Robin Maxwell on The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn

Robin Maxwell’s The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn is in its 24th printing with a beautiful new cover and this Author’s Note she has agreed to share with us. Enjoy, and sign up to win a copy of the book: Robin Maxwell’s Facebook Page!


Looking Back…I can honestly say that Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth Tudor changed my life, profoundly and forever.  Conversely – and putting modesty aside – I would suggest that I have been instrumental in changing readers’ perceptions of the most influential mother-daughter team in history.  In 1997, The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn was published. I now, therefore, have the benefit of fifteen years of hindsight and experience with both the book’s protagonists, and a world that never seems to tire of them.

From the age of ten I was vaguely aware of the famous sixteenth century English dynasty.  In 1960 my mother, father, sister and I moved into a Tudor-style home in Plainfield, New Jersey.  As our family’s name was Ruter, we jokingly dubbed our new home “The Ruter Tudor.” I had no idea then of becoming a writer, except that my mother, Skippy, thought I was so good at it that she kept every birthday card poem and school paper I’d ever penned in a manila envelope in her bedroom. Even with the hardest history teacher at Plainfield High, Mr. Gearhart – who insisted we learn how to do historical research from “primary source material” – I managed to squeak out an A in the subject. Who would have thought that my mother’s belief in me and a high school history teacher would prove so valuable thirty years later.

I was a huge reader from a young age, but I didn’t discover historical fiction until I had graduated college. Early on, I stumbled upon those outrageous Tudors with Norah Lofts’ The Kings Pleasure and The Concubine.  A great fan of the movies (like my Grandma Lena and my mother before me), I thrilled to Genevieve Bujold’s portrayal of my heroine in “Anne of the Thousand Days,” and the sexy Richard Burton as Henry. The BBC’s “Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970) was riveting, of course, but the casting of Anne and Henry (Keith Michell and Dorothy Tutin) was less than scintillating.  On the other hand, Glenda Jackson’s “Elizabeth R” was a masterpiece on Masterpiece Theater.

Ten years passed and I became a Hollywood screenwriter.  As I was knocking out broad comedies about marvelously immoderate broads with my partner and best girlfriend, Billie Morton, I could never shake that weird, inexplicable passion for Anne.  I therefore took the unusual step of buying my first and very own non-fiction history, the gorgeously illustrated Anne Boleyn by the one who’d brung me to the dance, Norah Lofts.  Then without telling anyone, I wrote a two-act play called “I Am Anne Boleyn,” but it was a woeful rehashing of the story, without an ounce of originality. Once it was finished I shoved it in a drawer and never looked at it again. I was, however, unable to keep my obsession in check, and talked so incessantly about Tudor England that I drove everyone around me mad. Finally my mother, Billie, and my husband Max begged me to write a book on the subject, hoping to shut me up about it once and for all.

I’d never written a novel and had no earthly idea what I was doing. But I had come up with what I thought might be an interesting “hook” – a way to tell the Anne Boleyn story that had never been done before. As far as I could tell, Anne’s and Elizabeth’s mother-daughter connection had never been elaborated on anywhere.  I decided I’d be the first to do that.

So I began to do research. Taking myself to the closest public libraries – in Santa Monica and Malibu – I scrounged for every history of the period and every biography they had on Anne and Elizabeth. It wasn’t exactly primary source material, but I read everything really closely, cross-checking facts, looking for direct quotes from the main players and their contemporaries, and relying heavily on passages that came from documents like the English State Papers. These were the days before online bookstores made buying the most obscure reference books easy and affordable.  Since I couldn’t mark up library books, I made do with taking thousands of notes on 3”x5” cards, and renewing the same titles continuously for a year and a half.

Once I was well and truly into my research I was shocked (and perversely delighted) to discover how little space was devoted to Anne’s influence on Elizabeth’s life.  It was as though – since her mother died when Elizabeth was not yet three – the maternal connection inconsequential.  If anything was said about the pair of them, it comprised no more than a paragraph and almost invariably parroted the same idea: It was the trauma of Henry VIII having his second wife beheaded that caused Elizabeth’s complete rejection of sexuality – the reason she never married, and the first circumstance that led to Elizabeth’s famous (and supposedly fitting) moniker, “The Virgin Queen.”

