Saturday, 28 December 2013

Some of my favourite reads of 2013

Tudor: The Family Story by Leanda de Lisle. Leanda's biography of Lady Jane Grey and her sisters Katherine and Mary is my favourite historical biography and I loved this take on the well-trodden story of England's most dysfunctional Royal family. De Lisle's writing style is so delicious that if it were edible, you'd almost certainly end up the size of a house and/or Henry VIII, the porky sovereign who for once is not allowed to stand centre stage in this dynastic tale of wife-changing, religious revolution and palaces more blinged up than an MTV crib. The women and minor members of the family are allowed their day in the metaphorical sun and de Lisle's refusal to play favourites guarantees fair treatment for all. Buy it, read it and I'm sure you'll love it. 

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Originally published in 2004, I half-read it at my friend Colin's suggestion at university but returned to it when the wonderful movie adaptation (below) starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Susan Sarandon, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, James D'Arcy and Ben Whishaw was released. The story of various reincarnated souls passing through the centuries from pre-abolition America, the inter-war years in Britain, a nightmarish twenty-second century Korea and a dystopian future is haunting, clever, nimble, beautifully written and very moving. If the story of Sonmi-451 doesn't devastate you, see a therapist immediately.

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel. Once you can get past the trademark horrors that Hilary Mantel seems to make of all her female characters, this 1992 novel inspired by the biographies of three male revolutionaries - Georges Danton, Camille Desmoulins, and Maximilien Robespierre - is actually a beautiful novel that captures perfectly how even the leaders of the Great Revolution of 1789 began to fear its strength and wonder how it would all end. (Hint - not happily for more or less anybody involved whose surname wasn't Bonaparte.) A Place of Greater Safety even manages to make Desmoulins interesting, charismatic and almost sympathetic - no mean achievement. A wonderful example of historical fiction.

The Night's Dark Shade by Elena Maria Vidal. The festering underbelly of the Cathar movement and the clash between two rival faiths in thirteenth-century France make this novel very interesting, very enjoyable and, reading for pleasure this time, one of the most intriguing takes on religious controversies of the Middle Ages. If you are a fan of medieval stories, then this one is certainly worth picking up.

A Night to Remember by Walter Lord. Famous for inspiring the 1958 movie of the same title (above), I had never actually read this minute-by-minute dramatisation of the Titanic disaster of 1912. Lord interviewed many of the survivors, had previously travelled on the Titanic's nearly-identical sister ship the Olympic, and approached the story of the sinking with a respect that bordered on the reverential. Unlike the 1997 take on the story, there are no fictitious love stories at the centre of Lord's novel. Instead, it's a gripping and almost forensic account of one of the greatest tragedies in maritime history. It also manages to capture the syntax and attitudes of 1912 perfectly. I loved this book and I wish I had read it earlier. 

Shiverton Hall by Emerald Fennell. Released early this year by Bloomsbury, this children's story is, and I kid you not, actually as close as I can come to the horror genre without suffering nightmares and/or dousing my room with water from Walsingham. A glorious return to the Victoriana world of camp macabre and horror, Shiverton Hall is the perfect book for a child who loves to read, anyone who enjoys a good boarding school tale or, for the adults in your life like me, who like to be scared but only within due reason. There'll be no Norman Bates meets Emily-Rose in my nightmares, I can assure you.

The War that Ended Peace: How Europe abandoned Peace for the First World War by Margaret Macmillan. No one but Margaret Macmillan could have approached the story of how "Europe's century" ended in the horrors birthed by 1914 and produced something so compulsively readable. Focusing on both the wider social context of the Gilded Age and the political figures who helped make the terrible decisions which resulted in a global conflict, Macmillan has produced a book that is irreverent, thoughtful and wonderfully written. 

The Creation of Anne Boleyn: In Search of the Tudors' Most Notorious Queen by Susan Bordo is a cultural biography of how Anne Boleyn acquired posthumous immortality, what attracted her legion of modern-day fans and critics, and how her story has been used and abused by subsequent generations. With interviews with two of the actresses most famous for bringing Boleyn to life on screen, this is a fascinating book with its finger kept firmly on the pulse of modern culture. Scholarly, but also funny, wry, sarcastic and emotive. And as the UK cover proves, we always knew Annie B could rock a pair of aviators. Once a fashionista...

The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Murder the Changed the World by Greg King and Susan Woolmans. Any suspect story about Archduke Franz Ferdinand is perhaps rightly declared as something to be treated with caution and scepticism in this book, while similarly improbable and damning anecdotes about any of his blood relatives are repeated as fact. Thus, the title figure emerges as a devoted family man, while his elderly uncle is described as a border-line autistic syphilitic and Franz Ferdinand's brother, Otto, was apparently a sadomasochistic pervert if Viennese gossip was to be believed. It's one standard for Ferdy and another for the rest of the Hapsburgs, which is a shame because otherwise this was a fascinating and wonderful biography of a man who is probably the most important assassination victim in history. Greg King and Susan Woolmans deserve great praise for rescuing his personality and his tragic love story with Sophie Chotek from obscurity. Fast moving, sympathetic and engagingly written, The Assassination of the Archduke was a truly gripping biography of the first victim of the First World War. Highly recommended.

