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Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession by Alison Weir (2017)

December 15, 2017

Alison Weir has written numerous popular histories centered around the Tudor era and recently has expanded to writing novels based on the same. While her non-fiction books are dodgy and poorly sourced enough that switching to fiction was probably a wise move, ironically, her fiction suffers greatly from her tendency to cling to the established record (or her take on it, which isn’t always the same thing.) This extremely disappointing novel, which weighs in at a substantial 530 pages, leaves the reader with a frustrating sense of being perpetually stuck in first gear. It’s not that the author doesn’t have intriguing ideas about her characters, she does — but she always backs away at the last moment when faced with the prospect of actually developing them into something substantial. I have read it numerous times over the last few months and each time I am both disappointed and amazed at its dullness, its infuriating lack of emotional follow-up (a close family member died, how tragic! Now let’s never mention him again) and lack of basic accuracy with regard to key facts — this last continuing even into the author’s afterword, where she carefully explains what’s imaginary in some cases and completely fails to mention other dubious if not downright invented “facts” which remain in the novel to trip up the unwary.

First among these is the “fact” that Anne had three brothers who survived to adulthood, something which is taken seriously by Alison Weir and nobody else, and which is based on extremely sketchy evidence. It’s beyond dispute that Anne did have (at least) three brothers, but the only one who has even a passing mention past babyhood is George, and there is absolutely no indication that her brothers Thomas and Henry lived past early childhood, much less to become a courtier and an Oxford student, as they are at the beginning of this book. Anne doesn’t feel as close to them as she does to George (Anne is the second-youngest and George the youngest child) and when they’re dispatched off to their future careers and Anne is chosen by her father over a jealous and less-talented Mary to go to the court of Archduchess Margaret, Anne worries about George’s future — there will be nothing for him to inherit, and he may have to make do with that traditional dumping ground of extra children, religious life.

Off goes Anne to court, where she (accurately!) learns French from M. Semmonet and learns about the crafty ways of the male sex from Archduchess Margaret and her fellow attendants. Margaret has an unrequited crush on Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, which he uses to his own advantage, and the various attendants engage in their own foibles; Anne learns the art of flirting without going too far. She also learns that she should never be alone with any man for even a second, a lesson that unfortunately is not learned by Mary a year later, when she joins Anne in attending Princess Mary in France when she marries King Louis. Mary rashly goes off to an empty room with Francois, the heir presumptive, to look at some tapestries, and when Anne next sees her she’s in tears because he raped her. Anne is both furious and powerless; she knows that any complaint either of them make won’t be well-received; the best she can do is assist Mary when, after King Louis dies, Mary says she wants to go home. Their father doesn’t take it well, even when Anne tells him what happened; his unfortunately period-appropriate reaction is that Mary should have looked after herself better. Anne has no problems remaining at the French court, though, as she’s very fond of Queen Claude and Francois’s proto-feminist sister, Marguerite, so she stays there another seven years, becoming essentially a Frenchwoman herself. During this time, in addition to the usual lessons on courtly flirtation and obligatory brief meeting with Leonardo da Vinci, she receives the tragic news from home that her older brothers Thomas and Henry have both died of the sweating sickness; she’s less disturbed by this than one might think, since she didn’t know them terribly well (too much of an age difference) and she now realizes that now her favorite brother George is the heir to their father’s property. Oh, that’s all right then. She then proceeds to never think of her deceased brothers again for the remainder of her life.

After returning from France in 1522 due to the threat of war, Anne plunges into court life with its masques and flirtations; she exchanges informal vows with Henry Percy but before they can make it official (or physical) Cardinal Wolsey sweeps in to break them up. Anne receives the news via James Melton and George Cavendish, and goes to confront the Cardinal herself, but all he does is sneer at her that she’s a foolish girl who will never amount to anything. In the meantime, Mary is having more troubles with royalty; a friendly Henry VIII has escorted her to an empty room and then proceeded to rape her. Mary is devastated afterwards, then after a month or so begins to sleep with him voluntarily and becomes, for a while, his established mistress. How does she feel about this development? Damned if I know — the reader is never given a way to find out. She’s living apart from her husband during this time so when she eventually becomes pregnant, she knows for certain that it’s the king’s child, but said king wants nothing to do with the impending bundle of complications and packs her off to the country, where despite Anne’s protests that she should fight for the baby’s rights (Henry’s illegitimate son got quasi-royal treatment, after all) Mary chooses to stay away and her husband chooses to believe that baby Catherine is his. After what she’s been through, it’s not surprising that she would conclude that court isn’t the best place for her. What is surprising is that she actually remembers these events and forms a long-range plan as a result — alone among the lead characters, Mary Boleyn is able to consistently remember things which happened more than twenty minutes ago.

