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Truth Endures: Je Anne Boleyn, Book Two by Sandra Vasoli (2016)

February 9, 2017

The long-awaited (by me, at least) sequel to Je Anne Boleyn covers the last three and a half years of Anne’s life, beginning with her pregnancy and secret marriage and ending with — well, I’ll get to that.

The book loses no time establishing that Anne is just as much of a dramatic, showboating, intelligent envelope-pusher as she was in the last volume, and also that she’s just as besotted with Henry as she ever was. Since for obvious reasons the pregnancy can’t be announced right away, Anne can’t help dropping obvious hints (including the famous conversation with Thomas Wyatt about her “hankering to eat apples”, carefully staged within hearing distance of dozens of people) but she also feels regret that Henry can’t make an official announcement — “And how rightfully he deserved to proclaim the reasons for his exuberance for, I thought, no man had ever shown such patience, such loyalty, such dedication to any woman as did my Henry to me.” To make it up to him, she stages an elaborate dinner for the Feast of St Mathias featuring some exotic imported whiskey, with predictable results. Anne, still in the first glow of married life, thinks that even Henry’s drunken stumblings are adorable.

With her household established, her marriage proclaimed in churches throughout the land, and her baby proclaimed by the best astrologers to be a boy, Anne’s coronation is an occasion of unbridled happiness — no worries about caps or tongues, she loves every bit it of and describes it vividly; the only bad moment is when she snipes to Henry that if Thomas More was willing to accept money for clothes, he might as well have come to the coronation as not. “I saw an ominous frown darken Henry’s expression.” But that’s forgotten as she rejoices in the opportunities that she now has as a crowned and anointed queen:

Covertly, though, I had my sights set on bigger things than masques and balls, feasting and pastime. What I longed for was to be effectual in the governance of the realm: to be seriously regarded as someone whose decisions were justified and meaningful. I wanted — as I had determined some years ago — to be a woman with a voice. Now, as Queen, I intended my reign to be remembered. There was much I planned to do, God willing; changes I proposed to make which would benefit the poor, the illiterate, the afflicted. While at Hever — oh, how long ago it seemed now — I had told my mother that I wished to use my learning — my education — and my passionate interests in much the same way as I had observed Marguerite, Queen of Navarre, do so fearlessly.

It’s here that one of the major struggles of Anne’s reign begins and in many ways it’s the one that’s the hardest on her. Her struggle against the church and Charles V is led by Henry and aided by Cromwell and numerous others. Her struggles against Henry (the first comes when she discovers that he was fooling around on her while she was in the last stages of pregnancy) at least involve another present human being. But the opponent who never leaves her thoughts, and whom she’s constantly fighting even when she denies she’s doing any such thing, is the banished, never-seen Catherine of Aragon. Anne’s competitiveness is well-established, and she’s aware that a well-educated, charitable, religious queen is not exactly a novelty in England — and having supplanted her, Anne needs to outstrip her, to prove that Henry’s choice was the right one and that God truly is on their side. The obvious way to do that would be to have a healthy boy, and the arrival of a mere healthy girl shakes Anne, but not for long; while Henry can’t quite pretend he’s thrilled, they both put a good face on it; surely they’ll have better luck next time and history won’t repeat itself (though Anne can’t help but be amused at Henry’s optimistic description of himself as “young”.)

Anne’s fight with Catherine’s shadow begins with Elizabeth’s baptism — she rejects the “old Spanish gown of pale, washed-out lace … cobbled together by Katherine’s ungainly outfitters” and insists on new, English-made clothes for the new, entirely English princess. It’s far the last time Anne will express her distaste for Spanish fashions, and it’s very clear to the reader that there’s nothing wrong with the baptismal gown or anything else — it’s all about Anne’s attempts to distance herself from Catherine. Anne’s next pregnancy sees her more reflective, a bit depressed, and working very hard to keep up with her predecessor. No more dramatic proclamations about wanting to eat apples or coronation processions, but following Catherine’s path of doing good works, enjoying her pets, and ignoring the fact that Henry may be enjoying alternative companionship.

As day followed bitter day, a further concern preyed upon my conscience. I could not stop thinking, when the ferocious wind howled about the eves at night … of the poor, especially the children and pregnant women — who had so little …. So, to alleviate my guilt over the care and comfort I received, I ordered a massive quantity of canvas and flannel then commanded all of my ladies, and also drafted women from the surrounding noble homesteads, to sew shirts, smocks, and sheets for the poor and indigent. With the flannel, we made petticoats. As items were completed, I had Henry’s guards distribute them … offering each poor family some warm clothing and two shillings apiece.

When she learns that spring that the Vatican has pronounced her marriage invalid, she snaps that Catherine has probably packed her bags to move back to Whitehall already (with “tawdry, dismal gowns” no less — Anne can never stop taking shots at Spanish clothes), and the news that Cranmer is busy making sure no such thing will ever happen does little to sweeten her mood towards either Catherine or Mary.

