Historically plausible account of Anne Boleyn’s adolescence in France as a courtier of King François.
Maxwell’s prequel to her first novel (The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn, 1997) explores Anne’s upbringing far from England, geographically and culturally, first in the Netherlands and later in France, where Anne, age nine, and her older sister, Mary, are sent to serve Mary Tudor, reluctant bride of Louis XII. When Louis’s overly energetic attempts to impregnate Mary end in his death, François, husband of Louis’s daughter Claude, ascends the throne. Assigned to Queen Claude’s household, Anne marvels at Claude’s pious determination to birth royal children despite a congenital deformity that makes childbearing particularly excruciating. Anne flees Claude’s sewing circle for music, dancing and the intellectual ferment surrounding François’s sister Marguerite (who, along with their mother, seems to be really ruling France). Marguerite introduces her to Protestant ideas, which will later drive Anne’s ascent, and ultimate downfall, as consort to Henry VIII. Shocking but also titillating to young Anne is François’s behavior—he discusses his mistresses’s sexual proclivities loudly during Sunday Mass. The libertine king’s outrageous antics cut closer to home when Anne’s callously ambitious father orders beautiful Mary Boleyn to become François’s latest concubine. Despite a brutal deflowering, Mary comes to enjoy her role until François starts handing her off to his friends. Less-comely Anne is pressured to spy on the French court, a paternal order she handily circumvents. Anne learns from Mary’s experience to guard her virginity as her prime political asset. She finds an unexpected mentor in da Vinci, who spends his declining years as a guest of François. Lavishly imagined detail—regarding entertainment, dress and habits of the time—adds depth to this work.
Some melodramatic scenes and unduly American locutions can’t spoil this accomplished rehabilitation of much-maligned Anne as an empowered woman.