This reading group guide forTo Die For includes a discussion questions and a Q&A with author Sandra Byrd. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
TOPICS & QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. The book opens with a glimpse of the friendship between Meg and Anne as teenagers and follows them through courtship and marriage, treachery and setbacks, childbearing and childlessness, immense riches, and a final difficult plummet to death. How is the evolution of women’s friendships in the twenty-first century similar to, and different from, women’s friendships in the sixteenth century?
2. A major theme in the book is the balance of love versus duty. Each has its own rewards and costs. In which situations must the women in the book balance love and duty? Does one character have a better grasp on the balance than the other? What kinds of love-versus-duty conflicts do women today face?
3. Tudor women, even and perhaps especially the highborn, had extreme social limits on their autonomy, and yet they did have some personal and community power. How is that illustrated in the book? Which characters use their power only for personal gain, and which use their power for the good of others, and how? Did/do women have certain types of power that were/are unavailable to men?
4. Discuss the concept of small personal sacrifices for the greater gain of a group. Cranmer, in particular, would have felt that he was sacrificing Anne for a greater good. Do the ends ever justify the means?
5. Readers often have clear preferences on first- vs. third-person narration. Did the first-person narration of To Die For influence your feelings about the book, about Meg, about Anne? Since the author made a clear choice to present this in the first person, what would have been gained or lost by a third-person point of view?
6. Although the book is set nearly five hundred years ago, how are the women and men in it like people you know—your sister, your mother, a person who knifes you in the back at work? How are the men and women in this book different from people in your world? Which is better . . . and why?
7. There is a quality-control concept that says you never know the temper of a metal until it is tested. Testing alone proves strength—and character. How is that played out for Meg? For Anne? For George Boleyn and Jane Rochford as well as others in the book? How has testing improved the quality of your relationships and your life?
8. Early in the book Meg laments that she is always the setting, never the stone. Later, at Westminster Abbey, she has an epiphany that while that is still true, she has been viewing it all wrong. In which arenas in life are you the stone, and in which the setting? Do you prefer one over another?
9. Books written about the Tudor court seem to be perennial favorites. Why do you think this period, more than many others, captures readers’ hearts? What does that say about human nature?
10. During the Tudor years, and many years thereafter, a person’s position in his or her family dictated affection, career, marriage, and financial wellbeing. Is that still true in any way? How?
11. Is Anne Boleyn, as depicted in this book, anything like the Anne Boleyn of common knowledge? Has reading this book informed or changed your opinion on Anne Boleyn in any way, and if so, how?
A CONVERSATION WITH SANDRA BYRD
Though many men in this novel are conniving and cruel, Meg’s father is particularly vicious and abusive. In your mind, why is he so angry? What prompted you to imagine him this way?
Very little is known about the real Henry Wyatt. We do know that he was imprisoned, and most likely tortured, for two years during the reign of Richard III for his support of Henry VII in an early revolt. Some research indicates he had a daughter the year he was released, in 1485 to 1486, with his first wife, who presumably died. He did not remarry or have another child for nearly fifteen more years.
Men were certainly allowed to beat their wives and children during this time period. It’s a possible application of the phrase “rule of thumb”; a man could beat them with a stick no thicker than his thumb. I wanted to show a common threat to women. Although it was abusive and harmful, most women developed the resilience to prevail and cope to the best of their abilities and resources. Meg certainly did.
Although he cherished his second, younger wife, I believe that Henry Wyatt’s cruelty manifested itself as a result of his own torture in the Tower. Some people overcome poor treatment and become better people because of newfound empathy and resilience; others absorb the cruelty into their spirit and it becomes a part of them. In my rendition, Henry Wyatt represented the latter, as did his second son, Edmund.
Many books and movie scripts have been written about the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn and the Church of England. What drew you to this historical period and to these characters?
Books and movies are condensed drama; therefore, the most engaging stories take place during extraordinary times. Because the stakes were so high during the Tudor years, there is always excitement and change. Love, lust, hatred, murder, good versus evil, self-sacrifice, gluttony and greed, envy, spiritual birth or renewal, spiritual deception, friendship and betrayal, family that remains true and family who backstabs you out of selfishness—these are all elements of human life. The Tudor Court had them in abundance. Everything we undergo today they underwent too, only writ large, with bigger stakes than most of us have. So we both identify with them and are, maybe, a little in awe too.
Amazing gowns, huge castles, and precious jewelry don’t hurt to write and read about, either! The time period is, simply, enchanting on all levels.
After Will declares his intentions to become a priest, Meg gives Anne her book of hours, claiming that she has no use of it, or of God. This scene feels as though it could take place at any point in history, including the present. What do you think is so relatable about this scene?
There’s a point in each person’s spiritual journey where he or she has to cross from immaturity (Why are you doing this to me?) to maturity (Not my will, but yours be done).