Her second pregnancy ends in a stillbirth, heralded not by drama but by what isn’t there. Anne is settling into bed when she realizes “It was not moving in my womb. How long had it been since I last knew it to be active? Desperately I tried to recall the last time — the last moment — I had felt a kick, a turn, anything … No movement at all.”

The baby is a stillborn daughter, and Anne thinks of Catherine: “By God’s tears, I found that now I pitied her; the woman who had caused me so much aggravation.” But before pity can turn into anything more profound, Anne pushes back by telling herself that Catherine would have no pity for her, rather she would “feel gratified by my inadequacy.” Anne, while clearly no fool, cannot bring herself to sympathize with anyone whom Henry is set against — if Henry is Catherine’s enemy, Anne must be as well. The same is true of Thomas More — Anne is hit hard by his arrest, as she respects him greatly, but when Henry turns down a plea from More’s family to release him without taking the Oath of Supremacy”

There was no mistaking it. Thomas More’s imprisonment — no, in actuality, his refusal to honour the friendship Henry thought they shared — grieved the King. He felt betrayed and, worse, bereft of the support of a man he’d trusted implicitly since his youth. Even if More now recanted his position, signed the Oath, and was subsequently released from prison, their bond was broken: it would never be the same for Henry.

More is the one in prison, but only because he’s selfishly refusing to give Henry what he wants — all his own fault, really. Anne engages in similar, terrifyingly convincing mental contortions when she thinks of the fate that awaits the Nun of Kent, who had prophesied Henry’s death. “The suppression of those who would defame Henry and me, my daughter, and my marriage, was both necessary and warranted, but hearing such bald description of its reality somehow turned my stomach.”

Anne is violently jealous of Henry’s wandering attentions — Madge Shelton is packed off to the country as soon as his interest becomes evident, and Jane Seymour is only spared from the same fate because by this time Anne has lost her third pregnancy — a male child, as Nan Cobham informs her — and Henry’s cold reaction tells Anne that she’s on thin ice with him. The timing is ironic; with Catherine’s death in January 1536 Anne is clearly relieved that she no longer has to compete with her (although she doesn’t wear yellow — that’s Henry’s decision — she does wear green and admits that she wasn’t exactly broken up over the whole business). The loss of the baby and Anne’s growing realization that Cromwell has chosen to ally with Charles V alarm her — but not to the point where she truly fears for her life, because after all, Henry would never be truly unjust to her. Her fear is deposition, as happened to Catherine, and when she’s arrested the day after the May Day jousts, that’s what she thinks is happening — at first. Finding out from a gloating Norfolk what the accusations against her are, she realizes quickly enough that there’s only one way for this to end, and she knows who’s behind it all — “For uncharacteristically he made no appearance: instead visits to receive Kingston’s reports were handled either through his secretary, Sadler, or in an even more cowardly manner — secretively — so I would be denied any chance to confront him in person. Thomas Cromwell.

As for Henry, she does as she’s always done, which is to think of him as the victim:

And what about Henry? Was my sense of betrayal worse than his must have been when persuaded of these odious lies? I knew very well that he was a man whose need for absolute loyalty was almost childlike…. So I could well imagine his pain and resentment, his great willingness to believe even the most outrageous of untruths …. But then, as I had been the idealized object of his veneration for so long, and we had loved so deeply — that could not be denied — I wondered, if only I were able to see him, to speak with him, might I just be able to convince him that he was being deceived into believing such accusations?

Cromwell obviously wonders the same thing; taking no chances, he refuses to arrange a meeting and Sadler makes only the vaguest promises about delivering any letters. So Anne, as a last effort, composes her letter “From the lady in the tower” — signing with her birth name specifically to remind Henry of the woman he fell in love with. She has very little confidence that he’ll get the letter, and no expectation that he’ll get it in time to reconsider; she’s seen this scenario play out before and knows it can only end in her death. The letter is less for Henry than for the world; one day, somebody will read it, and know that she protested her innocence to the end. And with that, we leave her, still in love with Henry, and still with two weeks remaining in her life — but with its conclusion already scripted.

SEX OR POLITICS? Sex and religion, with considerably less of the former and more of the latter as time goes on.

WHEN BORN? 1501 — already established in Book 1.

THE EARLY LOVE N/A in this book — it ends before Anne is tried, so poor Percy doesn’t even get a chance to appear and then faint after the verdict.

