Mademoiselle Boleyn by Robin Maxwell
New American Library, 2nd printing, 2007
Genre: historical fiction
Synopsis & Review: At the age of eight, Anne Boleyn was sent to the court of the Archduchess Margaret of Burgundy in Malines, starting early her career as courtier. Scarcely a year later, she and her sister Mary joined the Princess Mary’s retinue when that lady traveled to France to marry Louis XII, and at the French court she stayed for another eight years, even after Louis’ death and Mary’s return to England. At the court of Francois, the Boleyn sisters rise to prominence, Mary for her beauty and Anne for her grace and wit. Watched over benevolently by Queen Claude, and with the Duchess Marguerite as a patron in learning, Anne develops her mind in a lascivious court that cares more for sensuality than intellect. It is here that Anne will be made or broken as she develops into a formidable young women destined to make her own mark on history.
Reading Mademoiselle Boleyn, and analyzing my reactions to it got me to thinking: why do I react badly to explicit sexuality in historical fiction, considering much of it demeaning to history and historical fiction? I sometimes find it difficult to take historical fiction very seriously when there is excessive (to my tastes) sexual hijinks, yet it’s not the explicit sexuality that bothers me, just its presence in historical fiction. In the case of books like The Other Boleyn Girl or Mademoiselle Boleyn, the technique inclines me to relegate them to historical romance fiction, where the setting is simply a trapping of the story rather than integral to it. In the former, the story essentially boils down to a Cain and Abel-like tale, akin to Amadeus. I get frustrated with the latter, however, because I can clearly see the effort Maxwell is making to explore the development of Anne’s character, and how life at the French court and the positions women had at court and in society influenced it, but scenes like Mary Tudor’s preparations for bedding Louis, Francois’ orgy, and Anne’s first masturbation just seem cheap and sensationalistic. Yes, people had sex, and a lot of it, and in many and varied ways, but some of this stuff was just silly. Some of the scenes were enough that I was rolling my eyes and shouting, “Oh, please!”—enough with the “familiar twitching between my legs” remarks.
It’s called arousal, and there are better ways to portray it than the soap opera-esque sluttification popularized by The Other Boleyn Girl and works of its ilk. And before anyone asks, I must mention that any accusation of prudery or a Puritanical bent in me would be met with howls of derision by anyone who knows me. I’m not offended by graphic details, but by cheap manipulation and sensationalism.
Though I wasn’t a big fan of The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn, I’d been curious about Mademoiselle Boleyn for a while; Anne Boleyn’s years at the French court have remained mysterious and largely untouched in fiction, though the court of Francois, with Marguerite of Navarre too, was by all accounts a fascinating one. And there was a great deal to fascinate in Mademoiselle Boleyn. Maxwell nicely illustrates relationships of patronage, and it is clear that she did a great deal of research. But she also tends to histrionic, artificial dialog and characterizations, as well as labored prose, and is prone to anachronism and repetition. (Yes, we’re all aware that Henry referred to Anne’s “duckies” in one of his love letters. And we’re also sure that “duckies’ was not the sole or preferred nomenclature for breasts. Please take note.)
Fans of The Other Boleyn Girl and other such overwrought romanticized historical fictions (Anne Easter Smith, hello!) will undoubtedly enjoy Mademoiselle Boleyn. Those looking for a sympathetic portrayal of Anne may also be pleased, for Maxwell is nothing if not sympathetic. And it is a quick read, moving along at a nice pace. But be aware that there is much speculation and filler to contend with—as well as those heaving duckies.
Cover: Close-up portrait of Anne Boleyn, wearing the B necklace, her face cut in half by the binding. Seems to be the standard Boleyn cover—and why not?
I chanced a peek at Marguerite, who was shaking her head, but smiling indulgently. I myself was somewhat chagrined, as I knew quite well by now the myriad terms for male and female organs, but I was still unclear about these references to “coming” or “exploding,” though it seemed obvious that it had something to do with satisfaction.
1 August – 2 August