For George, on the other hand, court has been providing a little too much entertainment, as he eventually confesses to Anne when they’re discussing his marital troubles. “It’s as if I want to devour women; it’s all I think about, day and night. I’m out of control, and powerless to change. I’ve — I’ve even forced widows and deflowered maidens. They are all one to me.” If this sounds familiar, it’s because he’s quoting George Cavendish’s poem about him written approximately twenty years after his death: “I forced widows, maidens I did deflower / All were one to me, I spared none at all.”

Anne, unsurprisingly, is outraged. “Stop forcing yourself on other women! I can think of few worse things a man can do. Have you any idea of the hurt and damage it does? Look at Mary, our sister!”

George, shamefaced, promises that he’ll try to do better, and Anne sweeps away. The next day, she realizes that “even though she was bitterly, devastatingly, disappointed in him, she could never stop loving him. They were too close for that.”

Close they certainly are, and as the novel progresses George will assume his standard place as Anne’s chief confidant (and restrainer, when she talks wildly about taking revenge on Princess Mary and certain of her allies) before he suddenly and horribly goes off the rails towards the end.

What bothered me about this development was not just the thinness of Weir’s source or the dreadful dialogue. It was the completely lack of followup. That Anne would choose her love for her brother over denouncing him is certainly plausible enough, but what baffled me was the complete lack of even mental followup. Anne believes George when confesses to having raped multiple maidens and widows, but the obvious followup question never even crosses her mind, namely — who? Who were these women? Were any of them friends, acquaintances, anybody who could make trouble for George? The fact that a powerful man with the King’s ear would probably beat a rape charge (as Thomas Culpeper did a few years on) did not mean that the possibility of such a charge did not exist. Later on in the story, George spends endless hours socializing with Anne’s maids of honor and friends, and far from warning them (or him), it never so much as crosses her mind that George’s little habits might lead to a big problem. Again, to be clear — my issue with the author’s approach is not Anne’s lack of action against her brother. That’s entirely believable. It’s the fact that possibility even of something like warning her friends and fellow attendants of George’s proclivities never even seems to cross her mind afterwards. Like the goldfish she is, she’s forgotten about it, just as she forgets about her deceased older brothers to the point where, even as she and George await execution and the resulting extinction of their father’s earldom, she never once thinks of them and how things might have been different had even one of them lived.

Anyway, back to the story. Before long, Henry begins obviously and clumsily creeping on Anne, who of course wants nothing to do with him (she rebukes him for raping Mary. Once. Then, as is usual for this book, it goes straight down the memory hole.) Even after being disappointed in Henry Percy, she’s got enough on her hands with the (married) Thomas Wyatt pursuing her and (also married) Henry Norris not exactly pursuing her — he’s too gentlemanly for that — but definitely giving her a meaningful glance now and then. In one of the many, many instances of the book refusing to get out of first gear, we are continually told how much Anne likes and respects Norris, how she feels that he understands her in a way few other men do, and yet we never see enough of him to figure out why this is. It’s serious that enough that a few years later, when Henry VIII is in strong pursuit of Anne and she’s resolved to become his queen or nothing, Anne is nevertheless so taken aback by news of Norris’s wife’s death that she considers abandoning the king and making a serious attempt at Norris before deciding that it would be too risky for both of them. It should be an an affecting and tense moment, except that the reader has seen virtually nothing of Norris except to note that he seems to be pretty polite to Anne. If the two characters actually seemed to have any connection, it would be wonderful foreshadowing for how their affectionate but innocent flirting will eventually doom them. As it is, Norris has all the charisma of a cardboard cutout.

Not that his competition is much better. Henry VIII who, lest we forget, was once described as the handsomest man in Europe and when approaching middle age would have been a dazzling, terrifying figure, has a lot of trouble getting and keeping attention in a story that revolves largely around him. His chief occupations appear to be whining, begging, sulking, delivering exposition about how the annulment is going and complaining that his ministers aren’t getting things done quickly enough. While a man with Henry’s sort of power didn’t have to spend too much time worrying about trying to attract women, the trouble is that we never get any sense of that power. If anything, he comes across as a spoiled crown prince with too much time on his hands who’s busy getting into trouble while his father does the real work of ruling. Wolsey, More and later Cromwell are the “fathers”, though since they’re drawn so flatly, they give no lasting impression of power either; they’re just there because the story says they should be.

