Back Cover Blurb:
"A sensational novel depicting Anne Boleyn's dramatic downfall through the eyes of a servant in the court of Henry the Eighth.
Avis Grinnel’s life is forever changed when a young musician arrives unexpectedly to escort her to the innermost sanctum of King Henry VIII’s royal court. However, it is not the king who has demanded her presence but his new queen, the much-disliked Anne Boleyn. She has been told Avis is a “little cunning wench who has the sight” and demands she uses her powers to divine whether the queen is pregnant with a girl, or with the boy child the king expects.
Whispers, lies and rumours abound as the Queen fights for her survival and Avis struggles to balance her life of opulence in the royal chambers with the humble world of her baker parents and a mysterious suitor. Her story is revealed partly as it unfolds and partly as a deeply-felt memory told to the faithful blind White Boy, who has been at her side for most of her life.
The brutal ending of Anne Boleyn’s reign is already known and written into history but this dramatic and vividly drawn story records the stark reality with an intricate and colourful portrayal of life at all levels in Tudor England.
Malyn Bromfield has drawn on her academic background to create a deeply researched and intensely detailed historical novel that depicts Anne Boleyn's downfall through the eyes of a servant in the court of Henry the Eighth. The detail of daily existence, whether it be the extravagant fashions of the courtiers or the tedious tasks of cooks and flunkeys, is richly intricate yet is woven so delicately that the drama never falters."
I’ve read many re-interpretations of Anne Boleyn’s life, queenship, and downfall, since starting this blog about five years ago. She is, without a doubt, one of the most popular Tudor figures to write about – and with good reason! She is a controversial figure, and her life is shadowed by tragedy, while also illuminated by a touch of inspiration. She was a transformative character in the life and reign of Henry VIII, so it’s no wonder that so many authors base their Tudor fiction around her. I was glad that Malyn Bromfield did just that in this novel, but I also appreciated that she brought someone else to life – a fictional kitchen-turned-ladies maid named Avis Grinnel.
Because I’ve read so much about the real figures of Tudor England, it’s very fun for me to get to know the characters formed in an author’s brain. Avis was a joy to read about because she saw the court through some very unique and original eyes. Brought to Henry VIII’s court as a kitchen maid, Avis harbors a gift – the gift of foretelling the gender of an unborn baby. Naturally, this makes her extremely valuable to the newly crowned Queen Anne Boleyn, whose entire worth, it seems, hinges on whether or not she can provide her new royal husband with a living male heir. After all, he’s just disposed of one wife who failed at that task – and so we see the relationship between Queen Anne and Avis Grinnel develop.
This is a unique relationship, obviously. Any trace of witchcraft or sorcery at the Tudor court was strictly forbidden, but of course Avis is not the only person at court attempting to foretell the gender of the queen’s baby. The king’s astrologers and physicians are doing the same thing – but when Avis “sees’ that the child will be a girl, she refrains from telling the truth. Avis is an intriguing character at court, because she possesses a strong moral code, a kind heart, and a willingness to serve. It is an angle of Tudor storytelling that we don’t often see – being too caught up in the lives of the “rich and famous” (a.k.a. the royals).
I liked the way Malyn wrote Avis’s character the best. When she goes on to become a ladies maid for Lady Madge Shelton (Queen Anne’s cousin), she serves her diligently and loyally, while maintaining her good relationship with the queen. We see her home life – her interactions with her parents, as well as the mysterious exchanges with a certain suitor (which comes to a sweet conclusion, in my opinion!).
Avis is a very likeable character, and she tells the story of Anne Boleyn in a very realistic way. Much of this novel moves between the 1530s and 1550s, with an older Avis telling her story to another character named White Boy (whom you’ll learn about when you read!). This makes for another interesting feature of the novel – two perspectives of the Tudor Dynasty: one in Henry’s reign, and one in Mary’s.
Through this method of storytelling, we learn a lot about Avis’s character, her fears, her triumphs, and much more. We “meet” many memorable Tudor characters (and perhaps see them in a different light than we have before), and we come away from the story with a unique take on the life and death of one of England’s most notorious royal figures.
All in all, I think this novel is a triumph for Malyn Bromfield, and I’d recommend it to any of my readers. Now, read on to hear from Malyn herself!
1. What initially sparked your interest in the Tudor period, and did you always know you'd want to write a Tudor novel?
When I was in junior school we did the Tudors and Stuarts and I loved the illustrations in the Usborne text book that we used. I can still remember the smell of the print on the pages. My parents took me and my sisters to the Tower of London and after that I was hooked on the Tudors. I even made an Elizabethan costume for a doll. I did a lot of study with the Open University when I was teaching and enjoyed doing the research for my masters in the field of Education. I think I have always wanted to write historical fiction and after doing a writing course with the O.U. there seemed no other direction for me but to do historical research and tell the story of Anne Boleyn which had always fascinated me. I thought my mother would enjoy it, but sadly, she died before it was finished.
2. What were the most rewarding aspects of writing this novel?
It was a great moment when the novel was finished in its final draft form and ready to put away to rest prior to the final big edit. I’m very analytical about my writing, very critical, but there are times when I read through a chapter and I really like a phrase or a paragraph and this gives me a buzz.
