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. 

Wednesday 20 February 2013

Huffington Post profiles "The Immaculate Deception"

The Taoiseach's apologises to the survivors of the Magdalene Laundries

The publication of a report into the appalling conditions in the religiously-run Magdalene Laundries for "fallen" women in 20th century Ireland and the extent to which the Irish State funded, aided and supported those institutions has led to a public, and very moving, apology from Ireland's Taoiseach (prime minister), Enda Kelly, in which he excoriated the rose-tinted view of Ireland's past as a place of proper values and said that the Magdalene Laundries stand as a grim testament to the difference between being prim and being good. Many of the women incarcerated in the Magdalene laundries, where they were forced to work without wages in cavernous fee-charging laundries for weeks, months or years, were children, victims of rape, unwanted daughters and the mentally handicapped. They were abominable institutions, but when the 2002 movie The Magdalene Sisters (trailer above) first came out a decade ago, it was decried by some of the institutional Church's most zealous defenders as nothing more than secuarlist propaganda. As the McAleese report makes clear, in fact the fictionalized account of the Magdalene sisters, which was part of the first wave of Ireland beginning to look at the less-attractive side of the laundries, barely scratched the surface. The Taoiseach's apology and statement is moving, intelligent, carefully-worded and it avoids, I think, inflammatory rhetoric. It places the blame as much on social attitudes as the Church hierarchy and does not seek to foist the blame onto any one institution. His full and frank apology for the government's role in sustaining the laundries has long been campaigned for by the survivors of the Magdalene system.

The Taoiseach's full speech can be watched below. I realize now everyone may share my opinion of it, but I think it was long overdue and a tribute to Ireland - most especially the women it was speaking of.

Tuesday 12 February 2013

"Laughing at gilded butterflies"

This week, I have written a guest article for Claire Ridgway's The Anne Boleyn Files, about how Tudor, medieval and Baroque history influenced my two novels.

You can access it here and please take the time to read it, if you can; it was great fun to write.

Tuesday 5 February 2013

The face of King Richard III

A fascinating moment in historical discovery has taken place this week. Sadly, it has taken place amid a tidal wave of sugary nonsense - the vast majority of which seems to be tumbling forth from the mouth of members of the Richard III Society, a society which, under normal circumstances, should be the recipients of nothing but praise this week for helping to fund and oversee such a momentous scientific achievement.

The bones found beneath a car park in Leicester have been positively identified by the University of Leicester as being the remains of King Richard III, the last of the three Yorkist kings of England. Richard ruled from 1483, when he seized the throne from his nephew Edward V, until his own death at the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485, where he fought with great and noted bravery. His wife and only legitimate son predeceased him and he was replaced on the throne by his enemy in battle, Henry VII.

In the Tudor era, Richard III was roundly attacked for allegedly murdering both his nephews and of plotting, back-stabbing and cheating his way onto the throne. It is not true, as some of Richard's hardier enthusiasts have claimed, that this was a deliberately propagated campaign of defamation from the throne itself, but rather something that seems to have grown from the works of men like Thomas More and William Shakespeare. The Tudors themselves spoke very little about Richard III (since they were no doubt keen to avoid reminding everyone that, like him, they too had seized the throne from a lawfully-enthroned monarch). However, even if the Tudors weren't the ringmasters of the "we hate Richard" club of the 1500s, they undoubtedly would have been more inclined to look favourably on Thomas More's portrait of Richard than any attempt to exculpate their one-time foe.

Richard's body was buried hurriedly in Leicester after the battle, but the church he was buried in was subsequently destroyed during the iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformation. Since then, it has been lost and there were even stories that the Tudors had ordered his bones to be vindictively hurled into the river. That, too, is untrue and this week's results have confirmed that the body discovered in September 2012 was that of England's "last medieval" monarch. The bones will be re-interred in Leicester Cathedral, near where they originally rested. That is Church of England protocol and any suggestion of a state funeral or re-internment in Westminster Abbey has been nipped in the bud by Her Majesty The Queen, who has apparently discreetly made it clear that she doesn't want Richard buried there. A move supported or at the very least understood by Phil Stone, the Chairman of the Richard III Society.)

Since the seventeenth century, Richard has found himself the subject of a sustained campaign to rehabilitate him and a slightly less vociferous counter-campaign to have him remembered as a repulsive villain. The pro-rehabilitation "Ricardian" movement has produced many fine pieces of research that have greatly increased our understanding of the late medieval monarchy, although none of them have ever managed to definitively prove that he was not complicit in the disappearance of his nephews, despite valiant efforts. However, as this week has shown, the "Ricardian" movement has also been capable of producing over-zealous "fans". The sight of one person involved in the dig breathlessly proclaiming that the facial reconstruction of Richard III showed "just a hint of a smile, which is just lovely... he had a great sense of humour" forced me to wonder if she realised that the smile had been added in by an artist - since the real Richard died with ten wounds to the back of the skull and was therefore presumably not in much of a mood to crack a grin at the time. Documentaries like Channel 4's "The King in the Car park" only added to the frustration, with layer upon layer of saccharin, almost fan-girl-like, excitement glossing over the still-unanswered mysteries in Richard III's story in a relentless torrent of sentimental rubbish. Proclamations like "This will change everything we know about Richard III," raised an eyebrow. How? Is there a note about Edward V buried with him, clearing everything up? I doubt that. All these bones do are give us details on how he died (gruesomely) and what he looked like (genuinely fascinating.)

I was interview by BBC Radio Wales earlier this week, in which I suggested that, like most late medieval monarchs, Richard was driven by paranoia and ruthlessness. Given the time he grew up in, that seems a likely conclusion and it's an assessment that could be applied to most of his contemporaries. Richard's story is a fascinating one, but the study of it is occasionally being stifled by those who see themselves as Richard's champions. History is rarely comprised of heroes and villains and reducing Richard III and Henry VII to one or the other is frankly nothing short of silly. One member of the Richard III Society (a friend, actually) once pointed out to me, "We're not the Richard III Adoration Society, you know." 

"Well, stop acting like it then," I snapped. (I shouldn't have snapped.) "No-one wants to write anything critical of Richard in case they get hit by a torrent of hate mail from angry Ricardians." 

"I know," he (graciously) admitted. "There are whack-jobs in every movement, though."

We then debated whether "movement" was an appropriate term. In any case, the point is that historical debate is a good thing and can go on between friends, but when events like this week's moderate criticism gets swept to one side. A text from the same friend last night during the broadcast of "The King in the Car park," read, "Jesus. If she keeps going on like this, they'll be trying to turn his story into the next Disney movie." I laughed. Maybe even Richard, with that enigmatic waxwork smile of his, would have grinned, too.

I love history and I can therefore only be excited by the tremendous work done in Leicester and the reconstruction of this monarch's face. My congratulations to those involved.

Sinned against or sinning? Like most of his generation, I'd have to say: both. Either way, this long-dead king merited a slightly more measured and less breathlessly-excited defence this week. There are plenty of gifted academics who could, and should, have been interviewed to showcase a more serious, and more convincing, defence of Richard III.

My interview with Jason Mohammad at BBC Radio Wales can be listened to here, by going to 1h:22. 

Saturday 2 February 2013

A new portrait of Katherine of Aragon

Novelist and writer, Elena Maria Vidal, links to a very interesting new development in the art history world. Lambeth Palace, the official residence of His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury, has just confirmed the re-identification of the portrait shown above.

The portrait, of a richly dressed woman wearing cloth-of-gold sleeves and a gable hood, was identified in the nineteenth century as being a portrait of Henry VIII's sixth and final wife, Queen Katherine Parr. Katherine, who was the first woman to be officially styled as the Queen of Ireland as well as the Queen of England, married the King in July 1543 and remained his wife until his own death in 1547. A devout evangelical, who wrote two works of Protestant theology, Katherine was thirty-one at the time of her marriage and she had already been married twice before. Now it seems as if the portrait is not Katherine Parr, at all, but rather a portrait of Henry VIII's first wife, Katherine of Aragon, whom he married within weeks of coming to the throne in 1509. The pair remained married until the King's attempts to divorce her in the late 1520s set in motion the early English Reformation and the country's break with European Catholicism. 

Tudor portraiture is often a case of musical chairs, with portraits once thought to be Lady Jane Grey now being reidentified as Katherine Parr, one miniature being identified as Mary Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne Boleyn or Katherine of Aragon, an almost-certainly incorrect portrait of "Catherine Howard" that refuses to go away and portraits of multiple minor courtiers and princesses popping up all the time. Dating of the frame and analysis of the lady's costume, however, has allowed this identification to be one of the most scientific and it now seems quite clear that it shows the first Katherine, not the last.

A European attitude to the Irish language

Irish journalist and radio host, Scott De Buitléir, discusses a new play, Focal Point by Machan Magan, which looks at differing reactions to the Irish language in modern-day Ireland. Each of the play's characters represents one of the three major viewpoints - a middle-aged man who cherishes the language's historical links; his son, who resents the ways in which the Irish language was forced upon him by the education system; and a third character, a modern speaker, who values the language for its future role, rather than its historical links. De Buitléir is himself a fluent Irish speaker and teacher, who is also proficient in Danish. Rather than seeing Irish as being caught up in an historical struggle, although he clearly appreciates the legacy of the Gaelic Revival, Scott argues that a more European approach to Irish could help with its long-term growth.
"As Magan described his show, I could quickly identify myself with the third of his three characters, as each one describes a certain reaction to the subject of Irish. Unlike the middle-aged man who cherishes the traditional value of Irish, I’m not too interested in the Gaelic traditions that Irish is so often linked to. For me – a fluent yet second-language speaker – I view my relationship with Irish in a European context. I speak Irish to those whom I know also speak Irish, and will speak English to anyone else. This attitude, I feel is somewhat similar with that of younger generations in the likes of Germany or Scandinavia; they’ll speak their own language to those who they know can speak it, and will speak English with anyone else. 
As a former British colony, many of our attitudes are either a result of, or a reaction to post-colonialism... Like Manchán, I don’t associate myself as some proponent of Irish nationalism or idealism, just because I speak Irish. Unlike him, however, I won’t dismiss those who are sympathetic towards the language, because their experience is a trauma we need to address."
For Scott's full article, click here.

Friday 1 February 2013

My new book

Quite a few readers of this blog have asked about my first non-fiction book and I'm very excited to be able to say that it will be out this spring! I have written a book called A Thing More Glorious: A History of the British Monarchy, which is being published by the amazing team at MadeGlobal and which has been an incredible experience to write and research. Beginning with the coming of the Romans and ending with the Diamond Jubilee of 2012, A Thing More Glorious is supposed to be a thorough but intimate history of the British Crown, how it's developed, why it still matters and why it remains one of history's greatest stories. I hope I've done it justice and I'm looking forward so much to being able to share it with everyone here. I'll keep the blog updated with posts about how A Thing More Glorious is going and when it will be available to order!
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