider.

Later on, when attempting to seduce the King into sympathy for the religious reformers, she lends him The Teachings Of Martin Luther. The ensuing dialogue is ridiculously awkward — though not as awkward as it would have been had Anne tried such a stunt in real life.

”You truly believe it could become a rival to Catholicism?” he asked her.

“Truly,” she replied firmly, inspired by her small knowledge of Luther’s principles. “You should read this book Henry;[sic] it is good for a monarch to keep up with new ideas. It may be some years since this volume was published but Luther’s theories have come to be known as the New Learnings.”

“You are right,” he told her. “I should keep abreast of the times. If you will pass me your book when you are finished, I shall be glad to read it.”

And Anne managed to yank me straight from the sixteenth century to the nineteenth when she tells Henry (falsely) that her coronation was a big hit with the crowds: “I believe a good time was had by all.”

ERRATA Anne is charged with witchcraft and “suckling a familiar” at her trial, but she was never charged with, much less found guilty of, engaging in witchcraft or any related activities. Jane Boleyn is portrayed as testifying at Anne’s and George’s trials, which she did not. Jane Seymour is identified as having been Henry’s lady-love as early as 1534, which, while not absolutely impossible, is extremely unlikely to have been true. Anne also sets out to sway the King towards religious reform by giving him copies of Luther’s works. Although Henry mentions that “I published a book denouncing this man and his wickedness several years ago” he seems totally unable to recall what any of those arguments were (maybe Thomas More really ghosted the book after all!) and is extremely relaxed about Anne’s reading said “wickedness” now. Again, this is not something that can be absolutely proven false, but it is deeply unlikely.

WORTH A READ? This book feels oddly out of place; it may have been published in 2013 but in spirit it belongs at least half a century earlier, when Agnes Strickland’s influence still dominated (that black satin nightgown!) and the Scarlett O’Hara model of Anne was popular — and deservedly so; when well-done, those books could be excellent. This one, unfortunately, is not one of their number, because Anne and Henry are so choppily written: they seem to keep forgetting what they were like in previous scenes and show a complete inability to learn from previous experience, or even sometimes to remember it. The reader is left at the end with the confused impression of having read a melange of different characters from different books, rather than one consistent narrative, and none of the characters leave much of an impression behind.

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From → Book Overviews

  1. Okay, how Henry would have reacted if Anne had handed over one of LUTHER’s works to him really would have shortened the whole Anne Boleyn saga considerably. Also: “The Teachings of Martin Luther”? Was that the English reader’s digest edition of the many, many pamphlets? Martin Luther For Beginners? One would think at least “Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen” rated an individual translation… Martinus L. would undoubtedly be gleeful at the thought of such an event as Anne handing over a book of his several years later, as he at least pretended to believe Henry didn’t really write his anti-Luther book and had it ghosted. (This as part of another put down along the lines of “I think too highly of princes to believe the English King actually wrote that tripe…”)

    • sonetka permalink

      Some now-lost “Luther For Dummies” compendium, perhaps :). Though I always thought that Henry’s reported comment on “The Obedience Of A Christian Man” (“This is a book for me and all kings to read”) would make great blurb, especially if you’re trying to capture that free-spending king market.

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