3. What were the greatest challenges?
I had read biographies of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII and I thought that I had done enough research to give me a solid foundation to write my story. I soon learned that research is ongoing. You don’t know what you need to know until you start writing. I began by writing the first and the last chapter together so I knew where the novel was going, but characters tended to creep in behind my back or play a greater part in the plot than I had planned. As the novel progressed I needed to know a lot more about life in the palaces, especially about the daily life of the servants. I needed more information about my real historical characters, especially those who played a smaller part in the story. Blanche Parry, for example, who rocked baby Elizabeth’s cradle, was much older than I had imagined. I had to edit one or two chapters after I had researched more about her. This proved to be a less daunting task than I had anticipated and it allowed me to develop her character as the novel progressed.
The hardest chapters to write were the ones where I had a lot of historical detail to fit in. After reading Cranmer’s account of Anne Boleyn’s water pageant I had to re-write it from a teenage girl’s point of view. The chapters set in 1558 were easier to write because the characters are fictitious so I could let my imagination do most of the work.
4. Your main character, Avis Grinnel, is a servant at court during Anne Boleyn's marriage to Henry VIII. Do you have a greater interest in the lives of those who served the king and queen, (perhaps because characters like Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII are so often written about)?
I am fascinated by real people from the past, I love Holbein’s portraits which bring them back to life. Holbein painted royalty, lords and ladies, not the serving people in the palaces. I wanted the readers to see Anne Boleyn’s downfall through the eyes of ordinary people, like themselves. This is why I included imagined characters in the plot and chose Avis, the little maid, as my main character.
5. What did you enjoy most about creating this character?
Because Avis wasn’t real, I had much more freedom in developing her experiences and her character. However there did seem to come a point during the writing process where the fictional characters took over from me. I actually became very fond of Mistress Pudding and White Boy as I wrote. The strangest coincidence happened when I was writing the chapter where Avis visits the wise woman who lives at the shrine to St Augustus of Hippo. I had already written the paragraph about how Avis felt when she trod the steps to the bridge thinking of all the pilgrims in the past who had crossed the bridge and how the centuries seemed to meet there, when I felt I needed to do a little more research, and I read of St Augustine walking up a flight of stairs and entering, “the vast meadows of memory.” This was eerie, as if the novel was writing itself.
6. Throughout the novel, you flip between the 1530s and 1550s ("present day"), with Avis often explaining her story to another character. Out of these two periods (Henry VIII's reign vs. Mary's reign), which are you most fascinated by and why?
Before I wrote Mayflowers I would have said that Henry VIII’s reign fascinated me most. However, having seen how Avis and her husband struggled through the religious changes thrust upon them in Henry, Edward and Mary’s reigns I am intrigued by the dilemma of ordinary people in the sixteenth century who had been brought up as either Roman Catholics or Protestants. Acts of Parliament and threats of burning at the stake cannot alter what people believe in their hearts.
7. Walk me through your planning and research process for this novel.
I had already read several biographies of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. These I re-read. I had initially attempted to write a play about Anne Boleyn, all in poetry, for a play writing competition, but it proved to be an impossible task given that I only had a few weeks to write it and I was teaching at the time. This is when I wrote the poem, First Love, which I incorporated into the novel. On the computer, I made a blank diary from April 1533 to May 1536 when Anne was executed. My historical sources made this relatively easy because quite often, David Starkey, for example, would name a day of the week with the date so I worked backwards and forwards from that. I printed this out with a page for each month and plotted all sorts of details: which palaces Henry and Anne visited, when Elizabeth was weaned, when Henry became bald, dates of the summer progress and of course, political events and religious changes. I incorporated into the diary what was happening to Avis and her parents. Most of the books I used for research are my own so I made pencil notes in these which I referred to often. I made copious notes from books I had borrowed from libraries. I kept notes on each character, real and imagined, in a folder. In another folder there were jottings literally on the back of envelopes or scraps of paper when ideas came to me during the day, little phrases or ideas for the development of the plot. Sometimes I was writing paragraphs or conversations for chapters which would be written much later.
8. Avis Grinnel serves Lady Madge Shelton in this novel. If you were a lady's maid during this time, would you have rather served Lady Shelton or Queen Anne, and why?
I think Madge Shelton would have been more fun to be with. I wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of Anne Boleyn’s hot temper and sewing all those shirts for the poor would have been quite tedious. But I would love to have heard the music in Anne Boleyn’s chambers. Imagine being there while Mark Smeaton, Sir Francis Weston and Anne played their lutes or the long-bearded Wyatt read his love poetry to her.
9. What do you think was the biggest danger of being at Henry VIII's court?
Henry VIII himself. He was a terrifying man. It could be said that he stalked Anne Boleyn when he fell in love with her. He just would not take no for an answer. During their courtship Anne showed her strength of character. He was infatuated with her and she was in control. She is the only person ever to ever have held such power over Henry, but in the end, when he stopped loving her, she was helpless against him. He never faced his victims. He just turned his back and walked away from Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. His daughter, Mary, suffered much mental anguish because of his treatment of her after the divorce and he refused to allow her to visit her mother on her death-bed. He executed his good friends Sir Thomas More and Sir Henry Norris. The most dangerous place in his court was to be close to him.
10. And lastly, can you tell me about what you're currently working on? Any projects in the works?
After promising myself that my next novel would involve only imagined characters, I am working on a story set in Charles II’s reign where only real characters are involved. I enjoy historical research as much as writing fiction. Samuel Pepy’s diary inspired me to research Restoration London. There I found characters who pulled me into a story even though I had decided to write something quite different. I hope to have the final draft finished by early summer. The title and the plot are quite secret at the moment.
Happy reading, Tudor Enthusiasts!