My own experiences disputed that argument.  I had learned that it mattered very little how long your parents were with you in life – whether you grew up in their home, if you’d been estranged from them since early childhood or in the present, or even if they were long-deceased.  Whether you adored or despised them was irrelevant.  Their influence on your life was irrevocably profound and utterly pervasive.

Yet here were these magnificent women bound by that most significant of relationships, and the historical record was nearly blank.  Almost all the portraits of Anne painted in her lifetime had been, after her death, destroyed or (we can only hope) hidden.  From her infamous execution on, people only spoke her name in whispers.  If they were smart, they spoke of her not at all. If they were related by blood, they made themselves scare at court.  Few of them survived Henry’s reign. Anne Boleyn was anathema personified.

Yet it was a great revelation to me when I learned that Elizabeth believed the negative “spin” about her mother so thoroughly that by the time she took the throne at age twenty-five, she’d not uttered Anne’s name aloud for twenty years. But who could blame her?  At the moment the French headman’s sword sliced off Anne’s head, the little “Princess Elizabeth” became merely the little “Lady Elizabeth”…and a bastard at that.  Henry sent her and her household into obscurity and refused to pay the servants’ wages.  She outgrew her caps and shoes, and her dresses became threadbare.  And all this because of her mother’s “whoredom.”  Elizabeth was taunted from without and haunted within by the conventional wisdom that her mother’s “wanton blood” flowed through her own veins.

But then, as I was digging through the research books, I struck gold.  I learned that within several years of her accession to the throne, Elizabeth made an astonishing about-face regarding the woman who’d birthed her.  The young queen began awarding grants and titles to the few Boleyn relatives who had survived Henry’s bloody reign.  She was heard to speak kindly of Anne, and began wearing a miniature of her mother – some say in a locket, others a ring – on her person.

To me, this indicated that something significant had quite suddenly changed Elizabeth’s perception of her mother.  It was then that the queen began (to her counselors’ horror) reasserting her stunning vow (first said to have be uttered when she was eight) never to marry – a promise to which she held steadfast for the rest of her life.  I also discovered that the rumors of Anne being a distant, unfeeling mother to Elizabeth were unsupported by fact.  Queen Anne kept her infant daughter with her whenever she could, laying her on a silk pillow near her feet when she sat with her ladies.  And when Henry demanded that their still-tiny child be sent away to her own household – at a time Anne was in great disfavor with the king – she had argued with him on the issue so fiercely that he’d bellowed those words recorded by contemporary sources, “These are the prerogatives of kings!!”  Twice.

Here was a great mystery: a deeply personal re-telling of this slice of history, the consequences of which sent tremors through sixteenth century politics and down through the centuries, literally changing the course of western civilization.

I was more convinced than ever that I had to write about it.  I needed to solve this mystery of history.

But now poring over my Anne and Elizabeth biographies by Carolly Erickson, Elizabeth Jenkins, Paul Johnson, and Marie Louise Bruce, I was stumped.  I  thought, somehow, Elizabeth had learned some important truths about her mother. Perhaps that she had loved Elizabeth.  Perhaps the unpleasant but inescapable fact that even the greatest professed love – and even sexual obsession – could turn to murderous hatred.  The lesson was clear:  A woman should never give her power away to a man.  Anne had held onto hers for as long as she refused to bed Henry – six years. Within months of the secret wedding, even though the queen was pregnant with what everyone believed was a Tudor prince, Henry took his first mistress.

How had Elizabeth come to this truth about the balance of power between men and women – that which caused her to eschew, if not sexual relationships, marriage?  I mused:  What is the one circumstance in which an individual always tells the truth?  Leaves out exaggeration and recalls the story the way it really happened?

That is how I conceived of Anne’s diary.  It would be a very strange person, I thought, who would falsify the truth in an intimate journal.  In the early sixteenth century, diary-keeping was still rare, and Anne was a young, if-not-innocent girl, in love with a sweet-hearted boy of her own age.  No reason to prevaricate.  In this fictional diary, she would just record her emotions and the circumstance surrounding her return from France to Henry’s court. The missing piece was how I would get the diary into Elizabeth’s hands.