Counting One's Blessings: The Selected Letters of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother by William Shawcross. The late Queen Elizabeth's biographer returns with a volume of her selected letters, chosen from across the remarkable century of her life and eight decades in the public eye. The late Queen's wit, impish sense of humour and inimitably effervescent mode of expression come across alongside her steely determination, quick intelligence and pathological ability to avoid anything too unpleasant until the last possible moment. A beautiful book from the pen of a celebrated and popular Royal, Counting One's Blessing was a joy to read. And made me hanker for a gin in the Highlands.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Auditions for "The Gate of the Year"

I am very excited about a performance in February of my new play, The Gate of the Year. If anyone in the Belfast or County Down area is interested in auditioning, the information is below: -

A new play by Gareth Russell, author of Popular and A History of the British Monarchy, is a re-telling of one of the most famous events in history - the French Revolution - told from the point of view of the upper classes, who stood to lose everything as their world shattered around them. 
Set in the modern day, The Gate of the Year imagines the events of the revolution as if they occurred in the twentieth century. Inspired by real events, its characters include the charming and mysterious Queen Marie-Antoinette, the fiery revolutionary Jean Marat, the quiet conservative Marc de Bombelles and the beautiful but unpopular duchess, Gabrielle de Polignac. 

The Gate of the Year will run at the Belvoir Studio in Belfast for three nights from 20th February 2014 and rehearsals will start in January, although they will be flexible due to exam commitments. Auditions will be held on 17th and 20th December, at the Rainbow Factory on College Square North (17th) and Belvoir Players Studio (20th). Audition extracts are now available by contacting Please contact ASAP to reserve a spot!

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Resounding to the Name of Mary: British queens and the Virgin

16 November is the Feast of the Patronage of Our Lady in the Roman Catholic communion and in honour of the Virgin's feast day, I would like to briefly profile the queens of England and Scotland who shared her name.

Marie de Coucy was the second wife of King Alexander II of Scotland. The daughter of a French lord, when her husband died of a fever in the Hebrides in 1249, Marie moved swiftly to ensure the succession of their seven year-old son, Alexander III. The boy, who went on to be one of medieval Scotland's greatest kings, was crowned at Scone at the height of summer. With the kingdom properly established under her son, Marie was able to remarry to a fellow Frenchman, to undertake pilgrimages to the great shrine of Saint Thomas Becket in Kent and to split her time between France and Scotland. She died in her native country in 1285, in her late sixties. Her death spared her from enduring the death of her son, who was killed in a riding accident a year later. 

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

The mothers of the queens of England

To mark the completion of my new book on the British royal families (release date, 2014), I thought I'd post on the mothers of the English queens, from 1066 to 2013. It's technically a slightly disingenuous list, because I've also included the mothers of the male consorts, but for ease of titling, I hope no-one will mind recourse to the feminine title. I have also included those men and women who never became royal consorts, despite the fact that their spouses were, at one point, sovereigns.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Claire Bloom discusses playing Lady Marchmain

Award-winning actress Claire Bloom has played some of history's most famous women, including Katherine of Aragon in Henry VIII, the Tsarina Alexandra in Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna and Queen Mary in The King's Speech, as well as appearing in adaptations of Richard III,  The Brothers Karamazov and acting opposite Charlie Chaplin. In 1981, she won critical acclaim for her fantastic and intelligent performance as Teresa Flyte, the Marchioness of Marchmain (above), in one of the most successful British television dramas - a twelve-part adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's novel, Brideshead Revisited.
Central to Brideshead's themes are its treatments of both the English aristocracy and the Catholic faith, with Bloom's Lady Marchmain operating as their greatest proponent. Trapped in a failing marriage to her estranged husband, who cavorts in Venice with his mistress while Lady Marchmain divides her time between their London townhouse and palatial seventeenth-century home at Brideshead Castle, the marchioness's devotion to her religion has led to her described as either the heroine or antagonist of the story. For some, Teresa's quiet elegance and charm masks her suffocating control over her children, that pushes at least two of them to the edge of a nervous breakdown. In the novel, she is unfailingly polite and dignified, leading her son Sebastian's unhappiness with her to baffle the novel's narrator, Charles, although he too eventually comes to regard her sumptuous charm with suspicion. In the 2008 movie version of the story, which saw Emma Thompson take up the role (left), Lady Marchmain was cast squarely as the root of all her children's problems, with Lord Marchmain actually referring to her "crucifying" their second son, Sebastian, with her controlling ways.
However, in her autobiography, Claire Bloom defends Lady Marchmain with, I think, a very fair personal take on the character she played.
"I still find it puzzling when I am told I played a manipulative and heartless woman; that is not how I saw her. Lady Marchmain is deeply religious, and her dilemma includes trying to raise a willful brood of children on her own, while instilling them with her rigid observance of the Catholic code. Sebastian is both an alcoholic and a homosexual, and from her point of view, he lives in a state of mortal sin. She has to fight for his soul by any means in her power, with the knowledge that her efforts may lead to his destruction. A born crusader, the Marchioness confronts her difficult choices head on; her rigidity of purpose, which I don't in any way share, is understandable in context. The aspect that rings most true is her sense of being an outsider, a Catholic in Protestant England. Not such a leap from being a Jew in Protestant England as one would imagine."


Wednesday, 16 October 2013

A "popular" Kindle Fire and Amazon giveaway!

My wonderful publishers and I are involved in a Halloween spectacular give-away that's aiming to promote awareness for young or first-time authors. "Popular" is involved and it's wonderful! Basically, you can win a Kindle Fire along with $200 of vouchers, if you enter the competition. You don't need to buy anything, but you enter by clicking on some of the pages to see which new authors are available to like, read about, tweet about, etc. It's a fantastic competition and much better than my latest Halloween idea, which was to write a scene with Imogen turning up to a party dressed as God's Gift - in an enormous bow-dress with a card attached saying, "Dear World -- you're welc, love, God." 

