Review: The Creation of Anne Boleyn, Susan Bordo

You know that feeling when it’s as if the book finds you, rather than the other way around?  Maybe you don’t – but this was definitely what The Creation of Anne Boleyn felt like to me.  I am always interested in how perceptions of historical figures can shift over time and this year, how changing social and cultural expectations can lead to the same person being perceived in a different way, decades and even centuries after their death.  To my delight, this year I have found other people who were interested enough to write books on the subject, with the Brontes going under the microscope in The Brontë Myth, Jane Austen in Jane’s Fame and now Anne Boleyn gets a turn with well-known feminist historian Susan Bordo.  What is it about Anne Boleyn that makes her quite so notorious? And how much of the myth is actually based on fact?

anne_boleynAs Bordo herself acknowledges, Anne Boleyn’s life story has all the elements of a melodrama.  She rose, she reigned and then she was ruined – she ripped down Good Queen Katherine and ruled in her stead and the people rejoiced in her fall.  She had six fingers, she practiced witchcraft, she slept with an untold number of men, she plotted to poison Mary and her mother.  Or did she?  Was she the religious reformer, a woman ahead of her time, intellectual, refusing to bow to a man, proto-feminist and free thinker?  While Katherine of Aragon was pious and motherly, Anne Boleyn was sexy, tempting Henry with her womanly wiles – she was the Angelina Jolie to Katherine’s Jennifer Aniston and the world has not forgiven Anne for it, five centuries on.

With the first section, Bordo analyses the evidence, looking at contemporary accounts of the real woman and tries to decide how far it can be trusted – and her general conclusion is that it cannot.  The most detailed accounts always come from Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador, who hated Anne – how far can we really believe a word he says?  He was actively plotting against Anne and went out of his way to stir up feeling against her, but as Bordo charts how far his stories have persisted, you realise quite how effective he has been at besmirching Anne’s reputation.  It’s strange, Bordo notes that when she first started her research for this project and ventured criticism of Chapuys, the online backlash was considerable.  I myself felt oddly injured when I first read her denouncements – why do I feel a sense of attachment to a Spanish man who died several centuries ago?  As Bordo points out, his chronicles are the most interesting sources and he had a knack for adding colour – he was a storyteller and it is through his eyes that most Tudor fans are drawn in.  I have quite liked Chapuys since I was around eight or nine, so it’s a strange thing to have it pointed out that I have no guarantee that he was actually telling the truth.

Even the physical descriptions of Anne are contradictory – Bordo points out that none of the skeletons excavated from the Tower of London chapel were found to have six fingers and there are no original sources for the claim that Anne always wore high-necked gowns to hide the blemish under her neck.  Indeed, she appear to have suffered a similar posthumous fate to that of Richard III; where he grew a hump and developed a dead arm, she sprouted extra fingers, lost her religious convictions, grew strange demonic marks and general mannish features.  Another thing that was strange was how the contemporary descriptions of Anne as ‘swarthy’ have been forgotten along the way, as has the fact that Katherine of Aragon had auburn hair.  Most portrayals of Anne have her skin lily-white, such as in the case of Natalie Dormer in The Tudors, while Katherine tends to have her Spanish features accentuated through darker skin and hair, even though the opposite seems to have been true in real life, thanks to Katherine’s Lancastrian ancestry.

Susan Bordo

Bordo walks us through the descriptions in some of the most well-known modern biographies to feature Anne and then tries to find source material to back them up – there tends to be very little.  Again, this really got me thinking – I studied Arthurian legends at university (the joys of the literature degree) and I remember being amazed by the audacity of Geoffrey of Monmouth, who had shamelessly fabricated much of his historical account of England’s history.  Medieval lore had it that through prayer, the pen could be guided to the truth, and so he hoped.  But really, are our modern historians really any better when they sit down and seem to try and dream their way into an understanding of their subject?  Bordo compares passages written by Alison Weir to those by Philippa Gregory and though I hate to admit it, there is very little difference in tone.  It is not just Weir though who comes in for Bordo’s disapproval, Starkey too gets a scolding for implying that Anne’s enemy Chapuys would have no reason to speak against her, but Bordo saves a special derision for the Victorian historians who were too prim to admit the well-documented fact that Anne Boleyn conceived Elizabeth before her marriage, meaning that they tended to either fudge Elizabeth’s date of birth or the date of the marriage, or even to imply that Elizabeth must have been simply very premature.

This is clearly a work of huge passion for its author – Bordo clearly recognises that Anne has come to represent something far greater within our culture than simply being Henry VIII’s wife.  She tries to understand the original woman – goes over the relatively reliable accounts of Anne’s final days in the tower, where Bordo analyses her to have been in simple shock at how her fortunes had turned (and not unreasonably so), but then also contemplates the bigger question – how could Henry do that to a woman he had once loved?  Bordo compares Anne’s trial to that of OJ Simpson in terms of sensationalism, contrasts Henry’s actions to those of the Glen Ridge rapists (high school football players who assaulted a mentally handicapped young girl), although more modern examples might be those of the Steubenville rape case.  Henry was the king, he had nobody to gainsay him and he just did it – there was nobody to tell him not to.  I have always found it hard to like Henry after Anne’s execution – surely one could not walk away from such a savage deed unchanged?

Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn in Showtime’s The Tudors

Bordo tries so hard to make Anne relatable, to look past the mythologising to who the woman might have been, but as she admits herself, she can only write from her own time.  The modern Anne Boleyn is a feminist icon – Bordo recounts the discussions which she had with her Kentucky-based students on the topic and here we start to see the cracks in Bordo’s methodology.  Students and teacher agree that if Anne were around today she would dress ‘provocatively but not slutty’, that she would wear business suits in the day but then designer gear at night.  Bordo imagines that Anne would flirt and then mystify the men by going home alone but I was not quite sure how far she recognised that this creature was as much a product of her own imagination as so many of those she poured derision upon.  Similarly, when Bordo interviews several of the actresses who played Anne Boleyn onscreen, one can see her fall victim to the charms of Natalie Dormer, boasting of how they sat in a bar ‘like a pair of long-term girlfriends’, discussing their mutual admiration of Anne.  I am sure that Natalie Dormer is a lovely person, but that does make her portrayal of Anne to be in any way noteworthy.  I saw a fair amount of Showtime’s The Tudors series  because Cousin the Elder was a fan (she liked Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) but I was never able to get through more than a few minutes without wanting to crawl into a fetal position and put my fingers in my ears.  All the same, it’s hard to blame Bordo for enjoying an in-depth conversation about a subject that both women obviously found fascinating.

philippa gregory
Philippa Gregory. Just ugh.

The part of the book which perhaps delighted me most of all though was when Bordo took the opportunity to underline her clear disdain for Philippa Gregory.  As a long-term loather, I particularly enjoyed the part where Bordo went through the major plot points of The Other Boleyn Girl and highlighted their historical inaccuracy with helpful categories such as ‘concocted fictions’ and ‘no evidence or contrary evidence’.  Like me, Bordo is clearly incensed not by Gregory’s frequent divergence from the truth in search of a better story – many authors of historical fiction do this – but rather from Gregory’s on-going insistence that she does not do so and that she is in fact a historian.  It’s the arrogance that really insults the intelligence, and the hypocrisy given how often Gregory decries the ‘wickedness’ of putting false accounts on the record.  Bordo is particularly affronted however by the central narrative of The Other Boleyn Girl which places Mary Boleyn as the ‘good sister’ who is basically a virgin (even though in real life she’d already had a fling with Francis I) while Anne Boleyn is the homewrecker, punished for her monstrous ambition with death while Mary knows her place and likes pottering about the home and so she gets the happy ending.  It’s all a bit medieval in terms of moralising.

Bordo sifts through the other well-known portrayals of Anne and finds almost all of them wanting.  Even Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall keeps up withh the Anne-as-bitch image.  It is truly fascinating to see, as Bordo describes it, as the revenge of Eustace Chapuys.  From far beyond the grave, the tales he told overshadow any truth that can be found about a flesh and blood woman.  Even respectable scholars continue to declare that Anne did indeed commit adultery based on a ‘hunch’ or a ‘feeling’.  Or else they describe Anne’s pursuit and destruction of Wolsey, an event more fairly laid at Henry’s door.  Anne is the pantomime witch; it suited Chapuys’ to blame Henry’s misdemeanors on ‘the Lady’ and so we continue to do so.  How could a normal woman keep a man on a string for six whole years?  Surely there was something strange about her.  Even Henry said that she was not of the usual ‘clay.’

Eustace Chapuys – does he have the final word?

It stretched my credulity more than somewhat for Bordo to ponder whether being brought up by his mother in the company of his sisters had given Henry some sort of proto-feminist leanings that allowed him to appreciate Anne’s independence, but there was clearly something odd here.  Yet, Henry’s grandfather Edward IV set aside political ambition in choosing to marry Elizabeth Woodville, a widowed woman older than himself, and Henry was often said to resemble him.  Commentators at the time were surprised that if Henry was so determined to set aside his wife, that he did not at least try to wed Elizabeth Blount, who was single at the time and who had already given birth to his son.  Blount was reckoned more beautiful than Boleyn and more charming, but still Henry preferred Anne.  Five hundred years later, we are still debating why.

I do not feel that The Creation of Anne Boleyn managed to uncover the real woman but it did pose some fascinating questions.  More than anything, I just want to meet up with Bordo for coffee and explain my own hatred of Philippa Gregory’s achievements (I would appreciate another opinion over whether Gregory’s long-term slander of the Tudor dynasty represents some kind of psychological issue) but also, I feel that Bordo has opened up a whole new dimension to Tudor mania.  I would love to read a similar book charting the cultural afterlife of Elizabeth I.  It would be wrong to pick this up looking for an academic work – it has sourcing and footnotes but this is a deeply personal exploration of  how our responses to Anne Boleyn have shifted down the centuries.  From the wicked wife to the Protestant martyr to the feminist pioneer, Anne Boleyn has lived a thousand lives.  Quite the miracle given that her own was so short.  Henry had all her portraits destroyed, the letter ‘A’s in Hampton Court which signified her were chiselled out and replaced with ‘J’s.  Is it perhaps the ultimate victory that no matter what he did, Henry was never able to escape her?

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The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on April 9th 2013
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Historical, Women, History, Europe, Great Britain, Social Science, Feminism & Feminist Theory, Literary Criticism, General
Pages: 368
ISBN: 9780547999524

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2 thoughts on “Review: The Creation of Anne Boleyn, Susan Bordo

  1. I hugely enjoyed this book, and although I have never seen The Tudors (well, maybe a few episodes? very long ago? maybe?), I thought it was at least really sweet that Natalie Dormer wanted to do right by Anne Boleyn. Sounds like she maybe did not succeed in bringing the character to life, but the attempt is really nice.

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