Even when it comes to the annulment and decision to marry Anne, Henry is comically easy to manipulate. The process, paraphrased, goes something like this:

WOLSEY, EARLY ON: Your grace, it would be politically advantageous to seek an annulment, so as to make an alliance with France and also have a much better chance of producing some surviving male children.

HENRY: OK, sounds good!

ANNE, SEVERAL YEARS LATER: Your Grace, why marry a French princess? Why not break with tradition and give the English people a true English queen, by which I refer to myself even though I spent most of my formative years in France and am seen as being at least half-French by everyone else?

HENRY: OK, sounds good!

This is why it’s so puzzling when, later on in the book, Anne is outraged when she discovers that Henry has been sleeping with maids of honor behind her back while she was pregnant — hasn’t she realized by now that Henry is always ready to go along with whatever suggestion has been offered to him most recently? Incidentally, she’s informed of his affairs by the nasty, gossipy Jane Boleyn, who’s back to her old-school self here: a twisted, backstabbing bitch who loathes her husband because he talked her into trying anal and engaging in the occasional threesome. Oh, and presumably for raping everything that moves, though that isn’t emphasized much. Weirdly, Jane is described as “lacking excitement in her own life” and therefore willing to help Anne try and oust Henry’s mistress of 1534 (Joan Ashley in this version) even though she’s still a secret Catholic and partisan of Princess Mary. If Jane’s life is “lacking excitement” then I must actually be in a coma right now. But anyway, I digress. The divorce moves forward and everything goes relatively unremarkably until Elizabeth’s birth, which is an enormous shock to Anne; unusually for her character, she’s so disappointed that she finds it very hard to love the child and has to conceal her relief when she’s moved to her own household. It’s not the first instance of an interesting plot point being raised which subsequently refuses to go anywhere, but it’s one of the most annoying.

Henry is much more affectionate towards Elizabeth than Anne is, but he start showing real discontent when Anne’s second pregnancy turns out to be a premature baby boy, stillborn in July 1534. He explicitly tells their attendants to say only that she miscarried, not that the baby was a boy. When she has another stillborn boy the next year, Henry begins to get the distinct impression that God is deliberately withholding a son from him — after all, he’s experienced this kind of thing before and is pretty well acquainted with the signs by now.

Anne herself is, meanwhile, extremely preoccupied with solidifying her political position through means other than having a son. I think her actions here are meant to show us how she’s becoming coldblooded and callous because of dire political necessity, but since Goldfish Memory Syndrome strikes yet again, it just becomes another example of Anne failing to act on information she’s learned, capped by an incredibly ugly deviation at the end. It goes roughly like this.

ANNE: Henry, I can’t have the common people undermining my position like this. You should jail them and execute some Carthusians to show them I’m not going anywhere.


NORRIS: Since my plot function right now is to be the better angel of your nature, I just thought I’d stop by to say that I witnessed the executions and they were pretty gruesome and everyone thought it was your fault and was cursing you, Anne. This probably isn’t going to end well.

ANNE: What I have done sickens and shames me. But Henry, I can’t have my position being undermined like this. Please execute More and Fisher to show that my position is secure and I’m not going anywhere.

HENRY: Wait a second, I think we should at least give them a trial — OK, OK, I’ll do it. [Afterward] DAMN IT, WOMAN, THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT!

ANNE: What I have done sickens and shames me. Henry, I had a dream that we would never have a male child while Catherine and the Lady Mary were alive, so it might be good to start looking into their treasonous activities. I have a feeling that Catherine is my death, and I am hers. It would also be good to get a peek at my internal monologue to see if I actually had this dream as a result of prolonged pressure and its attendant mental problems, or if I’m just coldbloodedly inventing it to kill two of my rivals, but I’m afraid that’s never going to happen, so the reader will be as in the dark as you are. The reader will also be wondering why I haven’t learned from the way you freaked out last time I talked you into executing someone.

GEORGE: Congratulations on Catherine’s death! The Lord did you a solid there, all right. Actually, I helped him out a bit — after all, he helps those who help themselves, as they’ll start saying about a hundred years from now.

ANNE: What you have done sickens and shames me. I wanted her to get a fair trial and then be executed! How dare you even contemplate murdering her! Now people will blame me, just like they have for everything else!

