An Interview with Helen R. Davis, Author of THE MOST HAPPY

I always love talking to authors who've written about Anne Boleyn, and this week, I had a discussion with Helen. R. Davis, whose novel The Most Happy is an alternative history of Anne Boleyn's reign.

Lissa: Tell me more about your new Anne Boleyn book. Having written about her myself, I’m always interested in seeing new perspectives.

Helen R.Davis: My novel is an alternate history that imagines a world in which Anne Boleyn bears Henry VIII  a son, in addition to Elizabeth I.  In this alternate history scenario, Edward VI  is Elizabeth I's twin, born twelve hours after she is.  This novel flows the events of Henry VIII's reign until his jousting accident in 1536, in which he dies and leaves Anne Boleyn regent for his young son.  All of the characters of the Tudor court are still here, albeit in an altered setting.

Lissa: I’d like to imagine that! I think Anne Boleyn would have made a fine queen regent. She certainly had excellent role models from her younger years at the courts of Margaret of Austria and Claude of France. Margaret was a very astute ruler – pious and erudite, and it seems Anne may have modeled some aspects of her reign on Margaret’s court. Perhaps on gentle, quiet Claude, too – Anne’s charitable efforts in having her ladies sew shirts always made me think of Claude’s court.

How do you picture Anne—meaning her personality? We’ve seen books which portray her as a somewhat unpleasant person, some which portray her as a woman with the ambition to “catch” a king with her charm, and others which portray her as a victim of her family’s machinations. 

H.R.D: My picture of Anne is always Genevivve Bujold's portrayal in Anne of the Thousand Days. Though not  completely historically accurate, it is much closer to the truth than other portrayals of her I have seen. As a Francophile, I am enamored by her love for France.

Lissa: France was certainly the cultural leader of the day. I’ve always pictured Anne as having a slight French accent when she spoke English. After all, she spent most of her younger years in courts where French was spoken as the language of educated people. It enraptures me to think that she may have me da Vinci while she was at the French court. And King Francis – though later it’s claimed he said some cruel things about her sister.

I’ve also always loved the “ruse” by which Anne famously met King Francis in Calais. She must have been so hurt when the royal French ladies refused to host her, but she made sure she got what they came for – Francis’s tacit approval on their marriage.

H.R.D.: I see her as a woman who wanted to have a normal life, but destiny had other plans for her. I believe she made the best she could out of a bad situation, and I think many people, especially lately, are unfair to her.

Lissa: Susan Bordo wrote a very good book about how each generation “re-interprets” Anne according to their own current views on women. In the 1990s, Anne Boleyn became a “mean girl.” How do you think fiction contributes to the way a culture interprets its historical figures? Do you think fiction bears any kind of burden in that regard, knowing that many of the readers are swayed in their opinions of these people based on the story?

H.R.D.: I think fiction definitely plays a big role, more than some history buffs would like to admit. While novels often fill in gaps, that does not mean that they do not have a place in teaching history, for good or for ill. And yes, I do agree that fiction does often shape historical figures and interpretations of them.   What sparked my interest in Anne Boleyn was Anne of the Thousand Days, and I then went to reading biographies on Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I before the rise of 'The Other Boleyn Girl.'

Lissa: For me, it was Margaret George’s Autobiography of Henry VIII. I fell in love with that book and I started a life-long quest to learn more about the time period and the people. She’ll always have my gratitude for such a wonderful introduction to the Tudor world.

H.R.D: While I respect Philippa Gregory as she gave me encouragement during a dark time in my life, I have met so many people who say they hate Anne because of 'The Other Boleyn Girl.' In a way, my novel is a response to this. Anne Boleyn was not perfect at all, but my portrayal is an attempt to capture who she truly was without shying away from her flaws, even though this is a book that rewrites historical events.

Her treatment of Katharine of Aragon and Mary Tudor wasn't her finest hour, but it should not be held up as the clincher for her morality.

Lissa: I’m not so sure Anne was really mean to them. In my research, I came across a lot of people attributing quotes to Anne, but not direct evidence of it in the records.

H.R.D: That is good to know.  I agree with you. Unfortunately, sometimes people get ideas in their heads and they cannot be swayed otherwise.

Lissa: What about her physical appearance? There are several portraits which purport to be Anne. The NPG portrait with the dark hair is the most famous. What do you think of the Holbein sketch, or Elizabeth’s portrait ring? Do you think Anne could have been completely different than the way we picture her?