Then it came to me:  Anne would place it in the keeping of a waiting lady – one sympathetic to the doomed queen who’d been with her in the Tower before her execution.  She’s give the woman instructions to give it to Elizabeth when she became queen of England – an eventuality that, at the moment, was a near-impossibility.  It was a future that only a loving mother, one who believed fervently in the greatness of her daughter’s destiny, could imagine.

Once I had put these few pieces together I lay down in a hammock on a spring day with pen and yellow pad.  I wrote the chapter in which Lady Sommerville (now an old woman) delivers the secret diary to Elizabeth.  This was one of the most vulnerable moments of her life.  She was being harried by her counselors to make a dynastic marriage at the same time she was deeply embroiled in a love affair with Robin Dudley.

I’d never written a word of historical fiction, but something was moving through me.  I could hear voices and conversations loud and clear in my  head.  I wrote and wrote.  I took one bathroom break and stuffed some food in my face, but aside from that I never rose from the hammock for seven hours.  When I did, I had the complete chapter written.  The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn had been born.  Of course I had to go back to my research, shuffle and reshuffle my 3”x5” cards for the next year and a half before I completed a first draft of the manuscript, but that single chapter became the “spine” of the book.  And the ease and joy of its creation gave me confidence that I could, indeed, write an entire novel.

The manuscript was finally finished.  I was more than fortunate that I landed an agent on my second try (the first told me the book was “unpublishable” and further, there was no market for historical fiction).  Kim Witherspoon (and her mother) loved the book and she took it on.  We survived thirty-six rejections before Jeannette Seaver of Arcade Publishing said an enthusiastic “YES!” Suddenly offers for translation rights started pouring in, and when Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn finally hit the bookstores, I embarked on a massive national promotion and P.R. campaign. When you are “a debut author” you get opportunties not otherwise offered.  I was determined to take each and every one. These were the “Golden Years” of author book tours. Scared out of my wits to be speaking in public, I did thirty events in the Los Angeles area alone,  twelve in Chicago, and fifteen in Florida.  In Vero Beach, Florida, Diary made it to #1 on their town’s bestseller list (a newspaper that reported to the New York Times list). Finally I hit the northeast, from New York to Boston.  The most frequent question I was asked at my events – hands down – was whether I believed I was the reincarnation of Anne Boleyn.  Readers clearly believed that I had perfectly captured her voice and her spirit in those diary entries.

Meanwhile, Max had been haunting the local chains to stare in wonder at his wife’s published novel and saw that my book, while displayed on the “New Hardback Fiction” shelves at the front of the stores, were not at eye level.  Surreptitiously he remedied that, placing copies where he thought they deserved to be.  In Florida, my mother took up the cause, marching into every bookstore where Secret Diary was in stock and loudly haranguing the booksellers till they put the book – dedicated to her, she always added – in a place of honor.  To my quiet delight, other family members and close friends around the country reprised this questionable behavior, and thus “Bookstore Terrorism” came into being.

The next year, Touchstone/Simon and Schuster published the trade paperback.  My editor, Trish Todd, blew me away by sending me on a first-class west coast book tour, complete with fine hotels and literary escorts.

My head was still spinning with these mind-bending events when a giant bidding war broke out in Hollywood between five major production companies for a TV mini-series of my book!  NBC and Hallmark won out, and in addition to the book rights being sold, the network optioned the four-hour mini-series teleplay adaptation that I had – with expectations as great as Anne had had for Elizabeth’s future – already written.

That same year, Whoopi Goldberg, who was hosting the Academy Awards, made her startling entrance in full Elizabeth regalia.  This was in honor of Michael Hirst’s feature film starring Cate Blanchett as the young “Elizabeth,” as well as “Shakespeare in Love,” both of which received multiple nominations and Oscars.  The English Renaissance was starting to resonate in the public’s consciousness.

