One of the most powerful and beautiful portrayals of Anne Boleyn, the much-maligned second wife of King Henry VIII has been through novels by historical fiction author, Robin Maxwell. Robin Maxwell’s novels of “Mademoiselle Boleyn” and “The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn” paint a sympathetic, root-worthy, and fascinating picture of a woman who would go on and change the course of history. Often times Anne Boleyn has been portrayed as an evil, calculating, and scheming shrew out to destroy the lives of others, but with Maxwell’s portrayal comes a version of Anne Boleyn that shows a beautiful, intelligent, cultured, and fascinating woman where you could understand why Henry VIII went to such depths to make her his queen.
Not only writing historical fiction focusing on Anne Boleyn, Maxwell has written about the beloved, intelligent, and powerful daughter of the union of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth I in “Virgin: Prelude to the Throne”, “The Queen’s Bastard”, and “The Wild Irish”. Maxwell has also written about the saga of the lost Princes in the Tower in “To the Tower Born”, the mother of Leonardo da Vinci in Signora da Vinci”, and she has even presented a beautiful version of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in “O, Juliet”. Maxwell’s writing is so powerful because it is character driven and all the characters are well-rounded, root-worthy, and fascinating. Her novels are some of the best and brightest in historical fiction.
Maxwell has also written numerous articles for The Huffington Post. She lives in the high desert of California with her husband, yogi Max Thomas.
What drew you to Anne Boleyn as a historical figure?
Maxwell: I believed that Anne was a greatly misunderstood person. Everything I’d read about her always portrayed her as a scheming, coldly ambitious woman who had stolen Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon and who’d had no interest whatsoever in her child, Elizabeth. When anything is that black-and-white, I get suspicious. There has always been propaganda, and as far back in human history as you can go you’ll always find “spin doctors.” And since there were other clues that things might not be as they were always portrayed, I started doing a little digging. The more I dug, the more I discovered that this was a woman of many parts. That she had some friends (ones that I admired, like Thomas Cranmer) who loved her till her dying day. And while she was the reason (and probably had something to do with) Catherine’s fall from grace, the religion that she was promoting (Lutheranism) was a much more progressive one than Catherine’s Roman Catholicism. And I liked that about her. Once I got into “deep research” there were enough clues to convince me that Anne was a loving mother to Elizabeth, one who fought to keep her child near her despite this being contrary to all ideals of royal upbringing. She had at least one knock-down-drag-out fight with Henry about this, and it was AFTER Anne’s own fall from grace, not the time a person would want to anger the already deeply enraged King of England (he’d been humiliated by Anne giving birth to a daughter, not a son, and her having had one miscarriage). I just saw Anne as a courageous, ahead-of-her-time woman who for once was given a sympathetic treatment.
What do you believe was Anne Boleyn’s greatest achievement as queen?
Maxwell: Well, of course there’s the obvious one — giving the world Elizabeth I. But I’d have to say it was the part Anne played in bringing the Protestant Reformation to England that was her greatest achievement. She not only brought Henry the wildly heretical books that gave him the idea that he could have control over the souls of his subjects (not the pope). That he used this information to help him obtain his divorce or to loot the riches from the English monasteries is beside the point, because he did split with the church for a time, laying the groundwork for his son, Edward, and later for his daughter, Elizabeth, to really bring “The New Religion” into the country.
And if you believe certain biographers, Henry put Anne at the head of a coterie of men (including Cranmer and Cromwell) who met every week at Durham House with the express purpose of spearheading the transition from Catholicism to Protestantism so that Anne and Henry could marry. That is giving a woman unheard-of power in those days. I don’t believe she “bewitched” him. I believe she impressed him with her intelligence. I think Anne scared the bejesus out of Henry when he realized, in retrospect, how much control he had allowed her over his life and England, and from that time on he never married any woman who had the guts Anne did. Katherine Parr certainly had the brains, but she saw what Henry was capable of and never “went to the mat” like Anne (which was smart, and the reason she was the one wife who survived).
There have been many portrayals of Anne Boleyn in the past and recently, what portrayal do you believe best describes or portrays the Anne you believe her to be or wrote about in your novels?
