Book Review: 'Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession' By Alison WeirAlison Weir takes a fresh look at familiar territory in this retelling of the story of Anne Boleyn. Weir's version of Anne is fiercely smart and guilty only of craving power that was hers by right.
Is our hunger for the intrigues of the English Tudors never to be sated? A cursory search for books on Henry VIII yields over 9,000 titles. The cottage industry has outgrown its cottage and is on its way to filling up a castle. What's a determined author to do? Alison Weir's answer is to forge new approaches to time-worn situations by focusing on the women of the period. Her new historical novel, Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession, represents a persuasive attempt to restore the humanity of a tragic, misrepresented figure, one of history's original nasty women.
We all know how the story ends, so it's a neat trick to draw drama out of such a familiar material. Anne Boleyn ruled England alongside her husband Henry VIII for only three years, from 1533 to 1536. But the couple had a famously bumpy six-year courtship before that, an extended, aphrodisiacal game of hide-and-seek.
Weir reconstructs Anne's youth as a child in the wealthy household of Sir Thomas Boleyn, who was dubbed "Esquire of the Body of the Monarch," and her mother, the great beauty Elizabeth Howard. But this quite ordinary, not very pretty girl from a rich household is educated at the courts of a series of outstanding women. In the household of Madame Marguerite, the king of France's sister, Boleyn discovers brilliant, progressive minds — not only Erasmus, the leading intellectual of the day, but also the work of pioneering feminist Christine de Pizan. Anne's epiphany? Women "are not born just to be subordinate to men." She learns to lean forward.
Weir's fictional Anne is ferociously smart and guilty of nothing but craving the power that's rightfully hers to claim. She disdains the dalliances of court life. Her trial and conviction for fornicating with five men — including her brother — amounts to a spurious campaign of lies, a particularly lethal instance of slut shaming.
Embedded in a court rife with romantic intrigue, Anne asks herself "why becoming queen mattered so much, when the chance of true love was hers for the seizing. And she always came back to the argument that the crown was hers for the seizing too." That is the crux of her ongoing dilemma, and she solves it, according to Weir, by talking herself into having feelings for her husband Henry. They conceive a child, Elizabeth, as well as three boys who don't survive. Her girl baby only serves as a reminder only of Anne's inability to produce an heir, and she relates to the future queen primarily through bequests of fabulous clothing.
"It seemed that she was always fighting her demons," Weir writes. People hate her. She can't leave the confines of her Greenwich palace without hearing shouts on the street of "burn the whore" and "kill the whore." Yet she chooses "The Most Happy" for her motto as queen. She is that strong, that impervious.
Weir, the author of fiction and nonfiction books on the English royals that come out at nearly an annual pace, ends her tale by describing the already decapitated queen's last moments. She has leaned forward for one last time, and the specially imported French swordsman has performed his bloody task. But Anne doesn't die, not right away. She "felt her head, horribly light now, hit the scaffold with a painful thud and the blindfold fall away," revealing her own "crumpled" body beside her. (Experts Weir consulted claimed it would be physically possible for a person to remain fully conscious for 20-30 seconds even after being decollated.)
In literature on the Tudors, no detail is too small. The tiny extra nail on the little finger of Anne's right hand has often been extrapolated into a whole extra digit. Weir treats it as a source of private shame for the queen throughout her life, and a reason for her preference for long flowing sleeves. Was it finally a mark of Cain that helped get her killed? There are more than a few of them, les reines sans tête: Anne Boleyn, Marie Antoinette, Catherine Howard, Mary Queen of Scots. Weir leads us to believe that beheading might be the price to pay for having a mind of one's own.
Jean Zimmerman's latest novel, Savage Girl, is out now in paperback. She posts daily at Blog Cabin.