Both the realist historical novel (e.g., Scott's fiction) and the historical romance (e.g., Heyer's fiction) appear to offer the reader a bit of nutrition along with the sweets: even if we're reading for the bodice-ripping or the derring-do, we might actually learn something about the novel's historical setting. As Helen Hughes wryly notes in The Historical Romance, however, the romance novelist crafts the appearance of a scholarly work, without necessarily doing much (if any) research. Meanwhile, the realist--even one as dedicated as, say, Patrick O'Brian--has to erase most of the explicit decision-making and evidence-sifting that one would expect in a work of history. As a result, unless the author has been kind enough to offer a bibliography and/or a preface or afterword explaining the method behind the narrative madness, the reader may find herself taking gossip for gospel. In some cases--e.g., as Dad the Emeritus Historian of Graeco-Roman Egypt has suggested, Mary Renault's Funeral Games--the novelist actually develops plausible fictional explanations for how we know what we know (or don't know), but these explanations are often in-jokes of a sort, recognizable as such only to those who already know the historical background. It's no wonder, then, that since day one (figuratively speaking), historians have been simultaneously attracted to and anxious about the historical novel's possibilities.
All of this is a round-about path to Anne Boleyn. Anne's two most important twentieth-century biographers, Eric W. Ives and Retha Warnicke*, may disagree violently with each other about the reason for Anne's disgrace and execution, but between them they manage to demonstrate that we know virtually nothing about Henry VIII's most famous queen. Everything from Anne's date of birth to the chronology of Henry's growing disaffection remains in doubt; the historian has to juggle sources that report gossip at fourth-hand, reminiscences dating twenty or thirty years after the event, sectarian polemics, and literary texts of dubious factual value, while simultaneously dealing with huge gaps in the relevant archives. Ives and Warnicke demonstrate that a number of juicy situations, like Anne's supposedly long-running feud with Wolsey or the King's vicious response to Elizabeth I's birth, cannot be squared with the evidence we actually have. Moreover, as Ives points out, historians have known for well over a century that the documentation for Anne's career tilts overwhelmingly towards the unverifiable, if not downright scurrilous.
But the reader who goes to historical novels expecting to "learn about" Anne Boleyn will not, in all likelihood, realize the extent to which fiction overwhelms fact. Because most novels about Anne Boleyn are situated firmly in the genre of the historical romance (putting Nancy Kress' alternative-universe novella "And Wild for to Hold" to one side), the shape of Anne's personality and career usually conforms to the genre's needs: just about every Anne, from Francis Hackett and Evelyn Anthony to Jean Plaidy and Robin Maxwell, is an independent woman whose relationship with Henry VIII truly derives, at base, from her thwarted passion for Henry Percy. Having lost her true love, she seeks solace in power and the temporary fiction of Henry's own longing. In fact, every novel I've read so far holds Anne up as both a proto-feminist and a cautionary warning: Anne's yearning for depoliticized romance requires her to rebel against Tudor-era dynastic politics, but she goes awry once she seeks political power herself. Anne's purported blood feud with Wolsey becomes a sign of her self-destructive tendencies, foreshadowing in particular her hysterical shrewishness during the marriage itself. Henry, meanwhile, is nearly always a sexual incompetent, one whose interest in Anne resides entirely in the chase and vanishes the moment he actually manages to possess her. Strikingly, this narrative undergoes almost no change between the late 1930s and the late 1990s.
The implicit or explicit comparison of Henry's courtship to hunting derives from Thomas Wyatt, and attentive readers will note that novels about Anne Boleyn love the biographical fallacy. Even though, as Ives and Warnicke note, the poems cannot be interpreted as literal declarations of passion, just about all of the novels presume that Wyatt was consumed by unrequited (or, in a few cases, requited but frustrated) passion. There's even an entire novel devoted to this proposition. (Percy has a more bizarre time of it: depending on the novelist, he's either a gorgeous hunk or a whimpering fool.) But this literalist reading of Wyatt becomes interesting for another reason: he's one of the few recognizable primary sources of any type. Not surprisingly, most of the novelists appear to have confined themselves to easily accessible sources available in English--e.g., George Cavendish's Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey and the Chronicle of King Henry VIII of England--and taken everything else from secondary texts. I don't consider that blameworthy, given the linguistic and physical difficulties involved in doing the archival work (which, I might add, one generally doesn't expect of a historical novelist), but it has the practical effect of limiting the novelists to pre-sifted quotations and situations. At the same time, fictional necessity sometimes means throwing skepticism to the winds. For example, Philippa Gregory tells us that she has adopted Warnicke's "original and provocative thesis that the homosexual ring around Anne, including her brother George, and her last miscarriage created a climate in which the king could accuse her of witchcraft and perverse sexual practices,"** but the unsuspecting reader may not realize that Warnicke's thesis consists entirely of a long chain of speculations, most of them supported by the argument from speaking silences.
Metahistorical reflections intrude themselves only when it comes to the claims that Anne committed adultery with five men, including her own brother, George. Virtually everyone discounts these accusations. Most commonly, the novelists try to invent situations in which someone--usually George's intensely disliked wife--misinterprets an encounter between Anne and her brother. In The Concubine, Norah Lofts suggests that Anne did commit adultery, but not with any of the accused men; somewhat more cautiously, Robert York argues in My Lord the Fox that the musician Mark Smeaton was being honest when he confessed.*** Generally speaking, though, only the incest claim garners critical attention from the novelists. Not surprisingly, the romance version of Anne Boleyn's storyline has largely perpetuated itself, irrespective of the historical debates and controversies--not least because the exciting but historically dubious "good stuff" highlights the tragic elements in her career.
*--Eric W. Ives, Anne Boleyn (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986); Retha Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: Family Politics at the Court of Henry VIII (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
**--Philippa Gregory, The Other Boleyn Girl (New York: Touchstone, 2001), 663.
***--Norah Lofts, The Concubine: A Story of Anne Boleyn (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963); Robert York, My Lord the Fox: The Secret Documents of Anthony Woodcott Concerning Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn, Recounted by Robert York: A Novel (New York: Vanguard, 1984).