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Two Anne-Adjacent Books: The 48 by Donna Hosie (2018) and Fatal Throne (2018) by Jennifer Donnelly et al.

November 27, 2020

Neither of these books casts Anne Boleyn as its central figure, but she’s an important character in both, so naturally I wanted to read them. Results were mixed.

It’s hard to come up with a more flat-out fun and melodramatic idea than a secret society of time travelers tweaking history in order to produce a better modern day, and whose next mission takes them to the court of Henry VIII. This is what made The 48 so disappointing; of course there are plenty of stories which don’t quite live up to their original inspirations, but this one was so poorly executed that I couldn’t help wondering if this secret society had put all their brainpower into time travel and not had any intellectual firepower left over for what to do when they achieved it, because even by the standards of melodrama, these are astoundingly witless people.

To fill in the background: the 48 are a small group of time travelers who selectively alter history in order to bring about a better future (or present, depending on your perspective). They were founded in 1945 after the Hiroshima bombing — time-travel, as it turns out, was a fortunate byproduct of the Manhattan Project experiments. It’s not clear if any of the members are outside recruits or if they’re all the children of older members; the twin heroes, Alex and Charles, are the children of members, but vague references to academy training and students washing out makes it sound like outside recruits might also exist. There are only 48 members of the 48, but fortunately for the academy students new positions are always opening up because once a member turns 48 they get the Logan’s Run treatment, because too much time traveling is hard on the body and they’re aging out of the spying-and-changing game. This prescribed death was in fact the fate of Alex and Charles’ parents, which is why they’re twenty-one-year-old orphans. It rapidly becomes clear to the reader, if not the characters, that killing off their aged-out members should have destroyed this organization by the mid-1960s at the latest; not only are they ungratefully destroying people who could help them plan missions in potentially familiar territory, they’re also, apparently, losing the only people who have time to read any history books. This is painfully evident in the premise of the mission upon which Alex and Charles are about to embark: to prevent Jane Seymour from marrying Henry VIII. And why would they do this? In their own words: “She was a devout Catholic, and her death as queen would see a resurgence in the Catholic faith in England as people mourned for the `sainted’ wife who gave them hope after the toxic years of Anne Boleyn’s reign.”

Charles and Alex are not doing this because of adherence to the Protestant cause — or at least, not directly. They’re doing it to hasten the extinction of organized religion altogether, as “all religions had — or eventually would — become a catalyst for conflict among people. For humankind to endure, we were told, the religious past had to be changed…. My brother and I were but two of hundreds. In our case, we’d been sent to ensure the continuation of the Reformation ushered in by Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn.”

This, pretty early on, was where the book lost me, and although it read it all — several times, in fact — I couldn’t muster up much more interest in it, as the premise was just so ridiculous. Alex and Charles claim that they’re great lovers of history, but if that were so, surely they would know about the Pilgrimage of Grace, and that England was unravelling religiously well before Jane Seymour’s death — to say nothing of the fact that, regardless of the religious opinions of his mother, Edward was raised to be firmly reformist. The 48’s religious eradication project is made even more confusing when we learn later on that they assassinated Prince Arthur in 1502 (because covering up future murders with Henry VIII as king would be easier … well, that kind of makes sense) and also that they killed Catherine of Aragon in 1536, which for smooth religious transitions was about ten years too late. Were they not able to get at her circa 1525?

Anyway, in pursuit of their weirdly pointless mission, Alex and Charles travel back in time to the Tudor court, disguised as Charles and Alexander of Cleves, minor German princelings, with fellow 48 member Aramis pretending to be their father. And as it turns out, another 48 member named Alice has been sent there as well — which was not part of the plan at all, and is Charles and Alex’s first hint that something is awry within the 48 organization as well as outside of it. They suspect malfeasance by The Grinch (a woman so nicknamed because frequent time-travel has left her skin greenish — it’s not the healthiest thing) but meanwhile they have to make inroads into court by befriending Jane Seymour and Lady Margaret, another lady in waiting who thinks that the “sons of Cleves” are far more inviting matrimonial prospects than the wealthy old fart her father has lined up for her at home.