Maxwell: I haven’t read every novel about Anne ever written, but I can tell you that it was Norah Lofts’ The Concubine that got me interested in the subject (along with her book about Catherine of Aragon – The King’s Pleasure). It was, however, so many years ago that I can’t remember many of the details. I loved Genvieve Bujold’s Anne in “Anne of a Thousand Days,” though Maxwell Anderson’s script gave every bit of credit for the Protestant Reformation to the men. I can say that I completely disagree with Philippa Gregory’s Anne. The author seems to have taken every horrible rumor and trumped-up charge against the woman and woven it into her story (which, for an entire generation of historical fiction readers, is “the truth.” If Anne was as awful as Ms. Gregory made her out to be and if I had been Henry VIII, I would have had her head chopped off, too. Strangely enough (and although it took much license with history in places) I really loved Michael Hirst’s “The Tudors” and Natalie Dormer’s portrayal of Anne. While it had her scheming with her father and her uncle (the Duke of Norfolk) more than I did in SECRET DIARY OF ANNE BOLEYN, I think the script and the actress captured the fire and charismatic personality that the real Anne must have had to have kept Henry obsessed with her for the six years she refused to sleep with him, and to break with Rome when he was the pope’s most beloved prince. And of course, who could resist that sexy young Henry?
In “Mademoiselle Boleyn” you write primarily at the French court. What interests you more? The English court or French court?
Maxwell: My allegiance will always be to the English court, but I must say that going to Francois I’s lascivious and downright raunchy court was a delightful diversion. When it came to womanizing, compared to his French cousin, Henry VIII was a wuss. MADEMOISELLE BOLEYN was by far my raciest novel, but if I wanted to write honestly about Anne and Mary’s youth in France, I had no choice. I also loved the character of Duchess Marguerite d’Alencon (Francois’ beloved sister) because she, above anyone else, influenced Anne the most deeply. It was Marguerite who turned Anne on to “The New Religion,” to reading the Bible in a language other than Latin, and to thinking in an open-minded way. Without the duchess, Anne Boleyn never would have become the woman she was. And of course, finding out that Leonardo da Vinci was at the French court at the same time Anne was there allowed me to imagine them as friends — one of my favorite parts of MADEMOISELLE BOLEYN.
Do you believe Queen Elizabeth I was more of her mother’s daughter, father’s daughter or a combination of both?
Maxwell: I believe she started out her reign as her mother’s daughter — proud, tempestuous, courageous, religiously open-minded, and able to truly love a man (Robert Dudley — Anne’s true love was Henry Percy). But once Dudley died (they were both in their mid-50s), Elizabeth seemed to lose her humanity. She became brittle and cold. By the time of her conquest over Ireland (which I write about in THE WILD IRISH) I think Elizabeth became her father. Cruel, inhumane (she perpetrated outright genocide on the Irish) she wiped out almost half the population of a people she said she wanted as “her loving subjects.” And she became capable, in her old age, of killing the person she loved most all. I won’t say who that is, in case anyone wants to read the book.
Which of Henry VIII’s other wives interest you?
Maxwell: Catherine Parr, hands-down. She was brilliant, open-minded, loving enough to gently force Henry to bring both his de-legitimized daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, back into the fold (and more importantly, back into the succession). She gave her stepdaughter, Elizabeth a fabulous classical education that was the backbone of her personality and ability to rule. What is the most fascinating aspect of Catherine, however, was how she transformed from that marvelous woman into a sexually obsessed, half-crazed maniac over the love of her fourth husband, the sociopathic Thomas Seymour, Elizabeth’s step-father. You can read about that nail-biter of a story in VIRGIN, PRELUDE TO THE THRONE.
You wrote about the lost Princes in the Tower in “To the Tower Born”, what figure from that time period most fascinates you?
Maxwell: Probably William Caxton, the man who brought the printing press to England. He was beloved and patronized by the entire royal family (actually both sides – the Yorks and Lancasters) and was given a print shop/bookstore right within the walls of Westminster (the royal palace). Everything changed with the printing press. I found one sentence in one of his biographies that he had a daughter, Elizabeth, and that she got divorced from her husband in a London court. That is where I started my story, TO THE TOWER BORN, and Elizabeth “Nell” Caxton — though zero was known about her — became one of my two heroines, the other being her best girlfriend, Princess Bessie (Elizabeth of York). I reckoned that the two would have known each other, as they lived in the same place and every one of Bessie’s relatives knew and loved her father, William (and walked by his bookstore every time they left the palace). Between the two of them, they solve the mystery of the “lost princes.
