Headline | 2017 (18 May) | 544p | Review copy | Buy the book
From her early years on the continent as a maid of honour to Regent Margaret of Austria and then to Queen Mary of France, Anne Boleyn was determined to retain her independence and reputation. Anne grew up witnessing the behaviour of lords and even kings to women at court, including women of the highest rank. Rape and assault were far from unknown and, later on, when Anne is a maid of honour in England to Queen Katherine of Aragon, she sees the way that Henry VIII pursues and captures her sister Mary, almost right under the eyes of his wife. Anne Boleyn will not be used in the same way.
The story of Anne Boleyn is a familiar one but Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession is a novel I have been longing to read since reading and thoroughly enjoying Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen, the first novel in Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series. That marvellous novel breathed new life into the ultimately tragic tale of this woman who refused to be beaten even when her daughter was taken from her and all she had left was her faith. Anne Boleyn is a less sympathetic figure to many, including me, and I did wonder how Alison Weir could make me engage with her. I needn’t have worried. I was riveted from the very beginning when we meet a young girl who manages to be both modern and belonging to her own time. Anne is presented as a wonderful observer of life, a witness to grandeur and intimacy, and increasingly she becomes a player in the world she has dissected.
Anne is fiercely intelligent and not a little intimidating. She is a contrast to her sister Mary, to the other Mary (Henry VIII’s sister and Queen of France) and to Queen Katherine. Katherine is bound to retain our sympathies, especially if you’ve read the previous novel. And it’s pitiable watching Katherine try to be such a good friend and patron to this young girl so newly returned from the French court. We all know what’s going to happen. Anne is friend to few.
Henry VIII looms over the novel as you’d expect and his character transforms through the novel from a young man in love to one bored and prepared to kill. It’s a compelling portrait and, at times, as Anne dangles the king on the end of a leash, it’s almost possible to feel sorry for him. But we’ve seen what he can do. Anne’s sister Mary Boleyn is a constant reminder of that. But while Henry changes through the book so too does Anne and what makes it so interesting is that she knows it. She is transformed by power and later by fear. She is aware of it and she hates it. She hates what she becomes. And it’s both painful and irresistible to read.
I love the way in which Alison Weir writes. She presents a great deal of historical detail and background while preserving the drama of the story and finding new ways in which to tell it. The Tudor court was full of incredible personalities and they’re all richly painted here, including Anne’s brother George, his wife Jane and their grand uncle the Duke of Norfolk. But it’s Anne and Henry who dominate the book, sweeping away anyone in their path.
We all know how Anne Boleyn’s story ended and those pages here tore my heart out. At times, this is an emotional novel and it pays to remind yourself when reading it that, although this is a work of fiction, these were real people. Anne has to adapt constantly and you can certainly understand why even if it makes her difficult to warm to. I was hoping to find a different approach to Anne in this novel and that’s what I found. Likewise, it provides an original perspective on the role of women in the Tudor and French courts. I also loved the novel’s size. Its substantial length allows the reader to wallow in this incredible story.
As this series continues it will be fascinating watching Henry’s progression towards his monstrous destiny as he discards his wives, and others, by the wayside. I can’t wait for the novel on Jane Seymour – to watch her emerge from the shadow of her more famous predecessor, Anne Boleyn.