The Life of Anne Boleyn

by Philip W. Sergeant, B.A. New York: D. Appleton & Co. 1924. Illustrated. 8vo. xii + 319 pp. $5.00.
‘SIR,’ said Dr. Johnson, ‘the biographical side of literature is what I love the best.’ Heroes and hero worship play a large role in our reading and demand the consideration of the biographer. Robert Southey, a literary experimentalist, deftly turns off a life of Nelson; Hazlitt, the essayist, and Scott, essentially the novelist, each swings triumphantly through Napoleon ‘s career. Such has always been the lure.
But royal personages are not always gods and goddesses. Nor are they always, as Mr. Sergeant intimates in his Preface, judged dispassionately. Certainly in Anne Boleyn’s time, it was largely a question of whether the individual was ‘a friend or foe of the ruling Church.’ This the biographer has acutely realized; with impartial exactitude he sets forth the evidence relating to Anne’s early life, the date of her birth, the perplexing problem of her residence at the French Court, the shadowy testimony relating to her alleged amours. He then succeeds in weaving together the tangled threads of Wolsey’s downfall and papal manœuvres, the foreign negotiations of that exceedingly complicated period, and the secret reports of wily ambassadors like Chapuys, into a rich historical background.
The biography teems with pointed phrases, descriptive snatches and anecdotes, chosen with imaginative skill from contemporary documents. These are the life-blood of the biographical genre, a fact which the author never fails to recognize. Especially significant is his selection of extracts from the love letters which passed between Anne and Henry: on the one hand, ‘the royal lover,’ imperious, amorous, blunderingly affectionate in his importunity; on the other, a young woman of the world, diplomatic, calculating, but undeniably feminine, biding her time in epistolary dalliance. Then, too, the sumptuous glory of Anne’s coronation, the ugly craftiness of her enemies and the snare slowly closing, the gloom of her tragic end in the Tower, these scenes are all adroitly depicted.
The art of biography has taken giant strides. There are the seventeenth-century chronicle biographies of Henry the Fourth and Edward the Sixth by Sir John Hayward — brief and simple annals, utterly devoid of character delineation and even doubtful in fact. There are also Queen Victoria and Ariel, painted with the crisp, incisive brush strokes of portraiture. Mr. Sergeant has joined in the same yoke scholarly accuracy and the vivid portrayal of a human being. His book is not a five-foot-shelf biography: it is not heavily incrusted with footnotes and source references. But its pages do contain a faithful, painstaking, and extremely interesting record of Anne Boleyn.