We Americans who enjoy period pieces got a lovely one-two punch for a little while on PBS: “Victoria,” followed by historian Lucy Worsley’s “Secrets of the Six Wives.” Six Wives, of course, refers to the wives of serial marrier Henry VIII. I am a sucker for this too-crazy-to-be-fiction story, so I really enjoyed Worsley’s program; it’s very well done, particularly in accuracy of costumes and locations.
Why I’m writing about it here, however, is Worsley’s descriptions of Anne Boleyn prompted me to make a connection I never had before. Having spent years in the French court, Anne was confident and flirtatious with men in a way that other Englishwomen were not. Anne, Worsley says, “picked up this trick of using her eyes. It was said that she could send them forth as messengers to carry the secret witness of the heart.”
Moreover, Worsley says: “What really put the seal on Anne’s attractiveness was her intelligence. She was sharp and curious, and interested in matters of the mind. So Anne didn’t just flirt with Henry, she also argued with him, on everything from politics to religion…and he loved it.”
This all sounded very familiar: a confident young woman with fine eyes who was intelligent and able to debate her corner? Anne, as well had a fair-haired older sister who was considered to be the prettier one (and indeed was Henry’s mistress for a time, before Anne claimed his heart).
Was Anne Boleyn truly an inspiration for the character of Elizabeth Bennet? I’d call it within the realm of possibility, albeit not likely. They both stand out as strong, empowered women from periods of history where women were not expected to be strong. Indeed, I think much of what makes Mr. Darcy so attractive to modern-day readers is that he was attracted to such a woman.
Henry VIII was, as well, although it is a vast understatement to say his marriage to Anne did not end as we like to imagine Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s did. A strong and flirtatious love interest was not the same for Henry as having a strong woman as his wife, questioning him and debating his actions. This, as much as her inability to give him the needed male heir, prompted Anne’s death sentence. And Henry turned to the milquetoast Jane Seymour as his next wife.
I’ve always thought that the most improbable part of Anne’s story was the irony that her daughter, Elizabeth, ended up becoming one of England’s greatest monarchs. Henry wanted a male heir, but what he got was another strong woman, who ruled over England’s “Golden Age.” And perhaps there is some inspiration from Elizabeth I in our Elizabeth, at the least. After all, they do share a name, as I’ve already conjectured on in “A Change of Legacies,” during an alternate reality trip to Hatfield House:
Their application to see the house was only partly successful; the family was in residence, and as no-one in their party was acquainted with them, they could see only the state rooms, the gardens, and the stables, housed within the old palace. Those in the party who were inclined to be satisfied were satisfied with this, and those who were inclined to complain, did so. Miss Bingley ceased the latter only when she had claimed Mr. Darcy’s arm to walk with him through the state rooms.
“How very strange it must be for you to be applying to see the estate of another family, when I am sure you are far more used to receiving applications to see your own house, Mr. Darcy,” Miss Bingley said. “How many parties apply to see Pemberley, in a given year?”
“No more than two hundred, I daresay. We receive our share of those visiting the Peak, but not so many as Chatsworth.”
“How odious it must be to have people so frequently going through one’s house,” said Miss Bingley, in a tone that indicated she found it the opposite of odious.
“It is hardly so. My housekeeper always sees to them, and she endeavours to keep them out of sight, unless I am acquainted with the party.”
This was an intriguing thought to Elizabeth, that Mr. Darcy lived in a home fine enough to merit visitors, although she supposed she should have assumed this to be the case, given how highly Pemberley had been spoken of. She wondered if this was his greatest draw, where Miss Bingley was concerned; certainly he was handsome, and rich, but Miss Bingley seemed the sort to fancy herself mistress of a great estate.
Elizabeth had the freedom for such thoughts, because in their party of three gentlemen and four ladies, she had been the one left out of the coupling, and she walked amongst them, behind Mr. Bingley and Jane. Rather than joining them and making a trio, for Jane’s benefit, she remained alone, and simply enjoyed the splendour of the house.
When they had finished with the state rooms and were strolling through the gardens, Elizabeth indicated her desire to see the old palace, but found it unpopular. Miss Bingley was particularly adamant that she would much rather see more of the grounds, than look through some dirty old horse stable, and when none in the party spoke to contradict her, Elizabeth said, “I do wish to see it. I shall just go and take a quick look, and rejoin you shortly.”
“I will go with you, Miss Elizabeth,” Mr. Darcy said.
“Ah, now if Darcy is going with you to view stabling, it may not be such a quick look as you had wished, Miss Elizabeth,” Mr. Bingley said teasingly, looking as though he might like to see the stables himself, but that Jane did not seem inclined to leave the gardens.
Mr. Darcy offered Elizabeth his arm, and this time she had no reason to reject it, as they walked the short distance to a long brick building, which appeared only slightly worn, considering its age.
“Thank you for coming with me,” Elizabeth said.
“It is nothing,” he said. “I am a bit surprised none of the others had interest in viewing it. Perhaps it is more relevant for you, though – might I assume you were named for Queen Elizabeth?”
“I believe all we Elizabeths were, to some degree or another. I suppose I do feel some remote connection, but mostly, I would hate to leave such a piece of history without viewing it.”
Mr. Darcy opened a door at the end of the building to reveal what at first looked and smelled like any other stable, with a row of stalls on either side of a long aisle. For the viewer who would look up, however, as Elizabeth did, they would be rewarded with the sight of a beautifully curved hammerbeam roof, impossibly far above them. Elizabeth gasped, and even an abundance of cobwebs could not prevent her from imagining Queen Elizabeth dining and dancing within this space, and finding she did now feel a greater connection with the former queen, for sharing her name.
“How remarkable,” she whispered.
“Indeed, I admire the Cecils for keeping it up. It must take a tremendous amount of effort.”
“Keeping it up?” she cried. “They have turned it into a stable!”
“And were it not a stable, it might not be worth the cost of maintenance,” he said. “I am sorry – I think too much like an estate owner now, I find. I see a fine, graceful old thing such as this and immediately begin calculating what it must cost to keep it standing. But I think if it must survive as a stable in order to survive, that is better than the alternative.”
“I suppose so,” Elizabeth said. She intended to tell him it was a rather dour way to view such a magnificent thing, but there was a cry from the other end of the building, of “loose horse!” and immediately following this, a horse charging down the narrow aisle.
There were few things in the world that could paralyse Elizabeth so effectively as seventy-five stone of horseflesh, galloping directly toward her. She knew she should move, and yet she could not, and did not, until Mr. Darcy’s hands firmly grasped her shoulders, spinning her out of the horse’s path and pushing her against one of the stalls, just before the horse passed them.