Mary Hoffman explains her approach to her book and to retelling a story we’ve all studied at school.
‘I will provide the blood’
This year sees the 481st anniversary of the execution of Anne Boleyn. Not a nice neat commemorative number. But just consider: it’s nearly 500 years ago and the fascination with a woman who was queen consort of England for only three years is as intense as ever.
Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies have been Man Booker prize winners, sold out plays in Stratford and London and TV ratings successes. How was I to write about the well-known story of the four months in 1536 that took Anne from beloved favourite to headless wife?
‘All well-known stories are new to someone, especially a young reader’
The first thing I had to remind myself of is that all the well-known stories are new to someone, especially a young reader. I wanted to write my novel with the story unfolding, just as it might have appeared to a teenage boy in the sixteenth century. A boy who had decided he was a fan of Anne Boleyn.
My way in was through the ravens in the Tower of London. Once I had the idea of making my protagonist a plague orphan, rescued by the Ravenmaster at the Tower and able to speak Raven, the rest of the story came easily. I made an appointment to see Chris Skaife, the current Ravenmaster and asked if I could bring anything for the birds – what did they like to eat?
His reply sealed our friendship before we met: ‘Dog biscuits soaked in blood. I will provide the blood.’ I visited and was introduced to the very large black birds, my favourite being Merlin, who is actually a female. But I discovered that the ravens, contrary to popular belief, are not reliably documented as being in the Tower before the 19th century.
But I was writing fiction and, as long as I put a note at the end, as I do in all my historical novels, it would be an acceptable invention. Several more visits with the ravens followed, along with much research.
Blood was going to be an issue for this novel throughout. You can’t sanitise a story that ends in six decapitations. What you need is a twist that brings some sort of hope with it. So I thought about the child, Princess Elizabeth, who was rendered motherless at under three years old. I have a grandson of that age and I don’t know what his future holds but I’m pretty sure he’s not going to be a monarch who defines his era.
And nor did anyone know that the little girl with the red-gold curls was going to be that. Surely her life would have been in danger, as the newly illegitimised daughter of a woman convicted of treason and multiple adultery? There were some who had pressed for the death rather than divorce of Katherine of Aragon and her daughter. Why not assume the same this time around? When Anne was being dispensed with so cruelly and swiftly?
So there was my plot, with the magical ravens and the gifted boy, who becomes the doomed queen’s servitor and knight. Kit champions the little princess, at least partly, because he knows what it is to lose a mother, even though he is a happy part of the Ravenmaster’s household now.
He is helped by Isabel, the baker’s daughter, Alice the Lieutenant’s daughter and Mossy Meg, whom some would call a witch. And of course by the ravens, whose language he knows and who, at the end, can tell a variety of different stories about how Anne’s fate might have played out in different versions of our history.
I provided the blood. But it comes with a taste of hope. A message we need today.