When we reject God because He is not forcing things to work out the way we want, we’re acting out of a sense of entitlement common to everyone in the human race. Each of us, on the way to spiritual adulthood, eventually has to acquiesce to God’s greater knowledge and better purpose.
Meg voices the frustration and hurt we each feel from time to time. Hopefully, by reading about someone just like us, we can see that while it doesn’t always happen on our timetable, as life unfolds, it eventually make sense.
Meg often worries how living at court will change her. Indeed, the royal court of Henry VIII is a bizarre contradiction, full of people so religious and yet so wicked and deceitful. Does this remind you of any modern equivalents? Do you think a moral person can truly survive such an environment and escape with his or her morals fully intact?
Bad company corrupts good character, of course. The trick, then as now, is to become discerning about who is truly motivated by good, though they be fallible, and who is in it for politics or personal gain and will harm any who stand in their way, no matter if they claim piety or not.
I do believe that people can tangle with evil and corruption and come out with their morals intact and perhaps with stronger resolve. But I believe all such will be permanently changed by seeing people as they really are, good and bad and a blend of both. Naïveté is not an option anymore; with much wisdom comes much sorrow. But wisdom is to be sought after and is necessary for a purposeful life.
On page 64, Anne argues with Meg, “You blame God for the deeds of men, I blame the men themselves.” In To Die For, there seems to be a delicate balance between believing that God is all-powerful and that men have the free will to do good or evil. We often struggle to understand why God allows bad things to happen. Did you use your characters to work through some of your own conflicting feelings on this subject?
Yes. I, like everyone else, have had misfortune knock at my door from time to time. Mostly it was nothing I’d anticipated: the situations were shocking and unsettling to my worldview and faith. When we’re surprised by hardship or calamity, it knocks us off of our feet, and I wanted someone to “fix” it and questioned how a loving parent could even allow that to happen.
There are those who blame God for every trial, trouble, or adversity, and then there are those who call upon Him as their best resource during a crisis or loss. I learned from the latter and grew as I unclenched my tight grasp on life. Meg did, too. In Tudor times, as now, that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Anne was a strong woman, and as far as my research goes, she never questioned God’s justice. God is in the business of producing adults to “be strong and courageous,” not mollycoddling our weaknesses. But He is always a very present help in times of trouble.
Though he eventually goes on to reveal his capricious nature and disregard for true godliness, Henry at first makes a valid argument: since Scripture dictates a man shouldn’t marry his brother’s wife, the pope himself doesn’t have the authority to permit the marriage. Do you think the whole situation began with a good intention, or was it an exercise in twisting religion to fit the will of man from the get-go with Henry?
Henry was well educated in both secular and spiritual matters and was able to intelligently grapple with and argue both—which made him believable no matter his motivation. I think he zeroed in on a point of contention that was bubbling up at the time, sola scriptura, and figured out how he could capitalize on it for his own intentions. It was a valid argument and an important part of the Reformation. But had the pope granted Henry his divorce, Henry’s conscience would not have been troubled by this Scripture. It certainly wasn’t when he sought dispensation for having slept with Mary Boleyn before marrying Anne.
As I said in the book, God often uses the strongest beast, not the gentlest beast, to plow the hardest fields. Henry was indubitably strong. The changes that came about as a result of those turbulent years encouraged healthy refinement within the Roman Catholic Church besides founding the English Reformation and the Church of England, providing accessibility to Scripture for the common man, and birthing whole branches of Protestantism, which still thrive today. What might have been intended for selfishness or evil, and certainly did cause considerable pain to those involved, eventually yielded a harvest of goodness.
The latest research argues that Henry seemed very sincere in his belief that he and Katherine were wrongly married and thus God cursed them by denying him an heir. In To Die For, he also seems very convinced of this truth. On page 124, Meg ponders the situation: “If a queen could not lie, could God’s anointed king? Surely one of them must have.” What do you think?
Through my research I came to believe that Henry had narcissistic personality disorder. It can be mild early in life, but grows to become darker, more controlling, more punishing, and capricious as life goes on and the narcissist senses that his good looks, charm, and powers are fading. Henry was worried about his legacy. This may explain why Henry grew from a golden prince to a “tyrant,” the label assigned by historian David Starkey.
Like all narcissists, Henry was unable to ever admit, even to himself, that he was wrong. So he constantly rewrote history to his benefit and interpreted circumstances to support his self-righteousness and self-pity, both of which he had in spades. Narcissists change things first in their own minds, overwriting the file of what actually transpired. And then they place unshakable faith in the new rendition; the old version exists no more. This allowed Henry to believe, without a doubt, that how he saw and remembered events was black-and-white certainty. Narcissists then convince others, by their unwavering belief and genuineness, that they are telling the truth. We want to believe them. Till we can’t.
There’s a wealth of information available about Tudor England and Anne Boleyn and dozens of versions of the story in print and film. What kind of research did you do in preparation for writing this novel? Do you have any favorite resources, either in the academic or entertainment arenas?
