* In your latest novel MADEMOISELLE BOLEYN, you explore a period in Anne Boleyn's life that no other historical fiction writer has delved into very deeply. What fascinated you about Anne's early life and education?
First, that despite so many historical novels about Anne that have been written, none had touched on her education at the French court, which became so vital to the person she became. It was there she learned how to be the sophisticated young lady of many graces -- dancing, singing, playing the lute -- being the ultimate coquette. But she received an extremely progressive religious education from King Francois' sister, Duchess Marguerite, that set her apart from every other English girl when she returned to Henry VIII's court. While everyone else was an unquestioning Catholic and beholden to priests for all spiritual guidance, Anne was already conversant with Lutheran ideas and reading the bible herself in the French language. Later, of course, she was an important player in bringing the Protestant Reformation to England. As the duchess, as well as Francois' mother, were his closest political counselors, Anne also realized that a woman could be something more than a quiet, meek little plaything or brood mare to her husband. Besides that, Anne's early years in Francois' inner circle as a bright, very well-thought-of young woman, held her in good stead with Francois, who later became the only European monarch who supported Anne's marriage to Henry. She was witness to what was considered the most licentious court in all of Europe, and watched as her sister Mary was passed around from King to courtier to courtier, receiving the nickname "The English Mare," since all the men had "ridden" her. Finally, the fact that Anne was so precocious at such a young age intrigued me. She learned French so young (at eight, during a one-year stint in the Burgundian court) -- that she was used as a translator between the French and English ladies by age nine. This was one extremely accomplished female. It's no wonder that Henry was obsessed by her and moved mountains to have her.
* How much of MADEMOISELLE BOLEYN is fact and how much is fiction?
Strangely, this book may be the most fact-based of all my books, except perhaps its sequel (published in 1997) The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn. Where I played with "the holes in history" the most were around Anne's association with Leonardo Da Vinci. There is no doubt that they were both part of Francois' small "inner circle" during the time I wrote about, and most certainly knew each other, but it was my imagination that had Leonardo befriending Anne and becoming her mentor. The French king's deep friendship with Da Vinci was a fact, as was the secret tunnel between the royal residence of Amboise and Leonardo's manor house called Cloux. That the king took his nearest and dearest through that tunnel on a "magical mystery tour" was a scene I imagined, but it is something that I believe probably happened (though not documented in any history book). Her wonderful relationships with Queen Claude and Duchess Marguerite were well known. That Anne was present at the "Field of Cloth of Gold" is probable, but not provable. I believe she was there, and I wrote a long and important set-piece that takes place at that celebration attended by the entire French court and the English Court on a plain just inland from the coast of Calais.
* Tell us something surprising about women in 16th century France.
They bathed. I had always heard that the French, like most Europeans, never bathed and were quite filthy. But the wealthier folks not only took baths, but took them communally. They had bath attendants and used flowers and herbs and oils in the tub and even ate on special trays while gossiping the day away in the hot water. I thought it was so interesting that I put scene in the book that takes place during one of these soaks.
* In your next historical novel, you will be writing on the mother of Leonardo Da Vinci. Again, this is a subject that no other historical fiction writer has touched (I believe). In what ways was Da Vinci's mother an extraordinary woman?
The truth about Leonardo's mother, Caterina, is that we know almost nothing about her. There are stories that she was a middle-eastern slave girl, a servant, and a woman "of good blood." Some say she was from Vinci, some from another town. The age she was supposed to have given birth to Leonardo was anywhere from 15-25. All agree that Leonardo's father, Piero -- a well-to-do and quite ambitious Notary of the Republic -- did not choose to marry her, and that the infant was taken from Caterina the day after he was born, to be brought up in Piero's father's household.
Of all my historical novels, this had had the largest "hole" to fill (with regard to my main character). I had to use extrapolation to a very great degree. But my thinking was, Leonardo's father was a petty bureaucrat who gave his son no love (leaving nothing to him in his will) and didn't appear to have a creative bone in his body. The genius of Leonardo had to come from somewhere, and it wasn't a difficult leap to believe it sprang from his mother.
Some historians suggest that despite being separated from her son and her lover Piero (who married another girl nine months after Leonardo's birth), that Caterina became his wetnurse and very well might have continued seeing him even after she'd been married off to another local man. This gave me the idea (spoken of in history books) that this mother deeply loved her bastard son and went to great lengths to be close to him. Imagine how humiliating it would have been for this girl who bore Piero's child and was not considered "good enough" to marry, going to work as a servant -- wetnurse in that household -- and having to watch her lover marry another young woman. It was a fact like this that gave me the idea that Caterina loved Leonardo so much that she would actually follow him into Florence where he was apprenticed at thirteen, in order to watch over him as he grew to manhood.
Thank you Robin! And feel free to visit Robin Maxwell online for more information about her latest novel Mademoiselle Boleyn and her upcoming book Signora Da Vinci.