Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn

Author: Robin Maxwell
Publication Date: 1997
Cost: It looks like the best way to get a hold of this book is via Kindle edition, and the price is $9.99. However, there are numerous used copies available for $6.00 or less.
Where Did I Hear About It: This is another Booksfree selection.

The Backstory

This novel follows two storylines concurrently throughout--the story of Anne Boleyn, coming to the attention of Henry VIII, becoming queen, and later being executed; and the story of Elizabeth, Anne's daughter by Henry, newly crowned queen and involving herself rather scandalously with Robert Dudley, a courtier and friend.

Both sides of this story are examined fairly equally. Elizabeth's story is confined to a short period of, perhaps, months, while Anne's attempts to cover 14 years.

In the novel, Elizabeth is approached by one Lady Somerville, the now elderly niece of Constable Kingston of the Tower of London. She presents Elizabeth with her mother's diary. The novel moves back and forth between the two stories, Elizabeth's history being interrupted by her taking time to read the diary. In the meantime, Elizabeth is confronted with the challenges associated with being head of state, conflict with Scotland, her love for Robert Dudley and the mysterious death of his wife, Amy, and the various help and problems presented to her by her faithful servants, Kat Ashley and William Cecil.

The novel ends with the diary, documenting the last days of Anne's life, and Elizabeth's desire to learn about her mother's death from Lady Somerville. It also ends with one of Elizabeth's most fateful decisions, and the fulfillment of her mother's prophesy.

What About the Book?

Robin Maxwell's "prequel" to this novel, Virgin: Prelude to the Throne, was earlier discussed here. The prequel was actually written a few years after this novel, but, I do think it is the superior of the two.

The Secret Diary surprises the reader by focusing on Elizabeth first. I think, on the whole, the involvement of Elizabeth in this novel is very positive. Maxwell built an excellent bridge between these two novels in that many strands of the plot here are matched with explanatory mentions in the prequel. However, the prequel's story is far more compelling, probably due to Maxwell's far more clever and in-depth development of the character of Thomas Seymour in the prequel.

It is clear that Maxwell is doing two things--setting the story up for Elizabeth's "revelation" at the end of the novel, and apologizing for Anne in the process. Anne is cast as willful, attempting to forge her own destiny, but still subject to the desires and uses of the men around her (which is a realistic concept). However, Anne is far from the character that many who have studied her character know--although Maxwell has Elizabeth briefly discussing how vindictive Anne was, Anne's character is far from vindictive and far from passionate as she is portrayed in the diary.

Maxwell clearly wanted to cover the length of Anne's story in a rather short novel, so, in many cases, the diary entries' dates are few and far between, especially earlier on. Maxwell spends more time on periods of Anne's life that were particularly significant, and that seems appropriate. However, she also leaves out some important parts of Anne's story that we do know from a historical perspective, and, in other cases, a few important events are only given a line or two.

I think this novel suffers from a huge number of missed opportunities. There were moments when you really think there is going to be a remarkable revelation of some kind, and you end up disappointed. For example, Anne meets up with Henry Percy at one point prior to her marriage to King Henry, and it is implied that they had a romantic tryst. This reader immediately thought that perhaps Anne's first child would have been the product of Anne and Henry Percy, and that would have been a fascinating revelation with multiple implications....that never happens. It's as if her meeting up with Henry Percy had absolutely no purpose at all.

This novel also has some significant historical accuracy issues. At one point, Henry's past prior to his being marked out as his father's heir is discussed, and it is literally said that Henry VII predeceased his first son, Arthur. It is well known that Arthur died long before his father, and that Henry lived for many years as his father's designated heir as a result. In addition, Anne's last pregnancy is far too long to match up correctly with the historical record. She first mentions this pregnancy in May 1535, but she miscarries in January of the next year. This would have brought her very close to term. In reality, her January miscarriage (which is true) was estimated to have been the culmination of a 15 or 16 week pregnancy, and this was why it was so difficult to determine the gender of the child. If the child had been conceived in May, it would have been a miscarriage at between 7 and 8 months, and the gender of the child would have been quite obvious by that time (not to mention that miscarriages that late are extremely uncommon--at that point, the delivery of a child at that age would have been classified as a stillbirth).

The sections focusing on Elizabeth are far superior to Anne's diary, which is a disappointment given the diary is the focus of the novel. The reader can't but wonder if Anne had been cast as a more complex, and perhaps a more malevolent, character, the novel would have been a far more interesting read.

Rating: An easy read, actually, and not very long. I'll give it a 7.
Buy It or Borrow It: Borrow this one. I doubt you'll read it again after your first go around the block. It would be useful, though, to read this before you read Maxwell's other novel.

No comments: