The young Anne Boleyn is given the opportunity to serve at the court of Margaret of Austria in Flanders, where she learns the game of courtly love. A few years later she travels to the French court to serve first Queen Mary and then Queen Claude. When she returns to England, she catches the eye of Henry Percy, Duke of Northumberland. But Cardinal Wolsey puts a stop to that marriage and not much later Anne receives attention from King Henry VIII himself.
I read Weir’s book about Catherine of Aragon more than a year ago and now I finally started the book about Anne. The most difficult book of the six, because there are so many bad books about Anne Boleyn. She’s either a marriage breaker and a whore or an innocent pawn used by her family. In my view, she’s neither and I’ve never before read about ‘my Anne’. Could Weir do just that?
Weir takes her time to tell Anne’s story and starts at the court of Malines. I liked that approach, as well as her time in France. This is a period in Anne’s life that made quite an impact on her character and it’s often overlooked in other novels.
Regarding Anne’s characterization I must admit that Weir makes a creditable attempt. Anne is an intelligent woman who at one point consciously chooses the position of queen, even though she is not necessarily in love with Henry. She goes for power, to elevate her family and have an influence on the king’s religious views. She’s a protestant and inspires Henry for his reformation, but she isn’t strongly Lutheran and does not want to go as far with the dissolution as Cromwell. Which is an interesting approach and makes her more humane. Anne cares about her family and in this story, it aren’t her parents who force her into this position.
However, this is not my Anne. Alison Weir doesn’t like the Boleyns. If you compare Anne’s character to that of Catherine in the previous book, the latter becomes almost a saint while Anne is flawed, egocentric at times, a mother who doesn’t care about her daughter and who wishes people dead. This Anne isn’t the usual whore that I read about in other books. So it’s a less problematic interpretation than the one for example presented by Gregory. But it isn’t a positive representation either.
The book has a good pace. Only in the middle did I find the enmity between Anne and Wolsey in the great matter dragging on. I understand that in real life this was also a strive of years. But Wolsey is so tiring sometimes :). The ending is very cleverly done. The trial is short but well done, Anne’s time in The Tower and her execution are dramatic, but handled with great respect. I understand Weir’s point with the final sentences and found it very gripping.
Which brings me to what I disliked in this story:
- First and foremost: Mary Boleyn. I had forgotten that this also bothered me in the previous book. Her relationship with Henry is hushed up at court and I find this an odd choice. Also, the idea that she would be raped twice by a king is beyond me. Poor Mary. Sexual abuse was definitely a thing back then, and I can imagine that Mary may not have wanted the attention of both kings at all. But this is some 21st century writing that I just couldn’t cope with.
- Also, the characters of George Boleyn and Jane Parker didn’t feel right. George Boleyn is the ultimate villain. I believe she does this so she can make Anne human while at the same time she is still able to put the blame for some things on the Boleyns. Especially the Catherine Of Aragon theory is far-fetched.
- Anne’s meeting with Leonardo Da Vinci. It’s very improbable (even though they were contemporaries) and adds nothing to Anne’s characterization. What is it with authors who like to drop famous names into their stories as an extra?
- Anne’s sixth finger. I don’t agree with Weir’s argument as to why she puts it in the story.
- Thomas Boleyn is extremely passive in this book and a bit of a useless man. We know he was a skilled diplomate who was highly respected by the king. This puts all the initiative for power in Anne and George’s shoes. And this just doesn’t feel right.
Lastly, there is Henry. And I still don’t know if I like his portrayal or not. Henry’s character is completely different than in book one and that was a relief because I disliked him there. Henry is the one who is chasing Anne like a madman in this book. And I believe that’s very close to reality. Weir also doesn’t let him make a sudden change, for example, after the fall of his horse. A choice I very much respect, because I don’t believe the ‘wifekiller’ was made in one day. Henry’s character changed over the years.
But all this makes for a Henry who remains very much in the background during Anne’s downfall, with Cromwell somewhere in between… (I had liked more interaction between Anne and Cromwell). It’s not really clear after reading this book who Weir blames for Anne’s trial and death. I’m very curious to see how Henry will evolve in the next books.
The conclusion is that however I disliked a few choices, I still enjoyed this book. More than I thought I would. I don’t expect from any fictitious novel to represent the events fully true to the sources. There’s always room for interpretation and I respect Weir’s choices, but don’t have to agree ;). The next book is about my least favourite of Henry’s queens: Jane Seymour.
This is book 11/20 for ‘20 books of summer‘
What’s your favourite book about any of Henry’s queens?