Yes, you read that right. George actually poisons Catherine, for no discernible reason other than, I think, to make Anne look more sympathetic by comparison; after all, as soon as she finds out, she fears that she’ll miscarry her newest pregnancy as divine punishment for Catherine’s death, and indeed she does, on the day that Catherine is buried, no less. For Henry, this is the clearest sign yet that God does not approve of his current arrangements. Enter Jane Seymour, who’s been smirking and hanging around ever since the previous November — also, more dangerously, re-enter Henry Norris, whose engagement to Madge is hanging fire and who regrettably does not catch on to the court’s changed mood with regard to Anne, at least not enough to stop his usual courtly flirting with her. Cromwell, who has had it out for Anne ever since she made it clear that she wanted the dissolved monastery assets to be used for something other than enriching the king (and Cromwell) strikes quickly; a few indiscreet overheard flirtations noted down and mixed with a lot of innuendo add up to numerous quick arrests and, shortly afterwards, trial and condemnation for Anne and the five men accused of being her lovers.

One of these, of course, is George, and while Jane Boleyn isn’t shown testifying against him (she didn’t) it’s made clear afterwards by a chatty William Kingston that she had been the source of the incest charge against him. Anne reflects bitterly that Jane had “always been for the Lady Mary,” which is an odd thing to emphasize considering the many other grudges Jane has against George. Kingston also passes along to Anne a sort of preview of George’s scaffold speech, saying that when he went back to prison he said that he was a sinner and deserved to die. Anne, shocked, thinks that he’s confessing to nonexistent incest, and then realizes that he’s talking about Catherine’s murder, which would certainly rate the penalty he’s going to receive. (Once again, his numerous rapes vanish from her memory.) The final few pages are an accurate and, at the end, nauseatingly vivid description of Anne’s beheading (and the ten seconds or so after, during which she’s not quite dead) but unfortunately, this is hardly enough to save this bloated, mediocre mess of a book.

SEX OR POLITICS? Sex, not all of it voluntary. The political ins and outs of Henry’s annulment process and Anne’s frustration with it are all covered adequately enough, mostly in the form of awkwardly worded exposition from Henry, who routinely reels off speeches like this:

Yes sweetheart. Things are moving. In his capacity as Papal legate, the Cardinal has secretly convened an ecclesiastical court at Westminster. Archbishop Warham is presiding, and we’ve assembled a host of bishops and canon lawyers. I was summoned last week, and asked to account for having knowingly taken to wife my brother’s widow. I admitted the charge, confessed my doubts of conscience, and asked for a decision to be given on my case. I should hear soon. And then, dearest Anne, we can be married!

This is how political issues are dealt with; Henry talks about them, packing as much information into his speeches as possible, Anne frets about them, rinse, repeat.

Sex is a different issue. Weir’s preoccupation in both her fiction and nonfiction has long been rape, and her books usually involve at least one rape which is unrecorded anywhere in contemporary documentation. This does not, of course, mean that such rapes never occurred (as more recent history indicates, quite a few must have) simply that it’s become her fallback explanation whenever there needs to be tension between male and female characters, and the negative effect is twofold; first of all, it has the dreadful effect of making rape boring instead of horrifying (“Oh come on, again?” thinks the reader as once more poor Mary Boleyn wanders off to an empty room with a King of the Realm), and secondly, since she’s made her name as a popular historian, it’s easy for the reader to conclude that she’s drawing from actual sources when she describes both Henry VIII and Francois I as rapists (both claim Mary gave her consent but from the circumstances it’s clear that she didn’t, and Anne manages to fling that at them and still keep her position somehow, possibly because she forgets all about it afterward), when George Boleyn is described as a serially offending rapist (victims unnamed) and when Margaret of Austria herself, regent of the Netherlands, tearfully tells Anne that she herself was raped (rapist unknown, though from her previous flirtations with the Duke of Suffolk the reader might conclude that it was him.) The only one of these accusations which has anything like a source is the one for George Boleyn, and as I’ve discussed elsewhere, its veracity is open to question.

It would be possible to successfully portray all of these men as rapists (at least by modern standards) without butchering the story, but unfortunately that’s not what happens here. What we get instead are male characters who are relatively restrained, despite the fact that several of them have the kind of power that would make even a Hollywood executive jealous (even Harvey Weinstein couldn’t have his critics disembowelled on command with the full approval of the law), until one day the full moon rises and they feel compelled to attack someone, usually Mary Boleyn. Then it’s all back to normal afterwards; there’s no pattern of attentions, no careless assumption that of course she must be willing — it’s ME, after all! (Of all the men who ever walked the earth, Henry VIII would be one whom you’d think most likely to carry that attitude, but not here; this Henry has all the agency of a rubber duck and his rape of Mary is one of the few actions he performs which weren’t initially suggested to him by someone else.) George Boleyn tells Anne that he feels compelled to attack women, but we never see that tendency in action; no pressing, no trying to get anyone alone, no whispered reputation among her friends. The only reason we even know it happens is because he tells us. The rapes are all these strange, unpleasant spars which nothing in the story has truly led up to, and which seem to exist mostly so the author can emphasize just how terrible that world could be for women. Fair enough, but to write a good novel demands more than simply putting down real, dreadful things which have happened to people. The characters’ sins need to arise from themselves as they’re portrayed, and these sins manifestly don’t.

WHEN BORN? 1501. Mary is a few years older, and George a bit younger. Very unusually, Anne’s two older brothers, Thomas and Henry, are still alive at the beginning of the book — they’re in their mid to late teens, so instead of being the heir apparent, George is the resentful third son who stands to inherit very little. Both older brothers die of the sweat while Anne is in France.

THE EARLY LOVE Anne and Henry Percy have their standard youthful romance, and make informal vows to each other but don’t sleep together. After Anne’s ascent, Percy grows to genuinely dislike her (whether due to personal unhappiness or resentment at what she’s turned into isn’t clear) and shuns her at subsequent meetings, as well as telling Chapuys that he’s convinced that Anne intends to poison the Princess Mary.

Anne subsequently develops a tendresse for Henry Norris — younger here than he was in real life, where he was older than Henry VIII — but by the time he’s freed up by his wife’s early death, Anne is already deeply involved with the king and while she’s tempted to follow through on her attraction to Norris and become engaged to him, she decides against because she’s had a taste of power and prefers it to whatever she and Norris could have together. She does continue low-key flirting with him and often finds herself wishing that the king had Norris’s gentleness and consideration (Norris’s engagement to Madge Shelton lasts a long time because he feels that he’s settling by marrying her instead of Anne, so it goes both ways).

Thomas Wyatt flits in and out writing his standard poems, but although Anne is flattered by his attention she mostly just seems to be annoyed with him — and since he’s married, albeit separated, there’s nowhere for their relationship to go — although in a particularly tone-deaf moment (historically speaking) Anne is shocked at Thomas’s mentioning that he might be freed up by his wife’s death. “Elizabeth is only twenty-two!” is Anne’s rejoinder; apparently she’s forgotten her two brothers who died suddenly in their teens only a few years earlier, to say nothing of the long string of noblewomen who didn’t survive childbirth. It’s one of many moments where a twenty-first century mentality intrudes noticeably into the story.

THE QUEEN’S BEES Since this books spends more time than most on Anne’s years in France, we get to see a bit more of her continental friendships than usual. At Archduchess Margaret’s court, she’s acquainted with Etienette de la Baume, a real girl whose name is remembered thanks to a letter she wrote to Henry VIII on the occasion of her marriage, referring to a previous flirtation and his promise to send her money when she married. Whether the real Etienette ever got her money is unknown, but the fictional version never gets a reply and is thoroughly scolded by Margaret for ever having flirted openly with Henry in the first place, let alone expecting him to follow through on his promises. On the English side, Lady Carew (wife of Sir Nicholas) is the first of Anne’s attendants to have an affair with Henry, much to Anne’s shock and dismay, and one Joan Ashley takes her place (from the timing, she’s the “very handsome young lady” of 1534). Jane Seymour, plain and dumpy, was at court in Catherine of Aragon’s day but only returns to attend Anne after she and Henry visit Wolf Hall in the autumn of 1535; no quarter is given either to her appearance or intelligence. Madge Shelton appears as a very worldly-wise girl who briefly becomes Henry’s mistress explicitly to unseat the hostile Joan Ashley (“Your Grace should push one in his path who loves you and will win his sympathy for you” she tells a surprised but ultimately agreeable Anne). Subsequently she becomes engaged to Norris, though both of them know that she’s very much the undercard attraction compared to the queen.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR Anne’s childhood nurse Mrs. Orchard looks after her at Hever and follows her throughout most of her life, and M. Semmonet teaches her French during her initial sojourn on the continent, having been restored to his accurate form instead of being portrayed as Anne’s governess Simonette as he used to be.