H.R.D: Like Cleopatra VII, we don't know what she looked like. It would be something to see images of both women, I think. My favorite has got to be the one that is on the cover of The Most Happy. Elizabeth's portrait ring is a more flattering image, and I find it a tender gesture on the famous queen's part.  I am NOT  a fan of the Holbein sketch at all. She had to have been more intriguing than that!  Like Cleopatra VII, I don't buy that she wasn't gorgeous. Cleo and Anne had to have been something to have captivated men such as Caesar, Antony, or Henry VIII.

Lissa: I think Henry was more captured by Anne’s spirit than he was by her physical appearance. She was bold enough to disagree with him, debate with him, and challenge him, but she did it in a way that charmed him rather than angered him…. At least, at first.  Once she became his wife, he seems to have expected her to change, and her challenges to him started infuriating him instead of intriguing him.

I see Anne as one of the mothers of the Anglican Church. She laid a great deal of the groundwork for the Reformation in England. Do you think she gets the credit she’s due for the way she shaped English history?

H.R.D.: No, she doesn't. She's either seen as Henry's victim or someone who got her just desserts for supposedly usurping a saint.  Not that Katharine of Aragon didn't suffer terribly, but many on the 'Team Katharine' side refuse to see her flaws:  mainly stubbornness and attachment to an indifferent man, much like her sister, Juana of Castile.

Lissa: It wasn’t stubbornness at all! I’ve argued quite a bit with people on Tumblr about this. As much as I adore Anne, Katharine was right. She was the rightful queen and Henry didn’t have the right to take away her title or disinherit their daughter. She could have lived in luxury and been able to see Mary again if she’d only capitulated. I imagine it was sometimes tempting. But she couldn’t give in. It mean surrendering her beloved daughter’s future. 

I also think that, in the end, she still loved Henry and believed to the very last he would wake up one day and realize he loved her too and return to her side.

H.R.D:  Oh no, I'm not saying Katharine of Aragon wasn't right to fight; that's something she and her rival had in common was standing up to Henry.  I'm just saying that Katharine of Aragon had her flaws that often get overlooked or brushed under the rug.  Still, she was blinded by love and could not see Henry for what he really was.

Lissa: While I was researching my novel, I found a segment in one of the Imperial Ambassador’s letters that made my heart actually hurt for her. In it, Katharine said that she was absolutely certain if she could just speak to Henry for a few moments, he would come back to her, but Anne Boleyn’s servants were preventing him from being able to come talk to Katharine. This was in 1532, after years of Henry mistreating her. I just wanted to reach back through time and hug her, because it was so obvious she was a woman who loved someone so intensely that nothing could shake it, not even that man’s cruelty.

H.R.D:  I admire Katharine of Aragon too, and I am currently working on an alternate history that imagines her as Queen of Castile with my co-author, Carolina Casas.   Let's give both women their dues.

Lissa: All of Henry’s wives were remarkable in their own ways. It’s lovely to see someone who appreciates that.

H.R.D: Both Katharine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn were wronged by the same man, and both were amazing women.  As for Anne, she deserves more credit for her part in shaping the groundwork of the Reformation and she also deserves more credit for this: nobody was burnt at the stake during her brief reign as queen consort. Also, two women had power with Henry VIII: Katharine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn.  There was never to be a third.

Lissa: Queen Mary always hated Anne Boleyn and blamed her for what happened with her father and his cruelty. Do you think Anne is unfairly blamed for the way Mary and Katharine of Aragon were treated, or do you believe Anne had a hand in urging Henry to take a harsh stance against his former wife and daughter?

H.R.D: I somewhat answered that in the last question.  Anne might have had a role in it, but ultimately, the choice was Henry VIII's.  After Anne was executed, there were rumors Mary would face the same fate if she did not sign the Oath of Succession. Anne did at least repent at the end. Better late than never.

Lissa: Did you discover anything that surprised you or changed your mind about Anne during your research?

H.R.D: The fact that she saved many lives while she was queen and donated so much to charity. I think she was mostly good but had flaws and became a scapegoat for an unpopular king. Her ties to France are also dear to my heart.

Lissa: Do you think Henry VIII’s accident in 1536 marked a turning point in his personality, or did it simply make his patience shorter?

H.R.D: Henry was always a tyrant, let's not make excuses for him. Having said that, it certainly changed him for the worst.

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You can find The Most Happy in paperback on Amazon or Kindle or directly from the publisher.

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