All the info's here. I now also kind of want a Kindle Fire, but I assume it's probably not appropriate for me to enter. -

Here is the link! Please give it a go and I hope everyone is having a good week! Work on my next book is nearly finished and it will be strange to let it go. 

Monday, 16 September 2013

Aren't all biographical movies inherently exploitative?

The first spate of reviews for Oliver Hirschbiegel's cinematic take on the last two years of Princess Diana's life are in, and sadly they are not good. Praise for Naomi Watts's portrayal of one of the most famous women in royal history is nearly universal, but so too is dismay and scorn for the script. Not since the directorial disaster of 1981's Mommie Dearest, an exploitation take on the life of Hollywood icon Joan Crawford, has a biopic met with which poor reviews (with the obvious exception of Lindsay Lohan's disastrous TV spell as Elizabeth Taylor.) Luckily, the similarities end there. A lot of the blame for the camp car-crash that was Mommie Dearest rested on the director or, depending on who you believed, on the performance of the leading lady, Faye Dunaway (below, as Crawford.) There seems to be a consensus that Watts is wasted by giving a fantastic performance in a script so sweet it runs the risk of inducing diabetes in the viewer. Apparently terrified of portraying a character negatively so soon after her death, the script presents the luminous Princess Diana as practically saint-like and none of her more interesting quirks, and occasional acts of manipulative genius, make it onto the screen.

If that was the movie-makers' concern, then their rose-tinted take on Princess Diana seems to have been in vain. Because a deluge of criticism has poured forth from those who accuse the movie of tasteless exploitation in dramatising the last years of a woman who died less than twenty years ago. Ironically enough, some of the most vociferous critics are tweed-wearing royalists, who are waxing apoplectic about how Princess Diana's two sons will react to this movie. (Although how they would actually know what's going on inside the head of the two princes anymore than Oliver Hirschbiegel does is anybody's guess.) Similar fury erupted over 2011's Oscar-winning take on the career of Margaret Thatcher, in a performance so good it secured an Oscar for Meryl Streep; Margaret Thatcher was still alive when The Iron Lady was released and suggestions that showing her struggle with dementia were crass and cruel therefore carried (a little) more weight. However, at least one of Lady Thatcher's former cabinet colleagues had the grace to admit that the movie was so good and so moving that it could be "defended as a work of art."

The criticism of Diana therefore seems to be largely contradictory. On the one hand, it's been excoriated for being so sympathetic that it's unconvincing and on the other, that it's tastelessly squeezing money from the tragedy of Princess Diana's death and is thus disrespectful to her memory. On the latter, it's difficult to concede that the critics have much of a point. Public figures like the royal family are inevitably going to feature in numerous movies and productions; no one suggested that it was tasteless for Helena Bonham-Carter to portray Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 2010's The King's Speech, a mere eight years after the real-life Queen Elizabeth's death in 2002. Or that any of the spate of movies and television shows in which Michael Sheen gave his fantastic performances as Prime Minister Tony Blair were vulgar, just because Blair was still very much alive. A movie can of course be fairly criticised when it decides to portray a character in a way that is so disconnected from reality as to become a caricature - one's mind goes to the 2003 TV drama The Reagans, starring James Brolin and Judy Davis, which CBS eventually refused to broadcast because its portrayal of the couple was deemed so vicious that even some of President Reagan's enemies leaped in to defend his memory and his widow's integrity. But, when one moves into the public arena, at some point artists are going to interpret your life and while they can and should be fairly criticised as to how they do it (for instance, Mommie Dearest, The Damned United, Best or The Reagans), it seems a tad unfair to criticise them for doing it at all.

Perhaps the problem with Diana, then, is that it's simply too sweet to be wholesome. Ludicrously sentimentalised interpretations of a subject's life often fail to convince the viewer - 1939's political thriller about the first republican leader of Mexico, Juarez, presented its lead as a being so Christ-like that everyone found the supporting character of Mexico's European-born empress, Carlota, played by Bette Davis, to be the most interesting thing on the screen (below, right); Madonna's W./E., about the love affair between Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII, refused to engage at all with Wallis's dodgy political sympathies, her nastiness, her pettiness or her obsessive greed, while Keira Knightly's excellent turn as an eighteenth-century socialite in The Duchess could have been rendered much more interesting if the real duchess's reckless extravagance, crippling gambling addiction and erratic political views were factored into the equation. (She was firmly sympathetic to the Right in the French Revolution, but the movie chose only to highlight her more crowd-pleasing liberal views in Britain.) 

But that's not to say that sweetness is the only potential problem. Often the decision to produce a distorted warts-n-all take on a famous subject's life doesn't so much titillate the viewer as turn them off. Films like The Other Boleyn Girl which presents Anne Boleyn as a sociopathic trollop, Oliver Stone's brutal take on the Bush years in W., Benoit Jacquet's iconoclastic take on the life and sanity of Marie-Antoinette in Farewell My Queen and the cumbersome 1971 movie Nicholas and Alexandra, which, to quote a recent Guardian, ends up presenting an exhausting portrait of "pigheaded royals running full-tilt towards death," all failed to do well, commercially or in most of the reviews. Two and a half hours of watching the life of someone remorselessly unlovable can all-too often end up feeling like time poorly spent for the poor viewer. That's not to say that it's impossible. The original version of the stage musical Evita portrayed its eponymous character as an utterly repulsive individual, devoid of redemptive features and presiding over a corrupt and vicious regime that fleeced the poor to fuel the First Lady's titanic ego. It was, despite this, a huge success. At the other extreme, biographical movies like Michael Collins, The Young Victoria, Erin Brockovich, The King's Speech or Lincoln present their leading characters in an overwhelmingly positive light and all four garnered mostly positive reviews. The 1971 six-part mini-series Elizabeth R, chronicling Elizabeth I's life from a fifteen year-old princess to her death fifty-four years later, portrays Elizabeth (played throughout by the incredible Glenda Jackson) as one of the greatest heroines in British history who, although certainly temperamental, was nearly devoid of any other serious fault. It is, still, one of the greatest historical dramas ever produced.

