Sunday, August 29, 2010

Anne Boleyn (Joanna Denny Biography)

Author: Joanna Denny
Publication Date: 2004
Length: 327 pages with endnotes and an index
Cost: $26.00 for the hardcover, between $15.00 and $17.00 for the paperback, and on the Kindle for $9.99
Where Did I Hear About It: I actually found this in the library in the biography section.

The Backstory

There has never been a character who has fascinated the imagination and polarized historians more than Anne Boleyn.

Anne was born sometime between 1501 and 1507 to Thomas Boleyn and Lady Elizabeth Howard. The family home was Hever Castle in Kent, and Thomas regularly visited the continent during his career as a diplomat. Anne had two siblings--Mary, believed to be the eldest, and George, who may have been older or younger than Anne depending upon the year of her birth (he was born around 1504). Thomas' familiarity with foreign courts and positive reputation led to an offer made by Archduchess Margaret of Austria to have Anne as a part of her household. In 1514, Anne moved on to France to attend Henry VIII's sister, Mary, as Queen of France. Anne later transferred into the service of the new Queen Claude at the accession of King Francis I. In 1521, Anne's father recalled her to England in the hopes that her marriage to her cousin, James Butler, would end a dispute in the family over the Earldom of Ormonde in Ireland.

When these marriage plans fell through, Anne became more of a fixture in the English court. She made her first recorded appearance there sometime in 1522, and she participated in a pageant, much noted because of her appearance as "Perseverance" in it. She was, supposedly, briefly betrothed to Henry Percy, the future Duke of Northumberland, but a combination of forces (may have) worked against this match, including Henry Percy's father and even Cardinal Wolsey, then Henry VIII's chief advisor.

Anne came to Henry VIII's attention sometime between 1525 and 1526. Anne refused to submit to his advances, which only inflamed his infatuation with her. The result, often termed the King's "Great Matter" dragged on for years. It included Henry's multi-front attack on his marriage to Katherine of Aragon--his attempt to draw the French clergy to his side of the matter, his attempt to persuade the Pope to annul this union, and a trial in a public court in England. The result was Henry's decision to declare himself head of the English church, to sever from Catholicism, and to declare is marriage to Katherine null and void because of her previous marriage to his long-dead older brother, Arthur.

After meeting with Francis I in Calais, Henry and Anne married quietly, somewhat secretly, but with intent to legitimize an increasingly visible pregnancy. The date is generally given as January 25, 1533. On June 1, Anne was crowned and anointed Queen in a way never seen before or since--using the same crown of Edward the Confessor that was used to crown reigning monarchs (which at that point, had all been male--this crown was lost, supposedly during the Commonwealth under Cromwell).

Anne didn't last long as wife or Queen. Her first child, Elizabeth, was certainly a disappointment, but a succession of three other failed pregnancies was enough to parallel his failed marriage to Katherine in Henry's mind. In May 1536, she was arrested, taken to the Tower of London, and accused of adultery with five men, one of whom was her brother. The men were tried first and all found guilty. The verdict a foregone conclusion, Anne was sentenced to death at her own trial. Her alleged partners in crime were executed on May 17, 1536, and she was beheaded by a swordsman from Calais two days later.

On May 14, Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, declared Henry VIII's marriage to Anne null and void--Elizabeth was a bastard and Henry went on, 11 days later, to marry his third wife, Jane Seymour.

What About The Book?

This book is very readable. Denny explains people, situations, and events very clearly without entangling herself in the details of the history or the sources. The biography covers the whole history of Anne's life, and it puts forth a number of new theories. Most striking is Denny's assertion that Thomas Boleyn was not the grasping, ambitious man without a care for his children that is often portrayed elsewhere. She makes a very convincing case for his having been a very prudent and loving father--a more compelling case than ever was made to the contrary. Denny reveals that Thomas was not in favor of Mary becoming Henry's mistress, and that he may have even recalled her from her service in France because of her licentious reputation there.

What's wrong with this biography? It is one of the most unapolegetically biased histories of anyone or anything I have ever read. Denny has no love for Katherine of Aragon or her daughter, Mary. She views Eustace Chapuys, the Holy Roman ambassador to England with equal scorn. Her theory is that Anne was an ideal paragon of Christian virtue and that she viewed herself, and her elevation to queenship, as her being anointed by God to promote the cause of Protestantism in England. Katherine and Mary just didn't lay down all to pave the way for Denny's heroine, and they are branded as traitors and plotting the death of King Henry.

Anne was clearly debased by her detractors after her death, and the fact that all of the sources available do not paint her in a particularly good light is a symptom of this. Denny is right to question these interpretations of Anne as spiteful, cruel, and ambitious. However, she swings the pendulum too far in trying to rehabilitate her reputation by trying to make a case (a poor case) for her having been all good instead. A lot of evidence to the contrary is famously written out of this biography--for example, Denny gives no time to Anne's arguments with Henry after their marriage, which seem to be a fairly well-known fact. She also refuses to detect any sign that Henry was tiring of Anne going into the third year of their marriage. As a result, Anne's fate appears to come a little too much out of nowhere.

Denny also sees Anne as a full-fledged Protestant--a fully developed version of what a Protestant may be today. This is short sighted. Although Anne clearly was sympathetic to the ideals of Protestantism, including the availability of the Bible in English, Denny forgets that Protestantism was a mere embryo of itself in the 1530s, between 10 and 20 years after Luther's fated nail affixed his premises to the church door. To claim that anyone was a Protestant, foregoing all of the trappings of long-standing, traditional Catholicism, in this period is in error. Denny claims that as much as half of London was Protestant by the time Anne was executed, and she uses this statistic as proof that Anne couldn't possibly have been as disliked by the people as others believe she was. There are too many reasons to enumerate why this is impossible--it just presumes too much.