Various conspiracies, adventures, and betrayals ensue, all in a court that seems weirdly empty of people (to say nothing of the fact that all the people in it seem to be pretty easily fooled). Cromwell is silky and malicious and suspects the brothers of not being what they seem, and later gets a chance to show his penchant for torture. Lady Margaret is rebellious and wants to marry for inclination as well as duty. Jane Seymour is sweet and sincere. Anne Boleyn is cold as ice, very stylish, and has extremely black eyes. A courtier named Marlon is there to make an emotional connection with Alex and to show us that not everyone in the 16th century was straight. In all my rereadings, I never quite understood the ins and outs of the ending and who was conspiring against whom, except that the older members of the 48 turned out to be bad, and Alex and Charles decided that changing history to eradicate religion was a bad idea after all and people should be free to make their own choices and not be manipulated by a shadowy time travel agency. Unfortunately, the book isn’t bold or coherent enough to set them to undoing all the previous assassinations they’ve committed, so we’re deprived of a chance to see Arthur living past his time — or Catherine of Aragon dying before hers.

Fatal Throne also has an engaging concept; a different author writes the story of each of Henry VIII’s wives, and a seventh writes post-wife interludes in the voice of Henry VIII. This avoids a lot of common pitfalls — certainly you won’t read this and think how weird it is that Catherine Howard has a lot of the same verbal tics as Jane Seymour — but leads to some other problems, mostly having to do with consistency. It’s not clear how much detail the authors were given about their assigned characters initially but while they’ve all clearly done their research, they would have had to read a wide variety of books, not all of which agreed with each other. Inevitably, this leads to weird, clashing moments like the one where Anne Boleyn, in her chapter, describes Jane Rochford as good friend and loving wife to George, and six years later Catherine Howard is remembering how Jane betrayed Anne and George by testifying against them. It’s possible this was some sort of Rashomon-style device but it seems more likely that the two different authors had different opinions about Jane Boleyn’s involvement in Anne’s death and either didn’t realize it or weren’t able to come to an agreement. Of course, there are many disparities which make sense — Jane Seymour’s recollection of her interactions with Anne Boleyn naturally cast a rather harsher light on the latter than Anne’s own recollections!

Each short story follows a general pattern: it begins at a pivotal moment in the woman’s life (Catherine of Aragon about to marry Arthur, Katherine Parr getting word that she’s on the brink of arrest, Anne Boleyn in the Tower, etc) and then pulls back the camera, so to speak, to show us the wider context and let her tell us about her early life, how she got to this point, and what happens afterwards. It’s very much to the credit of these authors that someone who knew nothing about Henry VIII’s wives could read this book and come away with a pretty good basic idea of each of these women’s biographies; squeezing an entire, complex life into a short story is not easy. Less successful, perhaps inevitably, are the interstitial chapters written from Henry’s point of view — since these chapters are less about his own life than his reactions to his various wives and the issues that were the centers of their own lives, he comes across less as a powerful, if monstrous human being and more like a two-dimensional psychotic in a murder mystery telling you his motives between chapters as he’s hunted down by the detective.

Now I was head of the English Church — no more foreign interference by the Pope — and it was entirely my right to dissolve the monasteries in my own kingdom and seize their property for the Crown. The Pope should never have defied my wishes, for now I took out my revenge on each and every shaved-headed English monk I kicked out and sent to pasture. My will cannot be bent or broken … My bully-boy Cromwell displayed the accounts and I sat on my horse above him. Servants of the Crown were burning books and fraudulent artifacts.