Perhaps the real problem is that everyone approaches the biographical genre as if it's inherently a question of extremes. Either, it will go spectacularly well, like Lincoln or The Iron Lady, or it will prove to be the mother of all flops, like Mommie Dearest or Liz and Dick. Equally, they must either be extremely sympathetic to their subjects, like Diana or W./E., or viciously hostile, like The Other Boleyn Girl or Enid Blyton. But, the real minefield isn't the history or the morality of it all, but rather a question of art. Diana is being raked across the coals because people are pretending to believe that it's allegedly tasteless to approach the life of someone who died so recently. No such sustained criticism was raised when Helen Mirren won the Oscar for her portrayal of Her Majesty the Queen in a movie that covered the fortnight surrounding Princess Diana's death, nor was there such a fallout when Michael Fassbender and Steve McQueen decided to intimately chronicle the march to death of Northern Irish republican Bobby Sands in 2008's Hunger. A few lone voices, yes, but nothing like the charges being leveled against Diana. The difference may be that both The Queen and Hunger were very, very good movies with very, very good scripts. Mommie Dearest, The Other Boleyn Girl or Juarez were bad movies. Their dialogue is silly and the majority of their characterisations unconvincing, at best. In the end, it all comes down to a question of writing. And there's something reassuring in that; in knowing that no movie can afford to coast on its subjects' fame. If you're going to do something, do it right. And I can almost hear Streep's Thatcher saying that as I type.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

An article on the Boleyns for Eile

The new Irish magazine Eile, written, created and compiled by young Irish journalists, has very kindly asked me to write a few articles for them and here is one I wrote for one of their back issues. The article was called Was it a gay lobby that cost Anne Boleyn her life?
This article is copyrighted.

Two reviews from the archives

From the archives of History Today, two reviews of biographies of two of history's unluckiest queens - Anne Boleyn and Marie-Antoinette of France. Dr. Susan Walter Schmid reviews G.W. Bernard's 2010 biography of Boleyn, Fatal Attractions, taking particular issue with Bernard's comparisons between Anne Boleyn and the late Princess Diana and his use of extant translation of Lancelot de Carles's poem about Boleyn's downfall in 1536.
One wants to ask immediately: Why would Anne have become an adulteress? In a curiously presentist observation Bernard would have us believe that because of Princess Diana, moderns may not find it so hard to believe a queen would commit adultery (p. 156). Presentism occurs when we allow ourselves to interpret past people or events based only on our modern values and concepts. Granted, it is difficult to avoid; after all, the present is what we know best, but a historian simply must not fall into this trap. What an increasingly unhappy princess in the twentieth century did cannot automatically tell us anything about what a not necessarily unhappy queen in the sixteenth century might have done. Although there were some suggestions that Henry had a mistress while married to Anne, what she might have done in response must be understood in sixteenth-century terms, not those of today.

Meanwhile, John Rogister, author of Louis XV and the Parlement of Paris, 1737 - 1755, offers a generally positive review of Lady Antonia Fraser's 2002 biography of Marie-Antoinette, The Journey.
This absorbing and well-illustrated book is full of sharp insights about Marie Antoinette, her relationship with the handsome Swedish nobleman, Count Ferson (her romantic knight), her loyalty to those she loved. Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, gave an apt description of the Queen facing her accusers: how, even when confronted with a disgusting allegation extracted from her impressionable seven-year-old son, ‘her answers, her cleverness and greatness of mind’ shone through.

Both reviews contain very good accounts of Anne and Marie-Antoinette's historical significance. The review of Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions is accessible here and Marie Antoinette: The Journey's is here.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Anne Boleyn's last secret

Leanda de Lisle, whose biography of the Grey sisters is one of my favourite reads, along with her wonderful account of the final years of Elizabeth I, has sent me a link to her new article in The Spectator about the execution of Anne Boleyn and her theory that the sword used to kill the queen probably had far less to do with the French aristocracy than most people suppose. You can read Leanda's post here and it's a fantastic read.

Leanda's new book, Tudor: The Family Story, is published in the UK on August 29th.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Three's a crowd

A brief and hopefully fun look at some of the English royal family's most famous and controversial paramours. Eleven people who made royal marriages "a bit crowded."
Rosamund de Clifford, nicknamed “Fair Rosamund” because of her gorgeous good-looks, she was a merchant’s daughter who became the longest-lasting mistress of King Henry II, the relentlessly ambitious monarch who ruled a vast European empire between 1154 and 1189. Henry’s marriage to the glamorous Eleanor of Aquitaine broke down during Rosamund’s time as his mistress, leading to rumours that the Queen had been driven mad by jealousy of her younger rival and even tried to poison her. Stories later circulated that Henry had hidden his adulterous love interest in a manor house surrounded by an impenetrable maze to save her from his wife’s wrath. Most of these stories were nonsense, however, and it was politics that prompted Eleanor to betray her husband during the rebellions against him. Enshrined in legend as the archetypal fair yet fallen woman, Rosamund later repented of her adultery with the King and retreated to a community of nuns living near Oxford. She died of natural causes in her late twenties.

Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall was a spectacularly handsome young man who captured the heart of the future King Edward II. Edward’s elderly father took a dim view of his son’s romantic proclivities and banished Gaveston, only to relent in the face of entreaties from the prince’s stepmother, Queen Marguerite, who was moved by the young men’s plight. When Edward became king in 1307, his obsessive love for Gaveston alienated many members of the nobility when Gaveston was elevated to the position of Earl of Cornwall, a title formerly reserved mainly for members of the royal family. Whether Edward and Piers were ever lovers in the fullest sense of the word is still debated, but it seems overwhelmingly likely that they were. Regardless of the exact nature of their relationship, Piers was inextricably linked in aristocratic minds to Edward’s drive towards absolutism and to weaken the King he was kidnapped and murdered in 1312.

Jane Shore was actually christened Elizabeth and like Rosamund de Clifford, she was a merchant’s daughter. From an early age she apparently mimicked the behaviour of her father’s wealthy patrons meaning that later in life she could pass for an aristocrat or a member of the gentry. Her prettiness and poise brought her to the attention of the womanising King Edward IV, who was already married to the spectacularly beautiful Elizabeth Woodville. Jane was said to be witty and charming, but she did herself no favours by also carrying on an affair with the King’s stepson, the Marquess of Dorset, and with Lord Hastings. When Edward died in 1483, Dorset was executed by the new monarch Richard III who also arranged for Jane to be paraded through the streets of London as penance for her promiscuity and then had her detained at Ludgate prison. Irrepressible to the end, she caught the attention of a solicitor, who married her and provided her with a comfortable lifestyle to the end of her days.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

The Ring of the Heavens: Marie-Antoinette's jewellery

Tea at Trianon has a profile and link to this beautiful ring, which once belonged to Marie-Antoinette.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Anne Boleyn, George Boleyn and the ghost of gay rights

I was very pleased to write a guest article for Susan Bordo's blog on her wonderful new book, The Creation of Anne Boleyn. My article, Anne Boleyn, George Boleyn and the ghost of gay rights, can be read by clicking here.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

How will the Royal birth be announced?

An interesting article from Yahoo that neatly summarises the mix of modernity and tradition that we can expect when the Court formally announces the, God-willing, safe delivery of the royal child expected to be born to their Royal Highnesses The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge later this week.
This blog will also be running a series on the event - including traditions of royal birth, the baby's name and the Duchess's role in the monarchy.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Was Anne Boleyn a feminist?: A guest post from author Susan Bordo

Credit: Sarah Mensinga
Today, I am absolutely delighted to welcome Susan Bordo to Confessions of a Ci-Devant. Susan's recent book The Creation of Anne Boleyn is a phenomenally good read for those interested in Anne Boleyn, history, feminism, popular culture, literature or acting. I enjoyed it thoroughly and you can check out my review of it here, if you're interested. If anyone is interested in purchasing a copy for themselves, it's available via Amazon. Susan's guest article for this blog is called Was Anne Boleyn a feminist?, and it's based on the research she undertook for The Creation of Anne Boleyn. Thank you to Susan for this article and I hope everyone enjoys it!


Was Anne Boleyn a feminist?

Feminist”...Has any other word been so mocked, misdirected and mutilated? For some, it’s just a hand-grenade to lob at uppity women.  At the other end of things are the historical purists who refuse to grant the name of “feminist” to anyone born before the word was coined (in France and The Netherlands in 1872, Great Britain in the 1890s, and the United States in 1910.) In between these extremes are definitions both commonsensical and eccentric, and generations of women (and some men) proudly identifying or nervously/defiantly disowning the label. Given its irritating and ill-informed history, it’s tempting to simply throw it out. But, like all culturally charged terms, it’s impossible to “simply” throw it out—for throwing it out will inevitably be taken as a statement in itself.

So I will take it head on:  Was Anne Boleyn a feminist? 

Well, no—not if by “feminist” you mean someone with an articulated position on any issues involving women’s “rights” (a concept that had no meaning in Anne’s time), the natural equality of women and men (a concept that had been much debated since Christine de Pizan introduced the Querelle des Femmes—or “Woman Question”--in the 15th century), or the value of education for women (also a hot topic for those engaged in the Querelle.) There is no evidence that Anne held a position on any of these issues—unlike, for example, Marguerite de Navarre, Francis I’s sister, whose Heptameron vividly protests the sexual “double standard” that allowed male aggression free rein while condemning women who stepped out of line.  Anne spent most of her adolescence at Francis’s court, and seems to have shared or absorbed Marguerite’s evangelical stance on reform of the church, which Anne very publicly advocated.  But Margeurite’s “feminism”?  If Anne held views on the virtues of women or their natural equality with men, she either didn’t make them public or they have been lost to us, along with everything else destroyed by Henry’s ruthless purge of all evidence of Anne’s existence, as he made plans for his marriage to Jane Seymour.

On the other hand, if we loosen up a bit on the quest for a rigorously defensible answer, and allow our minds to play with the question, there is intriguing—although fragmentary and subtle—support for the notion that Anne may have had a more “political” understanding of what we would today call the “gender rules” than the wives that preceded and followed her. At her trial, insisting that she was “clear of all the offences which you have laid to my charge,” she went on to acknowledge, not only her “jealous fancies” but her failure to show the King “that humility which his goodness to me, and the honours to which he raised me, merited.”[1]  She stood accused of adultery and treason.  Yet she did not simply refute those charges; she admitted to a different “crime”:  not remaining in her proper “place.”  In juxtaposing these two, Anne seems to be suggesting that not only did she recognize that she had transgressed against the norms of wifely behavior, but that this transgression was somehow related to the grim situation she now found herself in.