THE QUEEN’S BEES The same large cast as in the previous book — first and foremost, Margaret Wyatt (called Maggie here) who’s Anne’s chief confidante and, along with George Boleyn, also the chief offerer of reassurance and level-headed advice which Anne doesn’t always take. We also see lots of others, including the usually-absent Margery Horsman, Anne Savile, Anne Zouche, Lady Worcester, Frances de Vere, Grace Newport (oddly not mentioned as being Jane Boleyn’s sister-in-law, though to be fair we don’t see enough of her for it to matter) and of course Jane Seymour, who’s described as having been at court under Catherine in previous years — she didn’t appear in the first book, but it’s made clear that she’d gone back to Wolf Hall by the time Anne was highly-placed enough to have multiple attendants. When Anne debates whether to have Jane back, she tells the others that Jane’s “intelligence mirrors her looks — quite common!” (She later blames her “outspokenness” on her pregnancy.) Honor Lisle and her quest to have her daughters placed are also recurring themes, and Anne certainly enjoys Honor’s letters and gifts to the fullest. In a rare example of novelistic thoroughness, Anne also has men in her household, not the least of whom are her chaplains Parker, Betts and Skip.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR Two maids, Lucy Holbrook and Emma Potter. Her “silkwoman”, Mistress Joan Clerk, also makes a number of appearances to work on Anne’s and Elizabeth’s clothes. (Anne is just a tad competitive with her predecessor when it comes to clothes —it’s clear that her repeated disparagement of Spanish lace and the gowns “cobbled together” by Catherine’s seamstresses tell us a lot more about Anne’s state of mind than the actual quality of the items in question). Elizabeth Brereton is employed as Princess Elizabeth’s wetnurse, and Jane Fool makes a few brief appearances, though we never hear any of her “innocent witticisms”.

THE PROPHECY As in the last book, only a few low key incidents which remain firmly planted in the realm of possibility. Before Elizabeth’s birth, Henry and Anne visit one John Robyns, fellow of All Souls, who predicts that the baby will be intelligent, knowledgeable, a skilled ruler, and usher in a golden age for England — will, in fact, be a ruler “equaled by none other than, perhaps, the legendary King Arthur …. and, of course, your own Majesty.” This paragon will, he assures them, definitely be a boy. After Elizabeth’s birth Anne is righteously annoyed with “that old fraud.”

IT’S A GIRL! Anne, after the first shock of Elizabeth’s sex, realizes that “I had somehow always known, even from her first stirrings, that our child would be a princess.” Whether that’s actually the case or whether she’s remembering moments like looking at an astrological table with a picture of Virgo is impossible to say, but she certainly believes it herself. After the initial shock, Anne is determined to defend Elizabeth, especially, as she uneasily realizes, she had “nigh to promised [Henry] a son.” Henry reacts well, on the whole — praising the baby’s beauty, and suggesting the name Elizabeth as a joint tribute to both his mother and Anne’s — but gives the game away by telling Anne immediately afterwards that he hopes for her swift recovery so they can get to work on another child, who “will surely be a son.” The second baby is the stillborn girl, whom they name Margaret and who is buried “with utmost discretion.”

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? No — in the first book it’s established that, like her daughter, Anne has unusually beautiful hands which she, understandably, shows off at ever opportunity.

FAMILY AFFAIRS Not surprisingly, her mother and her sister Mary don’t appear nearly as much (though still more than Thomas Boleyn) but they have their moments. Her mother ends up giving Anne her motto of “The Most Happy” — she expresses admiration that Anne has managed to marry both for love and position, which makes her the happiest of women, and Anne seizes on that and adopts it. We only really see Mary after her imprudent marriage to Stafford, when Anne is enraged at her weakness and foolishness in marrying so far beneath her (and without permission). Only after Mary is tossed out on her ear can Anne admit to herself that Mary’s pregnancy, so awkwardly occurring just after Anne lost her second child, was another reason she was so angry.

George Boleyn doesn’t differ too much from most positive portrayals — intelligent, amusing, and far more level-headed than Anne herself; he urges her to try and make peace with Princess (or Lady) Mary and urges her not to be too harsh towards Catherine of Aragon since she’s also in a very awkward position. George doesn’t say in so many words that the people she meets climbing up are likely to be the people she encounters on the way down, but you get the impression he’s thinking it. Jane Boleyn is, thankfully, not the standard-issue villainess she seemed to be evolving towards in the first book; just a gossipy type who isn’t Anne’s favorite person in the world but whom she’s gotten to like better with time. Jane tends to be the one who reluctantly informs Anne that Henry is playing around, notably with Madge Shelton.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No, full stop. She worships Henry to the end and wouldn’t dream of it. The reason she writes her last letter is because, while she knows he won’t see it in time, she wants him to know the truth of her innocence one day. It legitimately does not cross her mind that he might know the truth and just not care.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE Dialogue continues to be a weak point — Anne seems to be weirdly aware of what’s going on with her own facial expressions constantly (“I sneeringly arched a well-groomed eyebrow) and she really likes italics, used to unintentionally comic effect when she rebukes Henry Norris for his ill-advised “dead men’s shoes” remark: “How DARE you, Henry Norreys! You presume to fill a dead man’s shoes with ME? While the dead man you speak of is your King?” Phrases like “personal space” also tend to turn up to jolt the reader. But there are good scenes as well — the one where Henry breaks it to her that dog Purkoy is dead (because nobody else could bring themselves to tell her) is particularly sweet. And even if the dialogue is awkward, Anne’s narration is quite strong, as the author has the confidence to let her be unreliable and trust the reader to figure it out.