One very positive thing that comes out of this is an understanding of just how few sources there are that really shed light on who Anne was. The same sources have been picked over and over again, but they must not be particularly revealing--especially if Denny managed to find enough in them to support a number of her very questionable, very two-dimensional theories.

Rating: Sadly, I have to give it a 3. The bias and presumptions that Denny makes in this biography invade the text too far to allow one to gain much by trying to wade through them.
Buy It or Borrow It: Just don't, either way. Although not focusing on her, you'll get more out of David Starkey's Six Wives on Anne than you will get out of this biography.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Wolf Hall (Historical Fiction)

Author: Hilary Mantel
Publication Date: 2009
Length: 532 Pages
Cost: $27.00 for the hardcover
Where Did I Hear About It: A combination of an interview on BBC Radio 3's Nightwaves program and an independent search for recent historical fiction led me to this book.

The Backstory

Thomas Cromwell, mysterious minister to Henry VIII, is the subject of this novel. The reader will see the events of the English court between 1527 and 1535 through his eyes, and through this lens, the reader will be more extensively introduced to a cast of characters often hovering in the background of other Tudor histories and novels. The reader meets Thomas More, Stephen Gardiner, Thomas Cranmer, and Cardinal Wolsey with a more intimate glimpse than ever before. It is Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Princess Mary, and Katherine of Aragon who are relegated to the background of the novel, even if the events surrounding them do drive its plot.

The novel begins with an event in Cromwell's youth--an escape from a brutally cruel, drunk father abroad where the reader learns later he becomes acquainted with business. In 1527, Cromwell is in Cardinal Wolsey's service, arguably the most powerful man in England at the time. Between the events surrounding Henry's attempt at divorce from Katherine and the introduction of Anne Boleyn, Wolsey is stripped of power and eventually condemned to die. Cromwell, because of his complex personality and ability to maneuver the court politics of the day, rises rather than falls after this, becoming Henry's chief minister. A growing murmur in the background is the dispute over the administration of the English church--Henry's usurpation of control from the Pope and the beginning of the dissolution of the monasteries under Cromwell's observation. The text is full of references to people and events of the day--even the references to food, gifts, and minor characters are essentially accurate, if not based on the best possible information.

The novel ends in 1535, focusing on the events of that year, including the execution of Thomas More.

What About The Book?

This is probably the most detailed, historically accurate portrait of Tudor England at this time that has been put into novel form. The research is exceptional, and Mantel finds a way to weave even the most insignificant events and people into the narrative. Mantel supplies a list of the different characters in the different parts of the book at the beginning of the novel, which is a help to those who do not know the history.

Unfortunately, this isn't a very compelling read. It took me a very, very long time to finish it, and often, I had to think to pick it up. Better novels draw the reader back to them in ways this one does not. I think the novel suffers from two main problems--a lack of endearing characters and the fact that it is a historian's historical fiction.

The characters aren't particularly interesting people. The choice of Thomas Cromwell is a unique one, and much to be applauded. However, you don't finish the novel feeling like you "know" him any better than you did when you started, and this may have been Mantel's intention. Seeing the events through Cromwell's eyes makes him fade into the background, and constant references to his unknown past, his "shady" character, are many, and do not draw the reader into this largely mysterious figure. Most of the figures that surround Cromwell on his own level feel very interchangeable--Wolsey could be traded for Gardiner or Cranmer, and the reader wouldn't notice the difference. One of the problems is the sheer volume of characters. This is accurate given how many people would have been a part of Cromwell's life, but it doesn't make for easy reading, especially for someone who doesn't know the history well. As a result, you don't get to know anyone at all, and it makes it hard to feel anything for the characters as they experience some of the difficulties of the times.

Mantel is interested in the history, and she writes it without sacrificing it to the action of the novel, which is something nearly everyone who writes anything fictitious about this time period does. I am very impressed by that. However, her focus on the history sacrifices a great deal of character development and description of place, of the setting. Most of the work is dialogue-based, so you don't get a sense of the scene at all, and informed readers can probably fill this void with what they know of the period. You don't even learn where the places most often visited by the main characters are in relation to each other. Because she wants to include all of the important events of the day, I think this leads her to incorporate many more characters than safely make up a novel that is readable to historians and non-historians alike.

The title, Wolf Hall, is an odd one, and this baffles me even to this point. Wolf Hall is the family home of the Seymour family, the family from which Henry VIII's third wife comes. Wolf Hall is referenced only a few times in the whole work, and although Seymours do appear now and again, this is well before their rise with Jane's marriage. There is a key reference at the end--one I won't spoil for those who may read this book--that was probably meant to imply the "future" that the novel doesn't cover, but I really think that this title falls very, very flat and even misleads the reader. When I first picked up the novel, I thought it was going to be about Henry's decision to be rid of Anne, his marriage to Jane, and the birth of his son, Edward. The book covers the period before this is even a thought, and I was surprised by that--I am sure I am not the only one who would be.

Rating: This is tough--as a novel, I'd probably give it a 6, but as a historical fiction that is actually historical, it gets a 9.
Buy It or Borrow It: Borrow it--given how much hype it has had, it will definitely be available somewhere accessible for you. However, if it starts to bore you, you may want to put it down rather than wait for the action to draw you back in because it won't. There is A LOT to admire here in the history and in fleshing out at least some of Cromwell, so it is more than worth a try.