Taken from The Creation of Anne Boleyn, forthcoming April 2013. Purchase info available here.
“As she sat there alone in the room, her chin in her hand, her dark eyes heavy with anxieties, the thought that had slipped some time ago, shamefaced and sly, into the back of her mind edged more and more into the open . . . What her last card — her precious card—herself! . . . . . . ‘I dare not,’ she whispered to herself, and then in a strangled voice, ‘I dare!’ She grew aware at last that her clasped hands were clutching each other so tightly that the rings were cutting into the flesh. She drew off the ring from the sharpest cut. It was one of Henry’s earliest gifts to her, a plain gold band with, ‘Thy virtue is thy honor,’ graved within it . . . Her virtue — God alone knew how she had hugged that comfort to her smarting pride against the secret sneers she divined about her. Yet now . . . [t]he ring slipped from her fingers and rolled out across the floor. A bit of rush blocked it and it toppled and dropped through an open knot hole. The augury seemed to her complete. She laughed — and then something, like a hand upon her throat, seemed to strangle the laughter at its source and she quivered back among the cushions, her hands hiding her face like some poor shamed thing. That year the Christmas revels were gayer than ever and King Henry was scarce an instant to be parted from his marchioness.”
This is as close as Mary Hastings Bradley, in The Favor of Kings (1912), the first full-length novel about Anne, comes to describing the moment when Anne decided to let Henry have — gasp — sex with her. It was a huge advance in sexual candor, however, over the Victorians, who had mangled Elizabeth’s stage of development at birth and/ or Anne and Henry’s marriage date in order to avoid acknowledging that Anne and Henry had bedded together before marriage. Bradley, an English major and graduate of Smith College who went on to lead quite an adventurous life, was committed to staying as true to “actual situations . . . real incident, and dialogue” as possible and did extensive research among the collected foreign and domestic letters and papers of Henry’s reign; the then-prominent histories of Friedmann, the Stricklands, David Hume, and others; and at historical sites. In her foreword, she acknowledges her use of these sources and also indicates where she has “taken liberties” with history (an admission that was quite common among novelists in the first half of the century and that has, unfortunately, gone completely out of fashion today). But she stresses that her aim is not to “enter an historical controversy” but “to suggest the truth of the colors of the picture I have tried to paint, and to offer the Anne Boleyn of this story, a very human girl.”
I want to pause for a moment over those two words: “human” and “girl.” Bradley doesn’t say exactly what she meant, but I speculate that “human” is to be counterposed to “Historical Figure” and “girl” is to be contrasted with “queen” as well as “woman.” Bradley wanted Anne to be someone whom readers could identify with, not observe from afar as a player in a grand historical pageant, “The Tudor Saga” or “The Reformation Crisis.” She wasn’t interested in either redeeming or vilifying Anne. She wanted readers to understand her. And a large part of what would make this understanding possible is the imaginative conjuring of Anne’s feelings and thoughts before she had been subjected to and transformed by “the favor of kings” — a title Bradley means sardonically — but was still a creature of fantasies and dreams, “gay and fearless and rashly proud, as the likeness of that Anne who dared and lost so long ago and whose blood was the first of any woman’s to stain an English scaffold.” And so, for the first time, an author ventures into the “inner life” of Anne, the young girl:
“Wolsey’s] cold arrogance that treated her mercilessly as a wooden pawn to be moved hither and yon quickened her to the fiercest resentment her fiery little heart had ever thrilled with . . . It was just such a night as [this] one that she had last met Percy, and under all the fierce surge of her anger came stealing the pain of the nevermore. Nevermore would they meet there — it might be they would never meet again. The poignancy of such denial was strange to her, but she divined that it was but the beginning of sorrow. Memories that had suddenly become an agony enwrapped her, and an aching presentiment of grief to come.”
In making Anne “human,” Bradley’s narrative introduces some elements that are absent from previous ideas about Anne but that have since become stock features of later fictional portrayals. One is the manipulation of Anne by her father and uncle, whose ambitions for the family are behind their desire for the match between her and the king. With all that we now know about social history, the history of the family, and the position of women in the sixteenth century, it seems incredible that Anne would have been the all-powerful, autonomous prime mover that Chapuys and the histories that take his word for it make her out to be during the six years that the king pursued her. But ideology and hostility were much stronger forces than common sense in those accounts, and sociological thinking, completely unknown to the early polemicists and still a very young discipline even at the end of the nineteenth century, did not play much of a role in the first histories and biographies of Anne and Henry. Neither did the idea that Anne, as a young woman, might have been a less formidable personality than she would become as queen. Only the Stricklands and Benger seem to recognize that Anne, in fact, was once a young girl. Perhaps the fact that they, too, were once girls makes it harder for them to see Anne, as Froude, Friedmann, and Pollard do, as having sprung fully formed from the French court — a mature, ambitious agent of her own destiny.