I must say that though I didn’t like her very much, Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII’s mother, captivated me. Talk about ambitious! Of course, “The Venerable Margaret” plays a huge role in TO THE TOWER BORN.
What inspired you to write “O, Juliet”?
Maxwell: I’d always wanted to write a great love story, and how much better can you get than “Romeo and Juliet”? I’d always been unsatisfied, however, with Shakespeare’s version. It took place over such a short time (a few days) and there were so few details about the character of the lovers and what their lives were like. I thought it would be fun to really dig into the culture, the society, their hopes, their dreams, their poetry, their fears, and flesh the story out. Instead of a few days, O, JULIET plays out over a few months, thus giving Romeo and Juliet’s relationship time to deepen. The way I see it, when it’s days, it’s probably lust. When it’s months (or more), it’s true love. I was going for true love.
What have been your favorite places to travel while researching and writing your novels?
Maxwell: I’ve actually only been to England and Ireland, and of course I love both those places (and hope to travel back there when they film THE WILD IRISH). I wish I’d been able to travel to Tuscany to do research for SIGNORA DA VINCI and O, JULIET, but it just wasn’t in the cards. I still want to go (if only for the food!), but for now I have to settle for books, Youtubes and tours on Google Earth.
What other historical fiction novelists do you enjoy reading?
Maxwell: I love C.W. Gortner. His THE LAST QUEEN was a sensational debut novel. He’s got a Tudor thriller series coming out, the first book of which was excellent. And I’m a huge fan of Michelle Moran’s. Though NEFERTITI was her most popular, I thought THE HERETIC QUEEN was her best. And I can’t wait for the much darker MADAME TUSSAUD (about the French Revolution).
What authors from the past and present do you enjoy or have inspired you?
Maxwell: That’s such a hard question. I loved Kurt Vonnegut and Ian Flemming (the James Bond books) when I was younger and read everything they wrote. I was also a die-hard early Stephen King fan (he writes the BEST dialogue), though I haven’t read him in quite a few years. Barbara Kingsolver’s POISONWOOD BIBLE. Sena Jeter Naslund’s AHAB’S WIFE. Lisa See’s SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN. There are more, of course, but I can’t think of them now.
Favorite King Henry of England in history?
Maxwell: Got to be my horrible, beastly Henry VIII who was, in his youth, Mr. Wonderful in every way. I wish I had known him before he went bonkers.
York or Lancaster
Maxwell: York. I think Richard III was a great guy, and I loved his niece (and I think he did, too), Elizabeth of York (Princess Bessie). She appears to have been a very loving woman who had to put up with the completely deranged Henry VII for a husband (I’m pretty sure Henry VIII got his whacko genes from his dad’s side of the family).
Queen Elizabeth I or Queen Victoria I?
Maxwell: Elizabeth I, because I cannot tolerate the sexual repression of women (and though I’ve never studied Victoria, she is the one who gave sexual repression its name). Elizabeth, at least in her youth and despite a hard coming of age, did all she could to love and be loved normally. Sadly, that plan failed miserably. But at least she gave it a good old college try.
Romeo or Juliet?
Maxwell: Love `em both. I certainly would have wanted to know my heartfelt, poetic, bit-of-a-badboy Romeo as I wrote him in O, JULIET. And frankly, I would never have wanted to be a woman living during the time of that story. Women’s lives were so horribly claustrophobic and limited. They were barely allowed out of their houses for their entire lives. NOT a good time to be a girl.
London or Paris?
Maxwell: Never been to Paris, but I have a feeling I would adore it (and the food!). London is brilliant, and I can’t wait to go back.
*A huge thanks to Robin Maxwell for this fascinating and warm interview*
For more information on Robin Maxwell and her novels: http://www.robinmaxwell.com/
Some of Robin Maxwell’s articles from The Huffington Post: