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.
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