By Professor G.W. Bernard (University of Southampton)
Reviewed by Gareth Russell
According to most of her contemporaries, Anne Boleyn was a young woman of many talents. As well as being articulate, well-read and trilingual, she was also, at least according to William Thomas, clerk of the privy council, ‘a woman endued with as many outward good qualities in playing on instruments, singing and such other courtly graces as few women of her time’. Yet Anne’s most enduring and most important talent was also her most indefinable. Anne Boleyn had a unique and, frustratingly for the historian, unquantifiable talent for provoking obsession. In life, it generated an attraction which first propelled her onto the throne and then, as the subtitle of this biography makes clear, onto the scaffold. In death, it has helped her become an icon of sustained popular fascination. And it is this talent of Anne’s, if no other, which George Bernard is prepared to acknowledge in his new book Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions. Contrary to most studies of her life, it is Bernard’s contention that although Anne Boleyn was undeniably highly attractive in terms of her appearance, there was nothing about her personality, intellect, interests or accomplishments which marked her out as being particularly exceptional, except for the fact that Henry VIII happened, inexplicably, to fall so violently and obsessively in love with her.
This, Bernard’s first foray into the biographical genre (Bernard is a professor of English History at the University of Southampton and his best-known previous work was The King's Reformation) will, of course, always be best known for the fact that it is thus far the only biography of Anne Boleyn to seriously suggest that she might have been guilty of at least some of the charges for which she and five men were executed in May 1536. Yet although five of Fatal Attractions’ twelve chapters are devoted to expounding this controversial hypothesis, there are other aspects of Boleyn’s life and career which Bernard studies and in three other key areas, he offers a potentially valid revisionist interpretation of a woman who was described by one of her other recent academic biographers as ‘the most important and influential queen consort this country has ever had.’