The other major problem with the dialogue is one that many more modern books have since they’re told entirely from Anne’s point of view — and that’s that too many conversations have to be relayed second-hand because she couldn’t have been there to witness them. It’s irritating but only really becomes a problem when it comes to Chapuys; his letters are such standouts that it would be impossible not to include him and his antagonistic relationship with Anne, but since he virtually never spoke to her directly, all his conversations with Henry have to be relayed secondhand to Anne by Henry himself. Quite apart from the awkwardness of Henry repeating their back-and-forth dialogues, it’s hard to believe that the man as he’s presented would really tell Anne about Chapuys (as he thought) questioning his manhood.

ERRATA The book has been excellently researched and I really appreciate the efforts the author made to flesh out the population of the court — while it’s impossible to write a coherent novel which names all of the people Anne must have had dealings with over the years, it gave a real sense of the sheer number of people who were around her all the time, how many attendants she had, and how impossible it was to ever really be alone. There’s a very helpful list of characters at the beginning of the book, with invented characters (the minor servants and silkwoman) noted as such. The only even somewhat iffy item in this category is Anne’s supposed last letter to Henry “from my doleful prison” dated May 6 1536 and signed “Anne Bullen.” There’s been a lot of debate about the authenticity of this letter, but it’s been around for awhile and it certainly fits in well with the author’s take on Anne’s personality. And it is a novel, after all!

WORTH A READ? If you liked the last book, which I very much did, you’ll really enjoy this — the proofreading has improved, the research is excellent, and even though Anne comes across as consistently obnoxious along with her confidence, she definitely comes across — and as I said in my last writeup, she’s depressingly believable as someone who’s so immersed in her adoration of Henry that she’ll excuse any brutality rather than face up to the truth of what he is. She’s an unreliable narrator of her own life, but there are just enough little slips and over-insistent descriptions that the subtext can virtually become text. Her long denunciation of her sister Mary’s foolishness in marrying is all well and good — but the last, flat little mention that, incidentally, Mary is pregnant shows us what Anne is really angry about. Anne’s distaste for the pale, inexpertly made Spanish lace on Princess Mary’s baptismal gown and preference for the English variety is so intemperately expressed that it’s ridiculously clear that the Spanish lace is fine, and that Anne’s real anxiety and anger have to do with its former owners.

Her character isn’t static, though true to her earlier self her realization of her own faults is prompted by the tragedy of her stillborn child — she’s driven to consider what her predecessor must have felt when her own babies died, though in characteristic fashion Anne quickly banishes the thought by deciding that Catherine certainly wouldn’t feel sorry for her. But even her reluctant evaluation of her own faults is not accompanied by any true realization of Henry’s. Anne has come to see her own flaws, but to the end she’s sure that Henry’s own sins are all a result of being misled and that her true enemy is Thomas Cromwell.

And it’s here that the one major flaw of the book’s plotting lies: Cromwell is very flat. Quiet, intelligent, scheming, always in black, apparently on her side and yet Anne always mistrusts him for some reason. It was a rare false note in an otherwise pretty well-done portrait of an intelligent and lively but nonetheless selfish and not overly discerning woman — there’s absolutely no other character about whom she has doubts like these if they’ve shown themselves willing to serve her and her interests. In fact, we never really get a sense of Cromwell’s personality; even minor characters get amusing grace notes but Anne’s and Cromwell’s relationship is weirdly one-note considering how much he did for her and Henry, and for how long. But this, and the awkward dialogue are more than made up for by everything else; a detailed narrative that still manages to be fast-paced, a convincing if often enraging Anne, and a more in-depth treatment of subjects which often only get a lick and promise in other books — most especially Anne’s religious concerns. This Anne may not go into too much detail about the religious books she reads, but she does read them, and she spends the time before Elizabeth’s birth reading her Book of Hours and praying for a safe delivery, as she later will — with less happy results — during her subsequent pregnancies. The omnipresence of priests, and attendance at daily Mass, is also notable. Too many books forget that Anne’s religion, and chapel attendance, were a daily factor in her life until they reach the very end of her life and suddenly we’re hearing about chaplains and feast days she’s never mentioned before. But this Anne is admirably consistent, and I’d recommend her to anyone who has a high tolerance for unsympathetic narrators.

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From → Book Overviews

  1. Are you going to read and review Alison Weir’s new novel about Anne?

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