She was undoubtedly right about this. Spontaneous and intense in an era when women were supposed to silently provide a pleasing backdrop for men’s adventures, Anne had never “stayed in her place”— which was exciting in a mistress, but a PR problem in a wife.  We know from her actions that Anne was not content to flirt with power through womanly wiles and pillow-talk.  She was a player.  An avid reader of the radical religious works of the day (many of them banned from England and smuggled in for her), her surviving library of books includes a large selection of early French evangelical works, as well as Tyndale’s English-language New Testament (which was to become the basis for the King James Bible), which she had read to her ladies at court.  She introduced Henry both to Tyndale’s anti-papal “The Obedience of a Christian Man” and probably also Simon Fish’s “Supplication for the Beggars.”  She advocated for the cause of the English-language bible. She secured the appointment of several evangelical bishops and deans when Henry created the newly independent Church of England.  She attempted to intervene on behalf of reformists imprisoned for their religious beliefs. 

The promotion and protection of the cause of reform was a dangerous business for Anne to engage in, because it was such a divisive issue (to put it mildly) and men’s careers (and sometimes heads) would hang or fall depending on which side was winning.  Anne’s took a risk in showing Tyndale and Fish to Henry, but it was one that initially paid off, as he immediately saw that they were on the side of Kings rather than Rome when it came to earthly authority. But even if Henry had no objection to Anne’s tutelage, others did, and their objections were a potent mix of misogyny and anti-Protestant fervor.  Much of the gossip that circulated around court and through Europe came from the tongues (and pens) of those for whom to be anti-papal was to be pro-devil.  “Lutheran” women (an incorrect appellation for Anne, who did not subscribe to Lutheran doctrine) enraged Catholic dogmatists, who were quick to accuse them of witchcraft—an old charge against “talkative,” impertinent women which was particularly handy when the women were “heretics.” From “heretic” to “witch” was a short step, and from “witch” to “insatiable carnal lust” and “consorting with the devil” took barely a breath.[2] The same year that Anne was executed, an effigy of evangelical Marguerite de Navarre, on a horse drawn by devils wearing placards bearing Luther’s name, appeared during a masquerade in Notre Dame.[3]

Anne’s involvement (read: interference) in the political and religious struggles of the day was a continual annoyance to her enemies, who saw her as the mastermind behind every evil that properly should have been laid at Henry’s feet, from the destruction of Wolsey and More to the harsh treatment of Katherine and Mary. Spanish ambassador Eustace Chapuys, whose venomous, gossipy letters home have formed the basis for much of our “knowledge” of Anne, called her a “whore” and charged her as a would-be poisoner of Katherine and Mary and vicious corrupter of otherwise sweet-tempered King Hal.  He also inflated her contribution to the “scourge of Lutheranism” to unbelievable proportions.  In one letter to Charles, Chapuys went so far as to blame “the heretical doctrines and practices of the concubine” as “the principal cause of the spread of Lutheranism in this country.”[4]

It was preposterous, and Henry certainly didn’t believe it.   But it created a political/religious “wing” of anti-Anne sentiment that could be exploited by Cromwell when he turned against Anne, and was a powerful obstacle in the way of Anne’s acceptance by the (still largely Catholic) English people.  In gaining that acceptance—and with it some protection from the winds of shifting politics—Anne already had several strikes against her.  She had supplanted a beloved queen.  She was rumored to be “haughty” and suspiciously “French”--and even worse than that, a vocal, intellectual, “interfering” woman.  Jane Seymour, when she entered the picture in 1536, was no less the “other woman” than Anne was (and probably more deserving of the charge of using her virginity as bait than Anne was), but her apparent docility miraculously spared her, when she became queen, from the antipathy that Anne inspired. Although later historians would question just how placid Jane actually was, in her own time she was constantly commended for her gentleness, compassion, and submissiveness, which she advertised in her own motto: “Bound to obey and serve.” With few exceptions, the stereotype has not lost its grip on popular culture.

With Anne it was quite the opposite. Even those who shared her religious views, like Cromwell, had no scruples about spreading nasty rumors when it suited their purposes. For Anne’s reputation as a woman who simply would not behave as she should had created an atmosphere that did not incline men to be her protectors, but rather freed them to take the gloves off when fighting with her. “Had she been gracious and modest,” writes 19th century commentator James Froude, “she might have partially overcome the prejudice against her.”[5] “Gracious and modest” seem like laudable qualities.  But what they meant in the context of the times and why Anne could never play the part is laid bare by David Loades: “Annecould not pretend to be a fool or a nonentity, and the self-effacement customary in a royal consort did not suit her style at all…In many ways her sharpness of perception and readiness of wit made her more suitable for the council chamber than for the boudoir.”[6] 

But women did not belong in the council chamber.  Here’s Natalie Dormer, who played Anne in Showtimes’ The Tudors (below) and with whom I discussed Anne in an lengthy interview, on this issue:

"Anne was that rare phenomenon, a self-made woman. But then, this became her demise. The machinations of court were an absolute minefield for women. And she was a challenging personality, who wouldn't be quiet and shut up when she had something to say. This was a woman who wasn’t raised in the English court, but in the Hapsburg and French courts. And she was quite a fiery woman and incredibly intelligent. So she stood out—fire and intelligence and boldness—in comparison to the English roses that were flopping around court. And Henry noticed that. So all the reasons that attracted [Henry] to her, and made her queen and a mother, were all the things that then undermined her position. What she had that was so unique for a woman at that time was also her undoing.”[7]             

To describe Anne Boleyn as a feminist would be an anachronism—and not nearly as appropriate an anachronism in her case as in that of Marguerite de Navarre and others who openly championed for female equality.  Marguerite did not have the word, but she was conscious of a women’s “cause.”  There’s no evidence that Anne felt similarly.  But she had learned to value her body and her ideas, and ultimately recognized that there was something unsettling about this to Henry, understood that this played a role in her downfall.  “I do not say I have always shown him that humility,” she said at her trial, insistent even then on speaking what she believed.[8]  Anne wasn’t a feminist.  But she did step over the ever-moving line that marked the boundary of the comfort zone for men of her era, and for all the unease and backlash she inspired, she may as well have been one.