THE PROPHECY Various doctors and seers all assure her that her first baby will be a boy, with the exception of one William Glover, “celebrated throughout the land for foretelling the future” (he seems to be fictional, probably a sly Shakespeare joke). Glover predicts that Anne will bear “a woman child and a prince of the land.” Henry’s hopeful suggestion that she’ll have twins is summarily shot down. “I see only one child,” he tells Henry. “I know only what my glass tells me.” After Anne and Henry have left, Henry tells Anne, “Don’t let him upset you, darling. He’s a knave.” After Elizabeth is born, neither Anne nor Henry feel particularly grateful for Glover’s prescience.

IT’S A GIRL! Anne is so disappointed by Elizabeth’s birth that she can’t feel anything else. “She had heard that mothers experienced a great rush of love for their newborns. It had not happened to her. She was too disappointed, too gripped by a strong sense of failure. The tiny creature in the cradle would be a constant reminder of it.” Henry, presumably from long experience of births that didn’t turn out as expected, takes it in stride, cooing over the baby and telling Anne that at least the baby is healthy and “sons will follow,” adding that he would rather beg from door to door than forsake her. Henry’s later disappointment will stem not from the existence of Elizabeth, but from Anne’s continued failure (from his perspective) to provide her with a living brother.

Anne’s own reaction is more unusual in fiction; usually authors will portray her as either loving Elizabeth fiercely from the moment of her birth, though occasionally she swings towards the opposite direction and coldly sends the baby away, more concerned with a future son than a disappointing daughter. This Anne has a more muted reaction, which disappointingly — and typically for this book — is not explored in depth, just mentioned a few times. She feels as if she ought to love Elizabeth, but the crushing disappointment of her birth weighs so heavily on Anne that she simply can’t do it. She has no problem doing the customary thing by giving Elizabeth to a wet nurse and later sending her to her own household, but she feels guilty at having no affection for her — shouldn’t a mother love her daughter? So she continually sends Elizabeth elaborate gifts and pays flying visits in the hope of either kindling affection for her or at least looking like a loving mother to everyone around her.

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? True to George Wyatt’s report, she has “a tiny extra nail” on her right little finger, which she’s always trying to hide despite her mother’s assurance that it’s “foolish to worry about such a little thing.” Mary, during an early fight, calls it a witch’s mark, and the young Anne can’t shake the feeling that it’s a horrible flaw. It’s not much of an issue later on, though.

FAMILY AFFAIRS Anne’s family is expanded in the form of two older brothers, Thomas and Henry, who did exist but almost certainly did not survive early childhood. Here, however, they’re both in their teens and bound for the household of the Duke of Buckingham (Thomas, the eldest and the heir) and Oxford (Henry, the second and cleverest child). George, the youngest of all, is his mother’s favorite, but “in [his] breast there burned a fierce resentment against his older brothers. Unlike them, he must make his own way in the world. Father reminded him of it often.” As it turns out, however, George has no need to go adventuring, since Thomas and Henry die of the sweat while Anne is still in France, and after some perfunctory mourning on Anne’s part (she’s sorry, but glad that George will be the heir) are never mentioned again, even at the end of the story when the family’s hopes are wrecked, George and Anne are on the brink of execution, and another potential heir to her father’s earldom would be extremely handy to have around.

Thomas Boleyn is his usual self — autocratic, cold, determined to push his children as far in the world as he can, which in the case of his daughters means, naturally, making them as eligible for a good marriage as possible by sending them to be educated at the French court. Elizabeth Boleyn is a mishmash of haughtiness and coldblooded practicality, and we’re told later on (by George, presumably a reliable reporter in this instance) that she had a number of lovers when she was younger, and that’s why she and her husband “don’t get on,” though we see so little of them as a couple that it would be hard for a reader to discern that they don’t, in fact, get on.

Anne, though younger, is sent first to Archduchess Margaret for a year, as he thinks she’s more promising intellectually, and there Anne absorbs the proto-feminist idea that women are capable of taking charge both in politics and in romance (though it certainly helps if the woman in question is extremely high-ranking). Mary joins her at the court of Francois I and Queen Claude later on, and although for once Mary is an excellent French speaker instead of the cloth-tongued incompetent she’s usually portrayed as, she follows other Marys by becoming an immediate victim.

