Susan Bordo is a fan of Anne Bolelyn. She’s particularly fond of the various ways in which Anne has been portrayed in films, novels and plays. Her new book, The Creation of Anne Bolelyn isn’t really a biography of ‘England’s most notorious queen.’ It’s more a feminist social history of the various ways Anne has been represented through the years. If you are reasonably cognizant of the Tudor period in English history, and if you’ve enjoyed, say, The Tudors, Anne of a Thousand Days and/or The Other Bolelyn Girl, you’ll love this book. Love it. (Well, maybe not TOBG. Bordo’s not a fan of that particular take on Anne). It’s this good; before reading Bordo, I was not familiar with Howard Brinton’s play Anne Bolelyn: after reading Bordo, I purchased a copy. If you’re looking for a solid, well-written, well-researched biography of Anne, I recommend Eric Ives’ The Life and Death of Anne Bolelyn, or Alison Weir’s The Lady in the Tower. Or try Tudorhistory.org. Good stuff there. That’s not to say that Bordo’s book doesn’t include solid and interesting biographical material; just that biography is not its focus.
But it’s a great book, witty and fun and smart. My only quibble; she left out Rick Wakeman’s record album The Six Wives of Henry VIII. I’m listening to it now while I write this blog. I know it’s just instrumental music, Yes’ legendary keyboardist’s take on each of the wives. But I defy anyone to listen to his Catherine Howard track and not admit that he got it right. (I also love Jane Seymour from that album–his Anne Bolelyn strikes me as a titch melodramatic).
Anne Bolelyn did not have six fingers on one hand, and it’s exceptionally unlikely she had a vestigial third nipple. She was dark in complexion, possibly with what we would call ‘sallow’ skin, and with dark, though probably not jet-black hair. Her body was tall, slender, possibly even boyish. (Natalie Portman’s not terrible casting, actually, if she hadn’t been handed a script that so dismally misrepresented its subject). In an era when a white complexion and a buxom frame were considered desirable for women, she would not have been regarded as beautiful. She was educated in the French court of Marguerite of Navarre, whose salon was the most forceful, brilliant and liberal in Europe. Anne therefore received the finest education available to a 16th century European woman. That, Bordo thinks, is what attracted Henry to her–her wit, her intelligence, her advanced and informed views on the major issues of the day. She was not a Lutheran, but she was a Protestant, and her personally library included every major intellectual influence of the day. She was, in short, someone Henry had not previously encountered, a brilliant, forceful, smart, funny, intellectual woman, his equal and partner.
One prevailing view of her is that she ‘bewitched’ Henry, seduced him into apostasy and murder. That’s essentially the portrayal of The Other Bolelyn Girl, Natalie Portman playing Anne as a vicious and conscience-less seductress. This was the view promoted by Anne’s bitterest enemy in the Tudor court, Eustace Chapuys, the ambassador from Spain. Chapuys was a fervent Catholic, and a forceful defender of Katherine of Aragon. He detested Anne, for what seem to have been personal and political reasons. Unfortunately, Chapuys was also a prolific and capable writer. His accounts of the period are an unmatched historical resource. But his biases were also clear, and have to be accounted for by any judicious historian. Philippa Gregory, author of The Other Bolelyn Girl did not break new ground in her novel–she merely recycled the Chapuys Anne. The opposing Protestant view (found in, for example, Foxes’s Book of Martyrs, portrayed an entirely innocent Anne, heroic and virtuous, the victim of a rapacious and evil king.
Finding the ‘real Anne’ between those ‘whore or saint’ stereotypes is probably impossible, and certainly extremely difficult. But I find Bordo’s Anne convincing. Henry VIII was an intelligent and well-educated King. I think it goes without saying that he had a rather forceful personality. It’s preposterous to imagine an Anne Bolelyn who wrapped him around her (vestigial) little finger, an Anne who drove him reluctantly to murder close friends and advisors like Cardinal Wolsey and Sir Thomas More. Nor is it remotely plausible that Anne, once she became queen, would have been foolish enough to commit adultery. (In fact, the specific accusations of adultery under which she was condemned were almost entirely physical impossibilities; specific instances in which she could be proved to have been hundreds of miles away from the men with whom she was supposed to have been sleeping).
No, the far more plausible reality was probably this: Anne Bolelyn was a witty, charming and brilliant woman who became Henry’s partner and wife, a committed Protestant who introduced him to authors who grounded Henry in Protestant thought, a capable administrator who proved an effective co-governor. Anne probably also saw Thomas Cromwell as a friend and co-Protestant advisor, and so he proved to be. But Cromwell was, above all, a politician and survivor. When he saw Henry’s growing displeasure with Anne’s inability to provide him with a male heir, Cromwell was smart enough to turn on his former ally. It’s unlikely that Anne was complicit in the death of, say, More, though. Henry had proved himself capable of violence and murderous jealousies and rages years before he met Anne Bolelyn.
Not many of Anne’s writings have survived. Henry had all her letters burned, though a cache of his letters to her has survived. Those of her writings that have survived, though, reveal a direct and straightforward style, and a matchless courage. The greatest Annes of stage and screen portrayal (and Bordo particularly admires Natalie Dormer in The Tudors Showtime miniseries, and Genevieve Bujold in Anne of a Thousand Days), have captured Anne’s intelligence, humor and strength. She was, I think, genuinely her daughter’s mother. And her daughter was the greatest King England ever saw.