But then, too, so little is actually known about Anne’s life as a girl that historians, although they indulge in creative license in their imaginings of Anne the woman, may have felt that Anne’s early life was off-limits. Novelists, who freely admitted to filling in the blanks, felt no such limitations. Sometimes the early twentieth-century portraits were little more than anachronistic transplants of the Gibson girl into the sixteenth century, as in Reginald Drew’s 1912 Anne Boleyn.
“[Young Anne] was a vision of loveliness. She was radiant and dimpled, and her beautiful face, pink-hued and lily white, rippled with laughter and bubbled with vivacity. She had sparkling eyes, wavy, golden-brown hair which framed her face like a picture, and which her coif could not either confine or conceal. She rode her palfrey perfectly, flicking her whip with her daintily gloved hand; her whole being personified emotion, her carriage was that of a queen, and her musical laughter sounded like rippling water to the thirsting.”
Drew wasn’t the last to turn Anne into a creature of his own fantasies while ignoring the historical evidence (slim as that evidence is, we do know a few things, and among them is that she did not have “goldenbrown hair”). It’s been a continuing tendency of Anne’s imaginers, whether they are painters, novelists, or casting directors, to project the beauty standards and feminine ideals of their own day onto Anne. The Victorians were fond of depicting Anne, in scenes with Henry, as a mature, curvaceous (but, of course, corseted) fair-haired beauty, properly clinging to her husband; interestingly enough, she looks most like the “real” Anne — dark-haired and slender — in the paintings that mourn her fall. In the first decades of the twentieth century, Anne starts to look — and act — like the audacious “new girls” of the twenties and thirties, full of spunk and fun, “speeding joyously along on her bicycle [substitute “horse”] . . . women’s rights perched on the handlebars and cramping modes and manners strewn on her track.” She’s slender and clever, flirtatious and emotionally spontaneous; she doesn’t know when to hold her tongue.
Bradley’s Anne is of this model, which actually suits what we know of the historical Anne much better than the Victorian versions. It’s a very sympathetic picture, although not an idealizing one. Although Anne’s girlish high spirits, in the novel, are ultimately disfigured by ambition, it is the machinations of her father and uncle that are responsible for her loss of innocence. Yet, the “seeds” of her destruction are also “in” her — not in her vanity or defiance of sexual morality, as the Stricklands have it, but in her proud, independent nature. In the passage that follows, Bradley presents the young Anne to us through the (retrospective) perspective of poet Thomas Wyatt, who never gives up his thwarted love for Anne and who represents the one who sees “the truth” in the novel.
“He looked at her now [after Anne becomes queen], jeweled and gauded till her slender body was like the glittering image of some idol . . . [B]ehind her chair in smiling converse, were her father and uncle, suave images of insincerity, assiduously grimacing upon her, and at the sight Wyatt’s heart filled with yet heavier dejection. Those elegants were like vultures feeding on her youth, he thought, in bitter clarity of vision . . . He had never thought before of Anne as over-young and helpless, but now . . . for all her heavy robes of state, her jewels, her air of command, he saw the girl in her as he had never seen it when she was yet younger; the flushed face that smiled so proudly under the drift of dark hair was a child’s face, its woman soul unawakened, its eyes smiling in a dream, unopened to the abyss ahead.”
The paradigm of Anne as a vivacious, high-spirited young girl whose life was profoundly — and tragically — altered by becoming Henry’s queen has remained the narrative spine of the twentieth century novels that are sympathetic to her. But sympathy is not the same as idealization, and the Anne of the early twentieth-century has very “human” faults. Some of those faults — such as pride and ambition — are not so different from the charges laid against her by Friedmann, Froude, and Pollard. But in the early novels, they no longer mark her as a “type”: a bad woman. This is due partly to the more flexible imagination of the creative writer. And it’s due partly to changes in the ideology of femininity: Sexuality was no longer consistently seen as the line that divided good girls from bad girls, and female “ambition” was more likely to be viewed with uneasy ambivalence rather than pure horror. But Freudian and developmental psychology, as well as the perspectives of sociologists and anthropologists, had also created new frameworks for imagining the interaction of external environment and personality; and the power of the change in Anne’s circumstances, once the king had singled her out — and then even more dramatically when she became queen — began to be seen as more significant to her story.