George is a rapist, as he confesses to Anne in some of the worst dialogue of the book, as it’s taken almost word for word from Cavendish — a valuable source, but not the most skilled of poets, though even an excellent poem would sound awkward and terrible when it’s suddenly dropped into a page of relatively modern dialogue. After revealing this awkward fact he does nothing particularly remarkable for 300 pages before out of nowhere arranging for Catherine of Aragon’s poisoning because it thought it would help Anne out. His wife Jane is a throwback to the Janes of old — nasty, repellent, hating George (albeit for good reason, he’s a very unpleasant article in bed) and since her family is loyal to Princess Mary, she doesn’t fight too hard before selling George and Anne out at the end. However, earlier she’s willing to help Anne get a mistress banished from court because she loves intrigue and leads a “boring” life (during the day, at least). When she does betray George, she appears to have no concerns whatever about the fact that she’s about to fall about twenty rungs down the social ladder.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No. Her longstanding flirtation with Henry Norris is entirely platonic, although she feels that even the truth of that would be more than her husband could handle hearing about.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE George Boleyn quoting Cavendish to describe himself was by far the lowest point; most of the dialogue was acceptable if not particularly striking, although there was one wince-worthy passage when Anne chooses her motto of “The Most Happy” in order to remember “this precious moment” (of her quickening.)

ERRATA There’s an afterword which is detailed but nevertheless inadequate, since she’s handcuffed by having to be consistent with her previous nonfiction book The Lady In The Tower. As a result, she doesn’t even mention that the supposed survival of Anne’s older brothers is based on essentially zero evidence, and punts the question of George’s sexual misdeeds back to her earlier book, in which she based it entirely on Cavendish’s poem, which, although it is evidence, was written twenty-five years after George was executed in disgrace, and which also assumes that George was in fact guilty of incest. She does make it clear that there is no evidence for George poisoning Catherine of Aragon, and explains her reasoning behind making Anne and Norris platonic loves. I think it’s extremely thin reasoning, myself (it’s based on Anne saying she had never sinned against the king “with her body” leaving open the possibility that she had sinned against him with her mind) but it is fiction, and in better hands that subplot could have been excellent, so I won’t complain. She also does not mention that Thomas Boleyn did not, in fact, sit in judgment at his children’s trial — he was excused from that (although their uncle the Duke of Norfolk did).

Lastly, Anne plays a devil in the Cardinal Wolsey Goes To Hell masque, with Weston and George Boleyn assisting her. She didn’t do any such thing.

WORTH A READ? It’s hard to describe just how depressing it was to read this book. Every time I was hoping that I was missing a few key scenes or lines of dialogue that would make it come to life and every time I was disappointed. It’s not exactly the worst Boleyn novel on the market but even as a basic introduction to her story it suffers from a deadly combination of blandness and inaccuracy on key points, which even her author’s afterword doesn’t clarify sufficiently.

Occasionally Anne is allowed to experience moments which aren’t dedicated either to pushing the divorce narrative or the feminism narrative further, and they can be lovely. When she and Henry stop at the Lord Sandys’s home, the Vyne, in the autumn of 1535, Anne goes to the chapel for some solitude.

She prayed alone in the Vyne’s chapel for the great blessing of a son. The room was gloomy, the windows above the altar shrouded in canvas sheeting. Lord Sandys, apologizing profusely, had said that they were being repaired, but the work had taken longer than promised. But if any glaziers had been working in the chapel, there was no trace of them now, no tools, nothing. Curious, Anne entered the sanctuary and lifted the canvas — and there, in all the glory of their jeweled colors, were exquisite stained-glass portraits of a young Henry and Katherine. No wonder Sandys had hidden them — and no wonder he had no intention of destroying them, for they were very fine indeed.

Should she tell Henry? The possession of that glass could be seen as evidence of disloyalty, and yet she knew Sandys to be wholeheartedly the King’s man. No, she would hold her peace and let him keep this great treasure.

This is a lovely moment, and I wish we’d seen more like it. Instead we get Anne as the royal goldfish, forever experiencing, forever forgetting.

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From → Book Overviews

  1. Annalucia permalink

    Welcome back! Glad to see you again – though I sympathize. Forcing yourself to finish this book must have felt like purgatory.

    • sonetka permalink

      One awful side-effect of Anne’s goldfish memory syndrome was that I kept forgetting what had and hadn’t happened in the book; I kept rereading it looking for some sort of indication that there was some sort of maturing process or thread holding the story together (besides “Royal men are untrustworthy”) and there really wasn’t.

  2. Good grief. Yeah, that’ll be another Weir I’ll never read. Re:

    “Then it’s all back to normal afterwards; there’s no pattern of attentions, no careless assumption that of course she must be willing — it’s ME, after all! (Of all the men who ever walked the earth, Henry VIII would be one whom you’d think most likely to carry that attitude, but not here; this Henry has all the agency of a rubber duck and his rape of Mary is one of the few actions he performs which weren’t initially suggested to him by someone else.)”

