The trouble for the writer, of writing yet another book about Anne Boleyn, is that it is yet another book about Anne Boleyn and consequently the bar is set formidably high for success. I am sure Ms. Byrd believed she had hit upon the winning formula when she plucked Meg Wyatt from obscurity to become the narrator of her novel TO DIE FOR: A NOVEL OF ANNE BOLEYN. However, I don’t think she succeeded. In what follows, I am going to articulate what I think the problems were.
The main problem for me is that the narrator Meg Wyatt is not an interesting person. Unlike Mary Boleyn, the narrator of THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL, Meg Wyatt hasn’t been the mistress of both the King of France and the King of England. Not only doesn’t she have any knowledge of Anne’s life at the courts of Burgundy and France, she has no way of knowing much about Henry VIII, the man, behind the glittering facade. Philippa Gregory’s choice of Mary Boleyn as the narrator for her novel was brilliant, precisely because she is the perfect foil for Anne, leading such a similar life, but being such a different person.
The consequence of all this is that the beginning of the novel, which portrays the friendship between Meg and Anne, is far too slow. The engine of the novel didn’t start for me until page 67, when Anne embarks on her relationship with Henry VIII.
Another big problem is that Ms. Byrd has nothing fresh to say about Anne Boleyn. What made Robin Maxwell’s MADEMOISELLE BOLEYN so compelling, is that she unearthed some new evidence that suggested that Anne Boleyn was much younger than had previously been thought (born in 1507, as opposed to 1501), and that she was a very young child (six years old) when she was sent to the court of Duchess Margaret of Burgundy in 1513. Subsequently she went to the court of the King of France around the time that he married Henry VIII’s sister Mary Tudor in 1514, and then she stayed on in France until 1522, not coming back to England to be presented at the court of Henry VIII until she was 15 years old.
Now, I am not an expert on Anne Boleyn, so I don’t know if she was born in 1501 and spent her youth in England as Sandra Byrd would have it, or was born in 1507 and spent her youth on the continent as Robin Maxwell says. However, I have to say that I found Ms. Maxwell’s novel far more interesting, because it provided a fresh new take on Anne Boleyn’s life that explained so many things.
Take the question of age. It is not known when Anne Boleyn was born, but I think it more likely that she was born in 1507 rather than in 1501. After all, why would a King of England, desperate for a son and heir, move heaven and earth for a woman of 24 or 25, when she would be considered on the shelf by the standards of the day? Doesn’t it seem more likely that he’d turn the world upside down for an 18 or 19-year-old, who would have her best child-bearing years in front of her?
Then there is the question of where Anne Boleyn actually was before she caught King Henry’s eye. Again, I have to say that I find it much more plausible that she’d been brought up on the continent, and blew into Henry’s court as an exotic breath of fresh air from France, rather than a young woman who’d been reared in England, and would be just another English beauty.
The last problem I’m going to talk about is the most puzzling one. This is not the first time I’ve wondered why Simon & Schuster doesn’t provide better editorial help for its authors. Why does it allow such obvious anachronisms to stand? Why does it allow Ms. Byrd to get away with stating that Anne’s father was visiting Belgium, when in Anne’s day, Belgium didn’t exist and was referred to either as Flanders or Burgundy (depending on exactly where you were)? Why does Simon & Schuster allow this novel to open with a minor character stitching muslin? Surely muslin wasn’t known until the 17th century at the earliest, when the British started connecting with people from the Indian subcontinent. Why on earth do we have Meg Wyatt remarking that Anne habitually wore cotton stockings, when cotton wasn’t common until North America became established as a British colony in the 17th century?
Am I missing something? If so, I wish that Ms. Byrd had addressed the new research she’d unearthed that would prove me wrong, when she wrote her Author’s Note.
I see, from glancing at other Amazon reviews, that many readers enjoyed this novel, and I’m glad they did. I’m sorry that it didn’t work for me. Two stars.