The Anne of most early twentieth-century fiction is not a bred-in-the bone she-devil. Rather, she is a strong-willed young woman with personal qualities that are quite attractive but, when unleashed by her elevation, proved dangerous to her. Even as a young girl, she was “audacious,” “confident,” and above all, “proud,” as Bradley, through Wyatt, describes her. “By the law of her nature,” she writes elsewhere in the novel, “she might command, coax, dominate, divert, bewitch, enthrall; but implore — never!” It’s Anne’s proud nature, in Bradley, that distinguishes her from her pliant sister and that motivates her sexual resistance to the king. Her Anne does not withhold her favors out of manipulative ambition, as later narratives would have it, but because she was “too high of pride, too maiden of spirit, to surrender to such ignoble fate” — and because she was still in love with Percy. For the first third of the novel, Anne hopes that her persistent refusal would “weary Henry” and that “he would find some newer face, some fresher fancy.” The turning point comes only when she realizes that Henry means to make her queen. Anne is surprised and confused by this prospect rather than (as in other depictions) having schemed to bring it about: “The glade seemed to whirl about her. She felt the rushing of vast wings, the elation of airy heights. To be queen — to be Queen of England!” But the thrill is not only due to the sudden, unexpected fantasy of being queen. Anne’s pride, wounded by Wolsey’s ability to rearrange her fate — and in this novel, Katherine’s unwillingness to intercede — is also vindicated, and the “recklessness” of her nature is challenged.
“A fierce, cruel wave of joy swept over. To be queen on Katherine’s throne — Oh, what an exquisite, what an infinitely ironic retaliation! Dared she trust herself to the mad project? Dared she undertake the humbling of one queen, the crowning of another? Aye, she dared! Her blood rushed on in faster time: with feverish recklessness it sang songs of triumph and power in her veins. There was little that wild blood would not dare!”
This Anne is no maiden whose virtue was plundered by a rapacious monarch. But neither is she the temptress/witch incarnate. She’s a young woman whose temperament, for all her flirtatiousness, was more unnervingly “masculine” than was usual for her time: confident, excited by her own potential to effect action in the world, capable of fierce resentments, daring ambitions, bold action — and unwilling to be anyone’s plaything or political tool. As Francis Hackett sums it up: she was the mother of Elizabeth, not “an understudy of Queen Victoria.”60 And she has a sexual life, too, although her erotic temperament and tastes vary wildly from novel to novel, and — especially as historical fiction became a thriving commercial specialty — could be quite extravagant. Elizabeth Louisa Moresby, writing under the pen name of E. Barrington (Anne Boleyn, 1932), while insisting that her story “is as true to history as the consultation of many authorities can make it,” apparently consulted some very odd authorities because her Anne, while sexually frigid with everyone else and thoroughly repulsed by Henry, is smitten with Dionysian Smeaton.
“She could fancy him dancing alone in the wild woodlands at Hever — yes, in that haunted spot where the oaks fell back and left an open space for moonlight. There, looking up at the searing moon with wild hair flying back from his forehead, he would caper like a goat and beckon, and the woodland creatures would crowd in a furry ring . . . He smelt of woods and fresh turned earth dewy in the night . . . A faun come to Court who had never changed his ways for Henry or another! All this he seemed to her, perhaps wholly mistakenly, for the man lived his life like others, so they told her. But she dangerously liked his love-making — wild, careless love with drifts of bird-music and no more responsibility than a cuckoo’s.”
Barrington, despite appearances, was not hinting that the charges of adultery with Smeaton might have been true; later in the novel, it’s very clear that her Anne is innocent of adultery. Barrington, a devotee of Buddhism who also wrote fantasy novels, seems to have been motivated more by an aversion to the institution of marriage, which took the spontaneity, freedom, and “natural” flow out of relationships than she was in painting Anne as a sexual libertine. Elsewhere in the novel, she has Anne reflecting on “the weariness of married companionship with nothing new to say or do together” and “the tedium of a wife who loves calmly, securely.” Smeaton is used, I believe, as a symbol of the freedom Anne gives up when she marries Henry. “We are both creatures of fairy blood,” he tells Anne. “We know at bottom that neither Pope, Church, nor King matter a jot, but only the wild hearts of men that carry them into strange places. When you have flung his son into his arms come away with me and let him find another to nurse his leg . . . and bear his humour — some milk-blood bit of curd he cannot break, that will dissolve in whey if he looks at it! Come away, Anne, and we will wander the world singing for our bread and lying in meadows by a running river to eat it.”