    I agree about Henry’s mentality in general, of course, plus given his power in his later years, saying no to him if you weren’t safely in another country and thus able to make a devastating quip carried almost as many risks as saying yes, I’d imagine. (I mean, Katherine Parr most likely really really did not want to marry him and would have married Tom Seymour instead if she’d dared.) However, in the time frame of his first and second marriage, one can make a case that Anne being able to say “no” for as many years as she did would indicate he wasn’t likely to force himself on someone at that point? Then again, Anne was a potential wife, which maybe meant other inner rules for him.

    • sonetka permalink

      It’s hard to say; Anne’s rank may have had something to do with it — she wasn’t a princess, but she wasn’t nobody, either. Whether Henry would have felt so restrained with, say, a random low-ranking maid is open to debate. He certainly seemed to want to have the reputation of someone who was very sexually powerful (“Am I not a man like other man? Am I not?”) but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was as you say and he acted on it a lot less than people thought. The joke about how he had fewer mistresses than wives may not be technically true but it may not be far off either — even now, people stretch the term “potential mistress” the breaking point when discussing Henry VIII’s female acquaintances. (Come on, people, you don’t get a clearer or more hilarious denial than “Never with the mother”!)

      • Quite. 🙂 Yes, I wouldn’t want to bet on Henry respecting a low-ranking maid, either. Or if he did, then for reasons of his self image more than for anything to do with her. But I wouldn’t underestimate how sentimentalized his conception of himself as a romantic figure was when it came to women of rank. I mean, due to special circumstances (Katherine of Aragon having been his sister-in-law, and both Anne and Jane ladies at his court), this is a monarch who didn’t have to do what every other prince had to do at the time, marrying a stranger for politics, until he was in his 40s, and then he tried to play out a romantic scenario with the “surprise” visit upon Anne of Kleve’s arrival which badly misfired. (And while I’m not often in agreement with Philippa Gregory, I thought she was on to something when writing it was this, seeing himself through Anne’s eyes as a fat ridiculous stranger, which doomed marriage #4 from the start and made him so insistent that it was Anne who was physically repulsive etc.)

        Meaning: I think he needed to go through the ritual of courting rather than bluntly forcing himself on someone because basically point blank rape without the trappings of romance would go utterly against his self conception. (That “courting” didn’t mean the ladies actually had an option is another matter post Anne at least.) (Okay, Jane also said no to adulterous sex, but with the understanding there would be marriage. I don’t think she’d have gotten away of saying “no, I’d rather marry someone else”. Leaving aside her brothers would have dragged her to the altar if she had done something like that.)

      • sonetka permalink

        Fully agreed about Anne of Cleves — that whole sad episode always makes me think of that line from The Cocktail Party when the protagonist says “I have met myself as a middle-aged man.” He probably still thought of himself as at least close to the dashing “handsomest man in Europe” and poor Anne, by reacting the way she did, was essentially holding up a mirror in front of his face. It’s doubtful whether the marriage would have worked out in any case (Antonia Fraser also made the point that this was the first woman Henry had married without having known her well previously) but they might have had a chance if someone had tipped her off as to how she should react.

        What you said about the ritual of courting was what I was thinking of when I wrote about a pattern of attentions and his assumption that any woman he was doing this to would naturally be anxious to continue. She would have been in a very tight spot, but he wouldn’t have seen that (or cared to see it, probably). A lot of these circumstances would not qualify as consensual now, but he genuinely would not have seen it that way. The biggest trouble with the Mary Boleyn episode is that, although he later gives Anne a celebrity-esque “I remember that evening very differently” explanation, it all happens so fast. He lures her into a room and attacks her all in a very short space of time; not only does it not jibe with what we know of his treatment of well-born women, it doesn’t even jibe with his treatment of other, similarly-ranked women in the same book. He never tries the same thing with Anne, and there’s no suggestion that he ever does, or has done, the same thing with his other mistresses. It’s just this bizarre one-off event which seems to exist mostly because Mary Boleyn’s function here, as in many other books, is to be kicked repeatedly.

  3. Jennifer Lynn Schillig permalink

    “Holding up a mirror in front of his face”…that’s pretty much what the Anna of the YA novel Fatal Throne said. “I made my face a mirror, when it should have been a mask.”

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