So, a small break from my hiatus since I’ve actually managed to read one book despite everything (and it’s a great book). Namely, Susan Bordo’s The Creation of Anne Boleyn:
I have to say, my first introduction ever to Anne Boleyn was Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl when I was fourteen. I remember being horrified by the fact that Anne Boleyn was beheaded. What I took away with me was of her as a desperate, uncompromising person, ready to go through anything for what she wanted. I also remember Gregory’s afterword, that the claim that she had sex with her brother was only a theory that she had taken the liberty to use in the book (among other things). I also remember being more surprised by how much the historical Mary Boleyn (what we know*) seemed to differ from the book’s version, but more or less accepting the version of Anne.
And in my head, Anne Boleyn’s character joined the gallery of historical figures I knew of. I can’t say I was infatuated as many have been, but she had piqued my interest enough for me to read other novels about her whenever they crossed my path (like Victoria Holt’s The Lady in the Tower a couple of years later). I also remember watching the Hollywood film version of The Other Boleyn Girl (didn’t really stay with me), and the lesser known BBC adaptation (which I liked a lot, especially since one of my favorite actresses, Jodhi May, played Anne. Still based off Gregory’s version of Anne Boleyn, but she felt very real and relatable to me in that role). Then came The Tudors, and I wasn’t particularly taken in (actually, ‘stuffy’ old-fashioned historical interpretations usually appealed more to me and I was very put off by the ‘modernized’ version of everybody, esp Henry. I suspect I have a middle-aged soul.). I never saw much of the second season (I have to admit that I had a crush on Jeremy Northam as Thomas More and when he died I lost what little interest I had in the series).
Anyway. Now that I’ve read The Creation of Anne Boleyn ten years later, and realized what an utter misrepresentation of Anne’s character Gregory’s version was is kind of a reveleation. (Especially since I remember accepting the light-dark-dichotomy, sisters as enemies-narrative so easily). And that Gregory’s version, in great part, was the version of Chapuys, one of Anne’s greatest political enemies at the time. This is really an amazing book.There’s so much here. The history of ideas, socio-cultural explanations for a number of things, the representations of Anne’s image in history, fiction, popular culture and collective consciousness. Personal anecdotes, discussion of historical events we’re used to think of as great, the ‘trivia’, like how Anne’s hair color in different representations can say a lot about the image of her or what the artist/author of said time want to portray. Everything. There is also a fantastic interview with Natalie Dormer who played Anne Boleyn in The Tudors. I never saw the great second season where she really got to explore the character and portray Anne Boleyn as a complex woman in her own right, but I really felt for everything she expressed in her interview, and how she fought to get to portray Anne as complex and human and not the seductive temptress-stereotype that everyone was expecting (and had already written her off as after the first season). And it was really one the great parts in the book.
And for me, who have had a limited knowledge of Anne before (other than the fiction I’ve read and the popular misconceptions), there were so many more insights here. Like the fact that she also was a daring intellectual, playing an important part in the Reformation. Growing up among other female intellectuals at the French court, when she was lady-in-waiting for Marguerite de Navarre (also called the mother of the Renaissance) in her most formative years. I mean, when theater critics have described a recent play by Howard Brenton where Anne gets highlighted in exactly that role as ‘revisionist’, you get an idea of how influential the mythology around her really is.
I also really enjoyed the part where Bordo writes about the internet communities around Tudor history and the independent research that many fans have done, it was just so wonderful to read about the passion and investigative spirit and interest fuelling all these websites, forums and books.
And, unsurprisingly, now this book has really sparked my interest in Boleyniana. I’ve already set out to read Norah Loft’s The Concubine (1963), Robin Maxwell’s The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn, Eric Ives’ biography The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, and Howard Brentan’s play Anne Boleyn(the quotes that Bordo has included in the book are just fantastic). Also, the 1969 film Anne of the Thousand Days is now on my to watch-list. This is such a wonderful, inspiring, invigorating read. It really shows how our culture to this day struggles amazingly in imagining women as anything else than one-dimensional. But it also shows how there are many nuanced and conflicting reactions and views, where a historical figure can give inspiration and great identification and empowerment for a lot of people.
And I love how it really drives home the point in being critical of your source material. I was really baffled as to how, throughout the years, several historians have been willing to draw conclusions from highly biased accounts and documents, accepting them as objective truth. Then again, Bordo also shows how every historian and author writes from their own time, which is why so many of her explorations and discussions make for such a fascinating read. (I particularly liked the quote from Hilary Mantel, when she says that historical fiction is really contemporary fiction). But regarding this, I did have some minor ‘wait a minute’-moments sometimes. The first is when she in the first part of the book discusses the beauty ideals of the renaissance and how ‘today, evolutionary psychologists would argue that these preferences are hardwired into male brain circuitry, as both fair skin and curvacous bodies signal, youth, health, and a high estrogen load.’ I was a bit surprised, since I know Susan Bordo to be a feminist philosopher and have read her work on the cultural ideology behind the female body image, and didn’t expect her to reference theories like these without some comment on them. This got cleared up though, when she later writes in a note: ‘Actually, the socio-biological arguments fall apart against the historical and geographical spectacle of human diversity’. It’s easy to miss a note or not bother reading it, and I think it would have been a benefit if this was included in the actual text and expanded upon.
And sources, one of the main ones she demonstrates we shouldn’t trust too much is Chapuys’ accounts of events, but when she then references him other times as trustworthy, or simply other records that the reader in some cases is supposed to take at face value there is not always an explanation why the record in that particular case is trustworthy but not in others. Since she so clearly shows from the beginning how detrimental it can be to trust historical records blindly it would have been interesting with some further explanation and reflection on why the sources she did use were different or why they were trustworthy in some instances but not in others (as with Chapuys).
But as a whole, I found the book to be an immensely enjoyable read. I would say it’s really unmissable if you’re an Anne Boleyn-fan, anti-fan or interested in cultural and historical representations from a feminist point of view.
*After I looked up the Boleyn family a bit more I found Alison Weir’s book on Mary Boleyn which sets out to… set the account straight on ‘one of the most misrepresented women in Tudor history’. So, next reading project, I think!