The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn, Robin Maxwell
I do not give many books 5 roses but this is, hands down, my favorite book about Anne Boleyn. I love the way her story (the diary) is intertwined with her daughter Elizabeth's. Of all the books about Anne that I have read, this is probably the only one that doesn't portray Anne as a horrible, vindictive, almost evil person. She is shown as a very passionate and ambitious person, though. As with all historical fiction, I am aware that the author certainly took some creative license in the telling of her story but there is nothing that seems really out of place or too over the top for me.
Not long after her coronation, Elizabeth receives a visit from an elderly lady who served her mother, Anne Boleyn, during her last days in the Tower. This lady gives Elizabeth something priceless: her mother's secret diary, which she had kept for most of her life. The rest of the story switches back and forth between the entries in Anne's diary and Elizabeth's life. Through the reading of her mother's diary she learns a great deal about the woman she never knew and realizes Anne was not the horrible person she had always been told she was. In the diary Anne recounts her time spent in France, her love for Henry Percy and the heartbreak over their forced separation, Henry's wooing, the rise of her power along with her family's, her marriage to Henry and Elizabeth's birth, and the events that lead up to her imprisonment and execution. While reading her mother's diary, Elizabeth is embroiled in an affair with Robert Dudley which threatens not only her reputation but possibly her Crown as well.
This story was beautifully written and in such a way that I could almost feel what some of the characters were feeling. Anne's portrayal here is much more in line with what I believe: that she was a fairly innocent but extremely intelligent young girl who, because she was thwarted in her one true love, became a bit bitter and wanted revenge on those who caused the hurt. Once she was caught up in the relationship with Henry she probably felt she had no way out and enjoyed the power that it did give her. I have never believed she was really evil or mean but certainly ambitious. She does come to realize that her anger and need for revenge have come back to haunt her. There were some powerful and emotional scenes in her diary, especially in her feelings for Elizabeth and when she realizes that Henry has lost interest and means to be rid of her. One of my favorite moments was when Anne was describing how afraid she was at her coronation - until she felt her child kick in her belly. I thought that was a very touching moment. As her story began to wind down to its ultimate conclusion, I could feel Anne's desperation and panic as she tried to keep Henry's affections and then her resignation as to what was going to happen to her. It really made me wish things had turned out differently for her.
As for Elizabeth, she does change while reading her mother's diary. Probably the main thing she realizes is that she does not want to give up power and control to any man (though that doesn't stop her affair with Dudley), as she has seen what it did to her mother. I think she also benefits from learning that Anne did love her and while she was certainly no saint, she was not a horrible person. One of the most telling of Elizabeth's comments was when she was talking to the elderly woman who had brought the diary to her:
"It is you who have done me the honor, good lady. You have returned to me a treasure I had no idea I had lost. And a love I had forgotten I owned."
For me however, the two most emotional parts of the book were towards the end. The first was when Elizabeth discovered a small room that was filled with what remained of her mother's possessions - shoes with her the imprint of her foot still in it, a dress, cosmetics, books. The second moment almost had me in tears. Elizabeth goes to the Tower to stand in the Great Hall where her mother was condemned, to stand at the spot the scaffold stood and her mother lost her life, and finally, in the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula. While standing there she is first overcome with grief knowing that her mother's body was beneath the stones and then she finally has a memory of her mother's scent, laugh, and her smiling eyes. I was almost in tears as she cried out for Anne (and I do not usually get emotional while reading).
This was a marvelous and emotional book. Maxwell is able to pull the reader into the story and you can really sympathize with some of the characters. Writers should all strive to elicit some emotional response - be it laughter, anger, or sadness - in their readers; Maxwell succeeds in this book. I would recommend this to anyone who is interested in Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth.
*If anyone is interested in more about Anne, Maxwell also wrote Mademoiselle Boleyn which is a look into Anne's life at the Court of France.