The wives, perhaps because they’re not put in the position of constantly reacting to all the misdeeds we’ve been reading about, come off more naturalistically, but given the compressed nature of the stories they all inevitably end up having to monologue a bit about things they would take for granted, and tell associates and friends things everybody would already know. Anne Boleyn’s story, written by Stephanie Hemphill, doesn’t do better or worse than the others in that regard. In the classic manner, it starts with Anne in the Tower, and between intercut flashbacks of events like her coronation and her time with Elizabeth (with whom Anne speaks in French, giving us a hint about where Elizabeth’s youthful linguistic talents may have originated) she’s mostly speaking to the unsympathetic servants-cum-spies who attend her in the Tower as she reflects on how she ended up there. This is a very modern Anne — pointing out to her ladies that she had no choice about the king’s pursuit and was bound to be the villain no matter what she did.

”I tried everything I could to dissuade His Majesty … yet every action I took to escape his advances was misinterpreted. If I returned his gifts, people called me manipulative. If I ignored him, they said I tormented the King and toyed with his affections. If I spoke to him, I did so out of selfish ambition. Mean Anne Boleyn, the conniving serpente francaise. I had been back little more than six months when I felt forced to leave the court a second time.”

She goes as far as to say she prayed for death when she was ill with the sweat because “I thought death a better fate than to sleep with the king,” but rather jarringly goes on to say immediately afterward that “The truth was, we had fallen deeply in love.” Later, she takes the very twenty-first century approach of laying the blame for England’s rupture with the Pope on Catherine of Aragon — “All she had to do was say the marriage was invalid and become the Princess Dowager, and England would have remained a Catholic nation” — and after her aunt’s shocked exclamation of “You should have refused!” responds with “I should have refused King Henry the Eighth?” as if it’s self-evident that this is impossible, even though obviously her predecessor managed it, albeit to her cost.

It’s difficult to understand Anne in this incarnation, as while the events in her life are straightforwardly told, the perspective on them is extremely modern-day and tailored to what a modern reader might be expected to admire. She doesn’t encourage a married man’s pursuit and in fact is disgusted by it, but she marries Henry because she loves him, as to a modern reader marrying for more practical motives might come across as cold. She blames Catherine of Aragon for not pretending to believe her own marriage was invalid (that phrase “All she had to do” is a very modern slip — unsympathetic as Anne may have been, she must have known how humiliating this would be to the daughter of a Spanish royal house who believed her marriage to be ordained by God). And yet, despite Catherine’s example, Anne cannot really defy or contradict Henry until virtually all hope is lost and she’s already in prison. Anne talks as though she’s a defiant, independent thinker, and yet at the same time castigates her predecessor for going against her husband and says, essentially, that anything unattractive she herself did was because Henry can’t be opposed. It’s hard to decipher whether this is meant to show how Anne justifies her own actions to herself or whether it’s simply an awkward attempt to make her as sympathetic as possible to a modern reader — except that an Anne whose every action and attitude is sympathetic to a modern reader can’t exist without being confusing and contradictory.

By far the best story in the book is that of Anne of Cleves, written by Jennifer Donnelly. Perhaps it seems contradictory to say that her story is the best because it invents the most, but that’s only partially the case. Anne’s story, like the others, begins at a critical moment in her life — in this case, when she begins her final decline from the illness that killed her (implied to be uterine cancer, but since she can’t be sure, neither are we). She can’t venture very far from her room, and in her waking hours she reminisces about her life to the country-bred servant girl who’s attending her — a girl who genuinely would have to have many of the story’s intricacies explained to her, so the exposition is more gracefully handled than most. In Anne’s sleeping hours the memories return through dreams. All throughout, Anne is struggling to decipher what the fragmented memories she’s experiencing and recounting are trying to tell her — because she’s convinced that there’s something she hasn’t yet done with her life, that something is missing, and that her dreams are the key to it. The answer she finds to this self-set riddle is not earth-shattering but feels exactly right. And this is what makes Anne’s chapter stand out — like all the other wives, she’s looking back on her life from the perspective of a key moment, but unlike the others, who are confined to talking about the problems they confronted in the past, Anne is also confronting and solving a new problem in the present, and it accounts for the small moments in her life, as well as the splendid ones that would have been considered worth recording. The book is worth picking up for this story alone.

From → Book Overviews

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