This is a fictional account, written by historian Alison Weir, of the life of Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII. I found it a curiously distant book, which was no doubt well researched but did not show as much understanding as is usual in an historical novel. This may have been the result of the narrative being in the third person, or simply because much of this story has been written about in so many novels. It is a solid novel, with many well researched points of interest and telling detail.
The novel opens with an account of Anne’s early life in the courts of Europe. Here she encounters some very singular women for the time who are educated and determined to make their mark in political affairs. It may be that the dialogue here sounds somewhat stilted as they discuss their ideas. Either way, the message is clear; Anne was determined to make a difference in the politics of the day. Her early encounter with the young Henry is not propitious, and it becomes evident in this world that men still hold sway as Mary, her elder sister is attacked by powerful men.
On her return to England the story of the ambitious Boleyn family is repeated as Anne’s attractions begin to be noticed in aristocratic and royal circles. Cardinal Wolsey becomes an enemy, Cromwell succeeds him in managing the king’s affairs in every respect. Henry becomes interested but Anne has learnt that being a royal mistress is not well rewarded, so she persuades Henry that he will have her only as a mistress in the chivalric sense. The forces of reform and the desire for a new marriage mean that Cromwell and Henry with others combine forces to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. He does not only desire Anne as a woman but as a mother of a male heir which he desperately needs to avoid civil war. So begins a period of years in which Anne is given honour and gifts, but cannot become queen in the face of international opposition.
Those who know something of the story may find nothing new here, as Anne emerges as ambitious, ill – advised and not particularly in love with the King. It is necessary to remember that while she appreciated the enormous leap from commoner to queen she was undertaking, she did not associate it with the extreme danger she was running. Weir does not really give the reader a strong guide as to her motivation and her comments on religious reform sound a little formulaic. I think that other writers have tackled the question of the understanding of Henry’s queens with more empathy in their novels of the period. Ironically I felt it was only in the ending of the story that Anne emerges as a real, frightened person, concerned for some of her family as well as her own fate.
Overall this is a solid account of Anne’s life which is well constructed and deals with the characters around her well. It is an interesting read which sustained my interest, but I felt that it was more of a historian’s account than that of a novelist. The section on Anne’s early life makes it very informative, but the style lacks some warmth. I felt that Weir’s sympathies lay with Katherine in the first book of this series, and while her research is impeccable there is a certain lack of feeling for Anne, for a short time a Tudor Queen.
I actually heard Alison Weir talk about this book and the whole subject of Anne Boleyn at Derby Book Festival. She definitely knows her stuff! She had a huge collection of images relating to Anne’s popularity as almost a cult figure, and she dispatched lots of audience questions with speed and accuracy. It was an amazing evening.