In striking contrast to Barrington, Paul Rival’s 1936 novel, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, has Anne discovering her true womanhood in Henry’s arms. Originally written in French and quickly translated into English by Una Vincenzo, Lady Troubridge, Rival’s novel was reprinted in paperback form in 1970 with the front cover reading: now a ma-jor network tv series, taking its place beside the forsyte saga. The series was the BBC six-part The Six Wives of Henry VIII, with Keith Michell as Henry and Dorothy Tutin as Anne. But the novel bears little resemblance, in style or content, to that subdued, very proper British series. Rival’s language is dizzyingly intense and dramatic, and his interpretation of Anne and Henry’s attraction for each other seems a combination of early French existentialism (which Gabriel Marcel had introduced in the twenties) and Freudian theory (very much in vogue in the thirties). For Rival’s Henry, the thought of a child with Anne is more than a desire to secure the Tudor line, it is a way of making the “ethereal” creature into an earthly — Simone de Beauvoir would say “immanent” — body.
“Henry was invaded by a powerful and perverse fascination that dwelt in the thought that this small, dancing creature would be enslaved, would endure long months of a bewildered weakness until she became a mother. The more elusive [Anne] seemed, the more he burned to possess her. She stirred and re-awoke in him bygone mystical dreams, which took upon themselves new significance: “I shall take her in my arms and compel her to materialize, to become mere flesh of this earth. I shall fashion a woman out of this flame; I shall mingle my being with that of this sinuous snake, this Melusine. An essential particle of my body will inhabit her unreality, will slowly come to life, to birth and to the light of day, and the child will be myself and this small elusive Anne.”
Henry’s desire for Anne is thus premised on what Sartre would later describe as the desire to capture the elusive freedom of another person by “incarnating” it as flesh. But Anne, on her part, is a more Freudian kind of girl, who realizes her own sexuality only when she gives up everything that is “masculine” about her — the “huntress,” with her own plans and ambitions — and submits totally to Henry, as she finally does at Calais.
“That night, in the conventional room which had been assigned to her in the castle of Calais, she opened her arms to Henry. She humbled herself and allowed him to possess her. The gentle wash of the waves was audible through the windows, the tapestries waved in the night breeze, and a dying log fire flowed upon the hearth.
They remained more than a week at Calais. Francis had gone and the chill air of November emphasized the silence. They had lived so long in a dream that reality surprised and alarmed them. Anne was at length a woman; Henry had delivered her from her own unbalanced fancies and revealed her to herself, finding her interior rhythm, giving her serene happiness, the pleasure of ceasing to think, of allowing her mind and her nerves to be lulled to sleep, of being no more than a physical vessel, utterly fulfilled and submissive. For her there were now order, peace and repose. The sky was tranquil and colourless, the sea more grey than the sky with faint ripples and reflections and a few drifting sails. The nights unfolded themselves, long and blissful.”
In Francis Hackett’s Queen Anne Boleyn (1939), it’s Wyatt who holds the key to Anne’s libido, possibly because his bold, poetic nature makes for more ecstatic romance than the somewhat weak-kneed Percy of earlier novels.
“Anne shuddered as the force of her feeling for Thomas took impetus from the hours they had had together, hours borrowed from another plane of existence, borrowed from eternity. In those hours she had come into something of her own buried self — almost as if she had learned to walk or learned to talk. The proud woman in her, as well as the calculating, gave way to a creature of blinding tenderness, and this sweeping tenderness rolled through her, ran ramparts that advanced as they mounted, one surging on the other, until they broke with the dazzling submission of a wave. It was a succession of rapture she had not been prepared for. She was stunned by it, yet ached to return to him through it.”
Steamy sex aside, Hackett’s novel is extremely well researched, its portrait of Anne complex and subtle, and its skepticism about the received wisdom of the historians who recycled Chapuys (and each other) is refreshing and astute. The first Anne novel to become a New York Times best seller, Queen Anne Boleyn was also the first to benefit from the creation, in 1939, of the paperback book format, announced in the New York Times as “the most important literary coming-out party in the memory of New York’s oldest book lover. Today your 25 cent piece leaps to a par with dollar bills. Now for less than the few cents you spend each week for your morning newspaper, you can own one of the great books for which thousands of people have paid from $2 to $4.” When the paperback of Queen Anne Boleyn came out that same year, the first page quoted from its many excellent reviews from prestigious papers, but the back cover was clearly designed to sell copies to a broader audience than those who read the Christian Science Monitor, the New Statesman, or the Saturday Review. SHE CONQUERED THE HEART OF A KING — AND LOST HER LIFE FOR HER LOVE reads the bold headline, and below it ran the following text:
In all of history there are few stories as enthralling as the astonishing rise and tragic fall of Anne Boleyn. Born the daughter of a commoner, her proud beauty won the heart of mighty Henry the Eighth — but to sanctify their love, they face a battle that shook the foundations of the Western World. Against the might of the Church, the opposition of the nobility, and the rage of an Emperor, she rose to become Queen of England — and to die on the block at the hands of the man she loved.
Anne was now a full-fledged heroine of the historical romance, and a major commercial item.