Like many people, I had my pre-conceptions about Anne Boleyn. Her name alone conjures up the image of a ‘Femme Fatale’, histories most famous ‘other’ woman. She was clever and calculating. Sly, with her eyes unflinching on the ultimate prize, Anne has a reputation of ruthlessness.
To snare a king was no task for the meek, especially a king who already had a wife, Katherine of Aragon. Unquestionably royal, Katherine was beloved by the English people at large and a Queen who had sat at Henrys side for over 20 years. Such boldness was never before seen in England.
Yet this isn’t the only Anne. Robin Maxwell’s historical novel Mademoiselle Boleyn details her early years at the courts of the Archduchess Margaret of Burgundy and François I of France. Written through Anne’s own eyes, we meet a girl quite different from the Anne we know. She is skinny, gawky with eyes too big for her face and compared unfavorably with her beautiful older sister Mary.
What a stunner…
Anne’s father, Thomas Boleyn is Ambassador–Extraordinaire and has the influence and connections to ensure his daughters are placed as ladies in waiting to European Royalty. Anne is presented as a curious and sensitive child who has a quiet ability to charm almost everyone who comes into contact with her. Always with her eyes and ears open, she soon she endeavors to make herself useful to her elders and they in turn come to realize she is special..
The glittering French court with its shimmering palaces and chateaus are vividly brought to life. You can almost feel you are standing in the middle of the LoireValley, overlooking the War games or attending a sumptuous banquet. François I was a flamboyant king, a lover of life with a reputation for debauchery and excess. He was at the centre of the most sophisticated court in Europe, artists, sculptors, painters and poets would flock to gain royal favor and patronage. Its not surprising Anne would thrive in such an environment. When Anne returned to England at 20 she was admired for her social skills and accomplishments. She was a great conservationist, an elegant dancer and famed for her fashion, she’s often credited with introducing the French headdress into England.
Where Maxwell succeeds is in making the Boleyn’s a real family. Anne and Mary’s relationship is often strained. They bicker and fight, and nurture jealousies. Yet separated from the rest of their family in a strange land they forge a bond and look out for one another. Thomas Boleyn is presented as a domineering figure, an autocratic bully who demands nothing short of total obedience from his daughters.
This was not unusual in aristocratic families. Personal happiness would seldom be considered when selecting husbands for daughters of the nobility. As head of the family Thomas Boleyn would always seek to enhance the Boleyn name and further his own influence. Anne and Mary were merely used as a means to this end and the sisters would have been expected to fulfill certain obligations.
It is Anne’s relationships with other characters in the story where Maxwell explores her true nature. Anne’s affection and loyalty towards Queen Claude and her conceived friendship with Lynne the laundry maid give her a humility she is often supposed to lack. François’s sister the intelligent and unconventional Duchess Marguerite is shown to make a strong impression on Anne and could well have awakened her reformist religious views.
Woven into the story is a touching friendship with a personage no less that Leonardo da Vinci! It’s true that da Vinci did spend his final years in François’s court therefore they could well have come into contact. Maxwell presents them as kindred sprits, da Vinci can see something in Anne she can’t yet recognize and its clear to him she isn’t meant to live an ordinary life. Anne’s fledging romance with Henry Percy son of the Duke of Northumberland is twined with sadness as we witness Anne in the first flushes of love knowing all too well what was to come.
Anne forged friendships and left a stamp on the French Court during her time there and no doubt it was a huge part of her life. Mademoiselle Boleyn is of course a work of fiction, but I would recommend it to any Anne Boleyn fan as it certainly casts a different light on this remarkable woman and its simply a wonderful story to be enjoyed. Like Thomas Cromwell in Hillary Mantels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies I am not able to view Anne in the same way since reading this novel and think this is an accomplishment for any author!