[1] (Weir, The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn 2010, 230)
[2] (Bordo 1987, 128-9)
[3] (Knecht 2008, 231)
[4] Pascual de Gayangos (editor), "Spain: April 1536, 1-20," Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 5 Part 2: 1536-1538, British History Online,"spread of Lutheranism"
[5] (Froude 1891, 384)
[6] (Loades 2009, 69)
[7] (Ibid.)
[8] (Weir, The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn 2010, 230)

Saturday, 29 June 2013

My review of Susan Bordo's "The Creation of Anne Boleyn"

Earlier this year, I reviewed Susan Bordo's wonderful book "The Creation of Anne Boleyn," and later today I'll be posting a new article from her, as a guest post on this blog, about Anne Boleyn's fascination to the modern feminism movement. In my review, which you can read in full here, I described Susan's work as "a witty, compelling, convincingly argued and gloriously interesting book," which "as fascinating as a commentary on modern culture, media and sexism as it is in discussing how a queen who died five hundred years ago has managed to remain the subject of so much fascination - producing the sublime, the intelligent, the bigoted and the ridiculous."

British readers can buy Susan's book via Amazon by clicking here, and US readers can access it here. Please stay tuned for Susan's fantastic guest post today, too! As someone who has spent so much time working on the 16th century period, I thoroughly enjoyed Susan's look at how Anne Boleyn's reputation has been shaped and what it says about her, as well as us. 

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Price correction

My appalling Mathematics skills have struck again. Popular, my first novel, is available for $0.99 on Amazon US's Kindle store. I hope American readers of this blog will check it out and enjoy it! Thank you again for all your support!

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Progress on the book

Well, progress on my first non-fiction book, a history of the British monarchy, is going well. I was slightly behind where I would have liked to be schedule-wise, due to an unforeseen work commitment that arose in April, but right now, I've just finished dealing with the Plantagenets and I'm typing up my draft on the Tudors for the final chapter of volume 1.

Thank you so much for everyone who's been so supportive through this blog and I hope I'll be able to produce a book you will all enjoy. In the meantime, the fine people at Amazon have an offer for Kindle versions of my first novel, Popular - if anyone is interested!

Thank you again and hope you all had a safe and fun weekend.


Sunday, 9 June 2013

My first novel

Very excited to say that my first novel Popular is now available for Kindle for the amazing price of either $1.55 or £0.99 (excluding VAT, which is £1.02 with VAT) on Amazon US and Amazon UK. Every sale is hugely appreciated and I hope readers of this blog will enjoy the books. The novels are comedy-dramas set in my home city of Belfast and I've been blessed with some amazing reviews. If you're debating if this is a book for you, here are some comments on it: -

Claire Ridgway, author of The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown, wrote, "It’s fun and it’s by a great writer... If you want to be reminded of the angst and madness of your school days, if you love Marie Antoinette, Anne Boleyn and Scarlett O’Hara, and you appreciate good modern fiction, then I’d recommend Popular." And called it, "A wonderful debut novel." The novelist Elena Maria Vidal, author of The Night's Dark Shade, wrote very kindly, that Popular was a "scathingly witty and humorous romp ... Popular reminded me of such works of Oscar Wilde as The Importance of Being Earnest for its sheer entertainment quality and unapologetic aristocratic flair." It was Ulster Tatler's book selection of the month and the magazine called it an "expertly crafted novel". Katy Moran, author of Bloodline Rising, wrote in her review that Popular was "an extremely funny book" and the novel has been profiled in The Sunday Times and on the BBC.

American readers can take advantage of the new Kindle purchase price by clicking HERE. And British and European readers can buy here.

I hope you enjoy it and thank you to everyone for their support.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

The Black Dinner and the Rains of Castamere

PLEASE do not read this if you are currently reading A Song of Ice and Fire novels by George R.R. Martin or if you're watching the television version of the series, Game of Thrones, by HBO. This article contains spoilers, by discussing the alleged real-life inspiration for the event known as "the Red Wedding."

I am currently writing a history of the British monarchy which will be out later this year. Luckily, it's been split into two volumes and volume one, And the Sword Gleamed, will be available soon. The book is predominantly Anglocentric due to time and space constrictions, but where possible I am doing my best to discuss the monarchies in Scotland, Ireland and Wales, too. (I'd love one day to go back and to tell the story of their monarchies in another book.) One of the things that has struck me so much as I'm researching it is how brilliantly George R.R. Martin has been inspired by European medieval history in writing his epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. On the one hand, this is shown in his immaculate recreation of aristocratic culture - similar names, sigils, rivalry, treachery, arranged marriages, wardships and concepts of honour. In other ways, it's by more specific nods - like the comet that trails across the sky, seen by many as a good omen for the exiled princess Daenerys Targaryen, so similar to the comet that flew over England in 1066 before the arrival from beyond the sea of William the Conqueror. 

