|Keith Michell as Henry VIII and Jane Asher as Queen Jane Seymour (1972)|
The December edition of Tudor Life magazine, for members of the Tudor Society, is out. Sadly, the Australian actor Keith Michell, famous for his three on-screen performance as Henry VIII, passed away less than two weeks ago, which makes Roland Hui's article on Michell's work in Henry VIII and his Six Wives (1972) all the more poignant. Along with articles on piracy in Tudor England, the theory of the "little Ice Age", a review of a new study of Mary I, short stories, profiles of houses belonging to Anne of Cleves, banquets and carols, the magazine was also thrilled to host a wonderful piece of satire from Professor Susan Bordo, author of The Creation of Anne Boleyn. I am so pleased to post the excerpt from She, Anne, which formed the banner piece for this month's edition. The story is dedicated by the author to author Sue Grafton and Oscar-nominated actress, Genevieve Bujold.
Author’s note: In July 2015, Sue Grafton, author of the Kinsey Millhone mysteries, was interviewed in The New York Times. When asked about her favorite reading, she replied that she “has trouble passing up books about Anne Boleyn. I keep hoping for a different ending. So far, no luck.’ (New York Times, July 16, 2015, “By the Book”)
She, Anne, sits musing about preparations for the execution they say is to come in the morning. She is troubled at the prospect that her bit of an extra fingernail, which has been gestating like a deformed fetus in the imaginations of her enemies, growing larger and more disfiguring each day, would be exposed for all as she spread her arms for the executioner’s well-timed blow. She ponders which highly fashionable French execution robe would cover it most effectively. “Looking good is the best revenge,” she cackled to herself (cackling being a human sound especially beloved by witches,) revealing as she did so small, feral teeth that she longed to put to best use by piercing the robust neck of her husband’s chief counselor TC. Then she sighed, remembering that her days as a living body were soon to be over. She can already feel her fictional self ascending, her teeth becoming sharper, her hair blacker, her motives meaner. There were compensations, of course. She was pleased to note that her sallow skin and moles would disappear and she would grow more beautiful over the coming centuries. Eventually, perhaps, even the sixth finger would disappear.
Interrupting her musings, a visitor to her Tower rooms! Was it her jailer, Mr. Kingston, come to blather some more about the skill of her executioner? (French—of course he was skilled! Kingston himself--an idiot who doesn’t know a joke when he hears it.) Was it Cranmer, come to make her an offer of life in a convent should she agree to renounce her daughter Elizabeth’s claim to the throne? Cranmer was a dear man, but didn’t he know she, Anne, was a goggle-eyed whore who would as soon chop her own head off with a dull English hatchet as spend the rest of her life without a man to suck on her slender toes? Is it Elizabeth, come to pose for a painting of a tearful parting from her martyred mother? Is it her sister Mary, that simpering do-gooder (then again, might she be gulled into asking Henry to pardon her)? Perhaps it is TC himself, and they can together converse about the 21st century alchemy that would transform him, Cromwell (She never calls him “Cremuel”; sometimes “Crumb” but never “Cremuel”), from unscrupulous factotum to a warm and dryly witty man for all seasons? (Or was that TM? It is so difficult to keep the Thomas’s straight as they mutate, along with Anne herself, over the centuries!)
No. The visitor is the beloved husband himself, come to make the offer of life “for old times’ sake.” He wants to marry again, they all know that. But he is a fool if he thinks her daughter’s rights can be bought that cheaply. And—ah! —He also wants to know if the charges are true. Has she, Anne, really been unfaithful to him? Henry appears bleary-eyed, as though he has been on a bender; he is speaking oddly, bellowing with eyes raised to heaven, much like a preacher or a travelling actor from the north, come to court to tell tales of Arthur and Guinevere. Anne, recalling those tales, is tempted to make an argument with herself: Guinevere was queen, Guinevere was condemned, Guinevere was saved. Perhaps she, too….?
No. She, Anne, is not fooled by the poetic, impassioned performance of her husband (who also seems to have lost a bit of weight since her arrest.) She knows that future re-tellings will often make her look about anxiously as she walks to the scaffold, hoping for the savior/messenger, but she does not expect her husband to issue a last-minute pardon. She knows too that the future will often make her colder, meaner, and more grasping than she is, but rarely will it fathom her intelligence. She has “wit,” they always say. But she, Anne, this Anne, has more than wit, and she knows how to conjure a real curse. “Take it to your grave,” she tells him, excited and flushed by the perfect extravagance of her lie, “I was unfaithful to you with half your court.” Henry, who cannot bear to feel his mind waver—it isn’t Kingly or manly—does not now know what to believe. Impotent with rage, he slaps her. She hardly cares about the sting of the slap; she faces far worse in the morrow. Actually, it is quite a delectable moment, even more soul satisfying than when, barely a breath later really, in eternal time, she will see that snake TC with his head finally off his shoulders. As for Henry, she cannot resist a final thrust, knowing it will stir the souls of later generations, with a persuasion beyond mere fact. “But Elizabeth is yours! And will rule an England far greater than any you could have built!” Henry’s expression is worth the coming blood on the scaffold.
She, Anne, wishes she could do better than this for Sue Grafton. Alas, there are some things—very few—that biographers and novelists cannot tinker with. Whore, martyr, sister from hell, exploited innocent, ambitious predator, sexual temptress, religious reformer, rebel girl—she, Anne, can see her many strange future selves displayed before her, as she awaits the hour of her execution. Fingers, moles, skin, swellings, teeth, nipples—up for grabs. The head, however, must come off. She, Anne, is as sorry about this as you are. But think on this, as you count the books on your shelf: Who, of all Henry’s wives, has lived the longest? Ha!
Professor Bordo holds the Otis A. Singletary Chair in the Humanities at the University of Kentucky and she is the author of many well-known books and articles, most recently The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen, available both in U.S. and U.K. editions.