Monday, 25 February 2013

"The Creation of Anne Boleyn" (review)



More nonsense has been written about Anne Boleyn than almost any other personality in British history. The six-fingered witch of Counter-Reformation propaganda was the most extreme re-imagining of Henry VIII's second wife, but the most enduring trope is that of an unpleasant, morally-dubious social climber who trampled on anyone who got in her way and who lied, bullied and manipulated her way onto the consort's throne. There is a pervasive view in modern literature and history that holds that although Anne Boleyn probably was not guilty of the crimes for which she perished in 1536, she nonetheless basically deserved her eventual fate. To paraphrase a popular television show, Anne played the game of thrones - and lost. She was a game player, who deserved neither pity nor special treatment. 

The problem with that view of Anne Boleyn is not only that it's factually inaccurate, but that it's also the intellectual brainchild of five hundred years of misogyny. Anne Boleyn may have played the political game like a man, but she perished as a woman. She was not dragged off her pedestal by political or financial allegations, but rather her enemies eviscerated her on the grounds of her gender. They played, shamelessly, to the worst kinds of paranoia about what women would do if they had power. At Anne's trial, lurid details of her alleged seduction of her brother, Lord Rochford, and her libidinous sexual approaches to other members of the royal court were included in the indictments - right the way down to a description of how she had used French kissing to inflame her brother into committing incest with her. It was character assassination in its basest form, intended to annihilate Anne's reputation and fill her judges with such revulsion that they would not hesitate to condemn her. To exonerate her would not only have been spitting in the face of the king's justice, but it could also look worryingly like tacit toleration for her perversions. 

In her new book The Creation of Anne Boleyn, academic Susan Bordo sets out to explore how and why Anne Boleyn's reputation has been shaped. Anne's story has inspired operas, plays, novels, television dramas and movies. She is a modern day industry in her own right; by far and away the most memorable of Henry's half-dozen wives, as Bordo wryly notes in her descriptions of Tudor fans' attempts to impose a kind of equality of interest on all six, despite the fact that all six are not equally interesting. And certainly not all equally important.

It is on this interaction between Boleyn's specter and popular culture that Bordo is at her strongest. Bordo is an expert on the academic politics of feminism and she goes to town on the allegedly "feminist" presentation of Anne in The Other Boleyn Girl (to date, a book that spawned a television drama that spawned a motion picture that spawned a thousand stupid questions). Equally interesting are her assessments of Hilary Mantel's Anne Boleyn, resurrected as a deeply unpleasant predator in the Cromwellian novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Bordo is kinder to Mantel than she is to Philippa Gregory, but she manages to set Wolf Hall's jarringly hostile portrayal of Anne in the context of a new kind of feminism and shows that the Boleyn of Wolf Hall and the Boleyn of The Other Boleyn Girl may be far apart in terms of literary skill, but perhaps not necessarily so in cultural inspiration. (Particular venom is reserved for Carolly Erickson's The Favored Queen, and rightly so.)

Bordo is similarly strident in her dissection of modern academia's interest in Anne. She excoriates G.W. Bernard's recent (and very controversial) biography of Anne Boleyn as "a sensationalistic, poorly argued extension of an equally flimsy scholarly article from 1991" and argues (again rightly) that no peer critiqued Bernard's arguments with the rigour they deserved because he was part of an old boys' network of professional historians. Bordo manages to deftly balance searching for the real Anne and the Anne of historical opinion with the Anne of modern pop culture. In doing so, she has managed to keep her finger on the pulse of both emerging academic papers and things like Facebook, fan pages, successful TV shows and movies. This is a book that takes pop culture seriously and in doing so produces an utterly fascinating view of how historical reputations are shaped and made. A particularly fascinating section comes from her private interviews with two actresses famous for their on-screen portrayals of Boleyn - Canadian Genevieve Bujold, who was nominated for an Oscar for her role in 1969's Anne of the Thousand Days and Natalie Dormer, who deservedly won legions of fan for playing Anne in the Showtime television series, The Tudors. Dormer's section on how she worked hard to give her Anne more depth and passion, and the lengths she went to as an actress to perfect her characterization, will be interesting to students of theatre and acting, as much as to those of gender and history.