Eric Ives is the most famous of Anne’s biographers, and justifiably so for his impeccable, credible research and thoroughness. I am certainly a fan. I read perhaps another dozen nonfiction books that covered Anne’s life and the English and French courts during her interactions with them. I read, and am still reading, Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament. Although I whetted my love of Anne on historical fiction, I avoided it for several years before writing this book and throughout the writing of this series, so as not to commingle someone else’s historical fiction extrapolations with my own. When I finish writing my own Tudor books, I will dive right back into the genre and begin happily reading Tudor fiction again.
I also engaged a historical researcher, Lauren Mackay, who has a degree in Tudor study and is also a lifelong Tudorphile. She was not only an invaluable source of historical truths but helped me to discern whether motives, dialogue, and consequences as I’d envisioned them were true to the characters and the time.
Of course, I visited England. I stood in Anne and Mary’s bedroom at Hever, and prayed in front of Anne’s book of hours. I wandered Hampton Court to gather a sense of her life there, too. I stood in front of Whitehall and imagined Meg there. It was to die for.
When Meg finds God again, it’s because of a passage from Isaiah that she finds written in Henry and Anne’s shared book of hours: “He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” Meg feels she hears God speaking directly to her, telling her that He also has suffered and thus knows her suffering. What does this Bible passage mean to you? Do you have a favorite piece of Scripture as well?
My favorite piece of Scripture at any given time is whichever one God is using to speak to me at the moment, because when He does, I know He is attentive to my concerns and hears and loves me in both hopeful and ashen circumstances. He has already prepared a plan and a way.
I think this is why that passage was so effective for Meg. She felt like she had undergone a lot—beatings by her father, loss of the love of her life, putting aside her own hopes and dreams for a life of meaning and serving her friend, who seemed to have it all. When she sees Christ suffering, she understands that He relates in every way to her sorrow on a human level and she opens up to Him. She also sees Him as God, knowing that He has already prepared a plan and a way, and she begins to trust. When she does, her life of excitement truly begins.
The first epistle of Saint Peter the Apostle, as Meg reads it aloud to Anne in her Tower prison, instructs men to submit to their kings and other rulers as they are sent by God Himself. Throughout this story, however, we’re shown the evils a ruler can visit upon his people when he believes he is, and is treated by all as, God’s anointed sovereign. Do you think this belief gives the power hungry a terrible license? At what point do you think a person must violate this instruction? Or do you agree with the rest of the epistle that encourages the faithful to endure wrongful suffering?
I don’t think the power-hungry need a license from others; they ascribe it to themselves and eventually are beyond all correction from the voice of reason. What we as individuals must do at any given time is discern what our role is in “such a time as this.” Are we to stand up to evil, publicly, as Bonhoeffer did? Or are we to keep a low cover and do good under the surface, as the Ten Booms did? Both responded to Nazi power in appropriate ways for the paths their lives were to take and the good they were to do while on them. One thing we do know for certain: it’s never God’s will to call evil good or good evil, so we are not to, either.
As you say in your Author’s Note, Anne Boleyn has been portrayed and perceived as a harlot, witch, schemer, brilliant strategist, friend to the Reformation, and singularly intelligent and strong woman. After writing this book, what is your opinion of her? Why do you think she still evokes such controversy?
I think Anne was a complex woman who has, for too long, been denied the shading of any mortal life. She was certainly groomed and encouraged to push herself and her family as far along the road to success as she could take them and did so willingly, even sought out those opportunities.
And yet that is no different from the expectation any family of that time would have had for their daughters and sons. She was witty but could be sharp, too. She had charm and allure and wasn’t afraid to use them on her own behalf, but she was also a loyal friend who used her power, almost without fail, to help others and especially the nascent reformed church in England.
It’s easy to pick up a touchy fact that makes all of us married women a bit angry—she was the other woman in a divorce case—without realizing the complexity of the times. Many believed Henry’s marriage to his brother’s wife had been wrong; it had indeed required the pope to dispense of that fact. They believed that England could come to ruin, or be gobbled by the Spanish, without a male heir. They understood that other queens had quietly retired to abbeys when they’d been unable to “do their duty.” Normally, royal marriages were not love matches. They existed to purpose and that purpose must be fulfilled.
Anne evokes emotion because she was, and always will remain, larger than life. And because she died in such a great and terrible way at the hand of the man pledged to love and protect her.
Besides the fascinating machinations of Henry VIII and his noble contemporaries, Henry’s reign was an important period in the history and evolution of Christianity. In your opinion, what are some of the most profound, lasting changes that resulted from the Henry/Anne/Katherine triangle?
It was the time when men truly began to reason from Scripture itself for themselves—as Henry and those he employed did to ascertain the validity of his marriage. By the end of Henry’s reign there were Bibles in English in every church in England. God was now on His way to being at home in both the cathedral and the croft.