One of the series' most infamous moments is the so-called "Red Wedding," in which Robb Stark, one of the combatants in the novels' central conflict, the War of the Five Kings, is lured into a trap by an erstwhile ally, Lord Frey, when an arranged marriage designed to seal the peace between the houses sees Frey betray Robb Stark by butchering him, his mother Catelyn and thousands of their followers while they are under his hospitality at a wedding banquet. The Starks were an aristocratic clan who, under Robb, had become so sickened by the capricious incompetence and cruelty of the boy-king Joffrey that they had developed secessionist ambitions, hoping to forcibly remove the north from the kingdom of Westeros and re-establish independent monarchy in the region. Joffrey's maternal grandfather, Lord Tywin Lannister, a man of inexhaustible wealth and equally inexhaustible cruelty, liaises with the Freys and ends the Starks' mission by orchestrating a bloody massacre that has left fans of both book and TV show reeling, particularly after the incident was so brilliantly dramatized this week in the penultimate episode of season 3, The Rains of Castamere.

Oona Chaplin, Richard Madden and Michelle Fairley as members of the Stark family in "The Rains of Castamere"

The parallels between the fictitious Red Wedding and the real-life Black Dinner are fairly clear, although Westeros's Wedding has been augmented by Martin's great skills as a writer. In a recent interview with  EW, Martin stated that two events in Scottish history - the Black Dinner and the Glencoe Massacre - had inspired him to write of the Red Wedding in which Robb and Catelyn Stark lose their lives. 

In 1440, Scotland was ruled over by the ten year-old King James II and those around him struggled to see who could rule in his name. His father, King James I, had been stabbed to death in a plot led by his uncle and former ally, the treacherous Earl of Atholl, three years earlier. The young king's English mother, Queen Joanne (left; sometimes given as "Queen Joan"), had been wounded in the attack but had managed to escape back to Edinburgh, where she had managed to hold onto power for herself and her son. As an English aristocrat, Joanne's rule was not popular in Scotland and to bolster her political strength she allied herself to a man with the magnificently Westeros-sounding nickname of "the Black Knight of Lorn," whom she eventually married. In 1439, she had lost power and been replaced in government by her enemies.  By 1440, disagreements over the legacy of the queen-regent, the death of some of her strongest allies, the political fallout of the old king's assassination and out-of-control aristocratic infighting had all produced a fraught and dangerous political environment in which paranoia, dishonesty and violence were the dominant themes. 

One clan in particular who frightened the new regency government was the Douglas clan. Their late head, Archibald Douglas, had been a political ally of the queen mother's but after his death, she had fallen from power and the young king was now ruled by her enemies, Sir William Crichton, Sir Alexander Livingston and the earl of Avondale. By 1440, with the queen mother having been placed under house arrest, there were fears that Clan Douglas were preparing to seize more power for themselves and oust the triumvirate who were controlling the young James II. After Archibald Douglas's death, the new earl and head of the Douglas family was his 16 year-old son William, an age not too dissimilar to that of Robb Stark in the series. The royal household issued an invitation to the earl and his younger brother, 11 year-old David, to join the king at a banquet in Edinburgh Castle. As in Game of Thrones, the laws of hospitality in medieval Scotland were regarded as inviolable. The king's peace was an even more sacred concept and so the Douglas brothers attended the feast, safe in the knowledge that no self-respecting Christian or aristocrat could possibly besmirch his honour by harming them under those circumstances. At the climax, the regency's servants presented him with a dish covered in a white sheet. When the earl removed the sheet, he saw they had served him a black boar's head. It was a symbol of death and the musicians begin to beat on a single drum as William and his 11 year-old brother were dragged from the king's presence and executed on the castle's hill. Their sister, the beautiful Margaret, known as the Fair Maid of Galloway, was not present and did everything she subsequently could to rebuild the family's prestige.

A later event which Martin cited as inspiration for the Red Wedding was the Glencoe (above) Massacre of 1692. Two years earlier, the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland had seen the triumph of the Protestant Dutch prince, William of Orange (left), who had seized the British throne as William III, deposing his Catholic uncle, King James, in the process. The decision over which monarch to back had split many of the clans of the Highlands. On the one hand, William was a Protestant - the majority religion in Scotland by the seventeenth century; on the other hand, James was ancestrally Scottish and carried the name of the House of Stuart who had ruled over Scotland for centuries. The Campbell clan, who sided with William, saw his victory as the perfect opportunity to extirpate their rivals in the Highlands, Clan MacDonald, who had initially remained loyal to James. Forces loyal to the Campbells arrived in the Highlands, ostensibly on a mission to collect taxes for the Scottish parliament. Seeking shelter with the MacDonalds, the Campbells' men rose up one night and slaughtered thirty-eight of the MacDonalds, even stabbing some of them in their beds. Forty women and children subsequently died from exposure in the Highland winters after the vindictive Campbells burned their homes to the ground and evicted them. It had been a slaughter under trust and in violation of the hospitality that had been offered to them by the MacDonalds, who clearly placed the ancient customs of shelter and aristocratic protocol over the feud which the Campbells would use as an excuse to slaughter them. To this day, there are pubs in Scotland that deny the right of any member of a Campbell family to cross their threshold and groups as disparate as neo-Jacobite royalist movements and the Scottish Republican Socialist Movement still annually commemorate the massacre.

As Martin said to fan backlash about the savagery of the Red Wedding in Westeros: "No matter how much I make up, there's stuff in history that's just as bad, or worse." 

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