There are a few, very, minor errors in The Creation of Anne Boleyn - for instance, at one point Bordo refers to Anne Boleyn's sister, Mary, as "thought by many to be the prettier of the two". There are no contemporary descriptions of Mary Boleyn's appearance, whatsoever. Quite probably because she was never judged important enough to be noticed in the way her sister was. However, Bordo is technically right in writing this, because somehow and from somewhere, the myth grew that Mary was the most beautiful of Thomas Boleyn's two daughters. Gaining validity by no surer virtue than that endowed by repetition the story of Mary Boleyn's prettiness is a reminder of the power that oft-repeated but unverifiable myths have on our perceptions of the past.

Finding errors in The Creation of Anne Boleyn, however, is essentially nit-picking. This is an erudite and thoroughly researched examination of an enormous and very interesting topic. Tracing Anne's reputation in the sources of her own time, who said what and why, right the way through the dramas and novels of subsequent centuries, down to the biographies and silver screen adaptations, Susan Bordo has produced a witty, compelling, convincingly argued and gloriously interesting book about one of England's most undeservedly notorious women. The Creation of Anne Boleyn is 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. 

20 comments:

  1. This looks like a great book to read! Very exciting. I see Lacey Baldwin Smith's new biography of Anne is coming out next month - apparently he's discovered alternative evidence and put forward a new theory for Anne's fall which sounds very thrilling.

    I totally agree with you about Natalie Dormer, Gareth, and her love of Anne Boleyn is fantastic. But don't you wish the producers had cared a little bit more about the actual costumes - as Alison Weir points out, there wasn't a single Henrician costume in there! That's what upset me most about Dormer's portrayal - she did not wear a single French hood, although this of course isn't her fault but the fashion team's. I'd have to say I think either Genevieve Bujold or Natalie Portman came closest to what Anne actually looked like; they both looked stunning.

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  2. Very interesting so any one who tries to be critical Anne Boylen is bad, and that she is the most important and interesting i wonder how many. Well i guess people have become real idol worshippers of the dead.

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  3. No. I'm afraid you haven't understood this review, at all.

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  4. I have understood this review and like i said any one who is critical of Anne is attacked by her devoted fans.

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  5. Then you certainly haven't understood it. You do understand that it's possible for someone to be sympathetic to their subject without being labelled a "fan"? If you read the book, rather than huffing and stropping on my blog, you could see that it's about why people are hostile to Anne or sympathetic. That is made quite clear both in my review and in the book. If you bothered to have any subtlety of thought you would have realised that. Bordo's book mentions works that are hostile to Anne without criticising them. Please do a little more research before dismissing a gifted academic as an angry fan, just because you happen to hold a different view to her.

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  6. I have done a little research and the more read and research about some of these writers, my conclusion is what i mentioned before. Since you talk of someone been sympathetic to a historical character, then i hope you too will respect how other people feel about their historical figures. Instead of bashing them.

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  7. I wasn't "bashing" them. I was rebutting your inaccurate, silly and anonymous comments, which by your own admission were made on nothing more than a "little" research. There's a substantial difference. Just as there is between disagreeing with someone and "bashing" them.

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  8. "Very interesting so any one who tries to be critical Anne Boylen is bad, and that she is the most important and interesting i wonder how many. Well i guess people have become real idol worshippers of the dead."

    Where has Gareth said that?

    Gareth, a great review of what sounds like an incredibly interesting book, I can't wait to read Susan's book after reading bits of her research on her FB page. Like many women in history, Anne's reputation/image has changed dramatically over time and it's fascinating to explore the roots of the different perceptions of her.

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    1. Thanks, Claire. It's a fantastic book; I can't tell you how much I enjoyed it. It also mentions your website and books, and those of people like Lara Eakins, Sylwia Zupanec, "On the Tudor Trail," etc., to talk about the impact that the internet has made on Tudor history. It's a superb read!

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    2. Yes, Susan really reached out to blogs and authors in regards to how Anne Boleyn is perceived today by the online community and by readers.

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  9. Anonymous, apologies. I accidentally deleted your last comment. The one where you referred to King Richard III as "richard 3." If you want to post it again and leave your name, I'm sure I could re-post it.

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  10. Thanks Gareth, for the wonderful review, and to both you and Claire for understanding that it's possible to write about Anne Boleyn without either being hostile to her or idolizing her. It's really fascinating that even today, people still persist in going to extremes, just as they did in her lifetime and in the centuries after. And too often, people still take their "positions" without regard to the historical evidence or even pure logic--for example, you only have to read Chapuys' letters to see that he is, to put it mildly, a hostile witness. Yet someone recently posted to me, writing that she was tired of people discrediting Chapuys just because "he didn't like Anne" (as she put it.) Just think if someone put on the stand of a trial today described the defendant as a "whore" (and worse); would we not regard his/her testimony as too biased to be credible? And yet, those of us who are suspicious of Chapuys' "reports" are accused on merely being Anne-worshippers. Aggh!!!