Secret Diary was selling well all over the world.  Arcade and Touchstone bought two sequels with Elizabeth as their protagonist, and William Morrow/HarperCollins a third.  Thus, my “Elizabethan Quartet” was complete.  The research necessary for them produced further amazing revelations about Anne, and Elizabeth who, in its December, 1999 “Best of the Millennium” Sunday Magazine, the New York Times called “The Greatest Ruler of the Millennium.”  While delving into Elizabeth’s tawdry teenage affair with her stepfather, Thomas Seymour, for Virgin, I discovered in Anthony Martienssen’s Queen Katherine Parr, that in the summer of 1529, Henry VIII had “…put Anne in charge of a small team at her father’s house at Durham Place in London with the task of breaking the power of the Pope in England and completing the divorce proceedings.”  The team, aside from her family members, were Thomas Cranmer, Thomas Cromwell, and Stephan Gardiner who…”under Anne’s guidance (directed by the King in the background) created the hard core of doctrine and policy which was to become the English version of the Reformation.”  This information at once confirmed my high opinion of Anne and her part in the Protestant Reformation, and saddened me, as the material would have certainly been included as a vital part of Anne’s diary had I known of it then.

In researching The Wild Irish, I found out just how cold-hearted, even murderous, Elizabeth became in her later years – devastating Ireland and its people in her attempts to out-do her rival, Grace O’Malley, and quell the “mother” of all the rebellions in Ireland.

Fox Television and the A&E Network picked up NBC’s dropped option for the Secret Diary mini-series, and Sarah Michelle Gellar – who had fallen in love with my book – signed on to play Anne – “Buffy Boleyn,” I called her. So far, it’s yet to be produced, but like my heroines, I never say die.

Then Phillippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl hit the shelves, and the publishing world was changed forever. Its success rocketed the still-modest historical fiction genre into the stratosphere. Two years later, Helen Mirren did the older Good Queen Bess proud in HBO’s mini-series, “Elizabeth I” and won an Emmy for it.  And in 2007 a brilliant young Australian producer, Monica O’Brien, optioned the book rights and my screen adaptation of The Wild Irish.

I was in pig heaven.

Nothing, however, prepared us for Michael Hirst’s series “The Tudors.”  My own prequel to Secret Diary – the story of the Boleyn sisters’ teenage years at the lascivious French court – Mademoiselle Boleyn, was fortuitously published just at the start of the series’ second season.   My book was a success, but the Tudors – a family dead for five hundred years – all at once became a sensation, a household name, and an industry unto itself.  Millions logged onto the Showtime/ website to buy tee-shirts, watch exclusive videos, download wallpaper, mobile apps and games.

Along with millions of other viewers, I was nuts about Natalie Dormer’s Anne, Jonathan Rys Meyers’s Henry, and Sam Neill’s Cardinal Wolsey. Despite the literary and historical license frequently taken, I was completely addicted to the show.  A few months back I was contacted for an interview on Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo, the author of The Creation of Anne Boleyn, a non-fiction book following Anne’s life via the images, myths, and biases that began to be produced during her life and continued beyond her death through the centuries since then. Clearly, we had a lot to discuss.  Most interestingly, I learned from Susan that Natalie Dormer, whom she interviewed extensively for her book, is also an Anne Boleyn fanatic, and that she had worked feverishly to ensure that the producers and network allowed her such a worthy portrayal of her character – one of depth, intelligence, wit and fire.  Natalie held them as closely to reality as was possible, giving credit where credit was due, especially with regard to Anne’s part in bringing about the Protestant Reformation.


This year, with the twenty-fourth printing of Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn, with its wonderful new editor, Heather Lazare, its updated cover and additional inside material, I feel as though my girls and I have come full-circle. Anne, Elizabeth, Henry, Robin Dudley, the Earl of Essex and all the other members of their wildly dysfunctional families have become my family.

I accept with great humility that I have built an entire career on the scandals, fortunes, misfortunes, glorious lives and tragic deaths of the lot of them.  I’m filled with gratitude that the royalties from my books and screen adaptations have afforded Max and me our magnificent High Desert Eden.  There’s hardly a time when we drive through the stone pillars onto our property that we don’t think or say out loud, “Thank you, Anne.  Thank you, Henry.  Thank you, Elizabeth.”  Without their permission I have invaded their most intimate lives, put words in their mouths, and shared it all with my readers.

I can only hope they would have approved.

Robin Maxwell, September, 2012