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  11. Absolutely, Susan. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on the cultural presentations of Marie-Antoinette from the 1790s onward and how she has achieved the posthumous reputation(s) she has today. It was fascinating but certainly frustrating to see someone extremely discreditable sources being used for both pro- and anti-Marie-Antoinette tropes. I think one of the things that was so great about the book was its ability to point out that hostility towards a historical person is not necessarily a good or bad thing, but what's worthy of interest is why people have reached those opinions. Hostility to Anne Boleyn is perfectly understandable, but if it's an opinion based on the work of a biased diplomat who never held a conversation with her, met her once and briefly in a formal setting, couldn't speak English and was on several occasions told by his superiors in Vienna and Madrid to calm down, as it were, then it's not a tenable opinion. Chapuys isn't useless; he's just interesting for a different set of reasons.

    Anyway, I loved the book and can't wait to hear other people's responses to it!

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  12. Thanks, Susan. I really don't understand the whole extreme thinking when it comes to Anne. If you challenge some theories about Anne you're seen as idolizing her, which is crazy, and then when you disagree with someone you're seen as "bashing". It's like the whole team thinking, that you have to pick sides. Mad!

    I am grateful to Chapuys for his multitude of letters but, as you say, they have to be treated with caution. He gossips, he gets things wrong and has to correct himself, and he's biased and makes no apology for being so. His letters have to be taken in the context in which they were written and compared to other records.

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  13. More people read fiction than read fact. I think that's a fact (if you pardon the pun). A lot of people who read fiction are drawn to learning the facts, but many more don't bother.
    I think fiction bares a lot of the responsibility for how Anne is seen today. When novels like 'The Other Boleyn Girl','Wolf Hall' and 'Bring up the Bodies', continue to portray Anne in such a negative light, then it's hardly surprising there remains a great deal of hostility towards her. The fires of that hostility are being constantly fed by works of fiction, and often that is all people will ever see.

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  14. Yes, it's really important to remember that Chapuys was not writing "history"; he was acting as a conduit between the english court and Charles and saw no conflict between his role as ambassador and advocating for Katherine/smearing Anne, or manipulating events to serve his ends. He didn't see anything "wrong" in it, indeed, the very discipline of "history" (in the sense in which we think of it, as unbiased recording of "what happened") had not yet been invented, and people didn't strive for objectivity--they tried to serve the cause of their monarch or their religion. We make a big mistake if we treat his letters (or anyone else's for that matter) as a record of events rather than advocacy for the things he believed in.

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  15. I immediately ordered the book as well as G.W. Bernard's after reading your review. I am looking forward to reading both.

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  16. This book looks great - I'll have to read it.

    However, I must query one thing - the bit about no academic rigorously scrutinising G. W. Bernard's arguments. This is slightly incorrect, for I read a review written by Eric Ives of Bernard's book, I believe published either last year or in 2011, and he was very critical of Bernard's arguments, and I finished the review convinced that Bernard had got the complete wrong end of the stick. More to the point, although his book was not published in the 1990s, Retha Warnicke severely challenged Bernard's initial thesis in an article she wrote in 1993. So I don't agree with Bordo here.

    However, it looks interesting to read for all Boleyn lovers.

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  17. It is an excellent read. Bordo's point in regards the Bernard book is that in comparison to Warnicke's it was not critiqued in the same way by peers who were not in direct competition with Bernard or working on exactly the same topic. Ives criticized Bernard for his arguments, but no other academic criticized him for his source work or use of the evidence, when they had been extremely harsh on R.M. Warnicke for precisely the same things. You might agree with her, or disagree with her, more strongly after reading the whole book and it may have been my review and choice of wording which made Susan's words seem less clear and fair than they actually were. For which I should apologise.

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  18. I will definitely consider reading the book, but that makes sense Gareth. I have to say, Warnicke has received a very bad press for her arguments (probably also because they've been so influential for the likes of Philippa Gregory); and I agree with your review on Amazon: this is a bit unfair since parts of her book are excellent, particularly, I believe, her work on Anne's family.

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