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Black Is The Colour Of My True Love’s Hair

April 24, 2013

I was clearing out old bookmarks when I found this post, which I had noted and then neglected: “Was Anne Boleyn a redhead?” The questioner is Dr. Susan Bordo, whose book The Creation of Anne Boleyn came out a few weeks ago. I’m still waiting on my copy, but unless the content changed substantially between the post and book, I’ll make an attempt to answer this question, or rather, the part of it that relates to fiction.

Did the real Anne have red or at least dark auburn hair? It’s certainly in the realm of possibility — as Bordo points out, her earliest portraits (none, alas, contemporary) all depict her with a reddish tinge to her hair, and the only source to say flat-out that her hair was black is Nicolas Sander, in the famous description where he also said she had a mole, projecting tooth, and sixth finger, albeit he still conceded that she was “handsome to look at.” Francesco Sanuto’s contemporary description called her “swarthy … [with] eyes which are black and beautiful,” and others agreed on the comparative darkness of her complexion and eyes, not least Thomas Wyatt, who called her “Brunette”. (A good roundup of these descriptions can be found in Ives, 39-41). If olive — or at least not milk-white — skin and dark eyes seem incompatible with dark red or auburn hair, the combination certainly is not impossible, although I would beware of relying too much on portraits. Even the painters of the originals would not have been immune to flattering their subjects by bringing them a bit closer to contemporary ideals of beauty, and aging can do strange things to the colours in paintings as well.

With such contemporary descriptions, however, it’s not surprising that later writers extrapolated from the descriptions of “swarthy” skin and black eyes and assumed that Anne’s hair was black as well, or at least very dark brown. And here is where there’s a fascinating split between two different art forms. Nineteenth-century painters certainly loved to paint a blonde Anne Boleyn. “The romantics almost always depicted her as fair — the visual counterpart to their view of Anne as victim rather than vixen,” Dr. Bordo writes, and it’s hard to look at those paintings and disagree. However, instead of citing the paintings (at least, in the blog post — I wouldn’t be surprised to see them in the book) she cites early works of fiction, in which the evidence of Anne’s blondeness — by contrast with the paintings — is quite thin.

Exhibit A in her argument is the description of Anne from Reginald Drew’s Anne Boleyn (1912).

She was radiant and dimpled, and her beautiful face, pink-hued and lily white, rippled with laughter and bubbled with vivacity. She had sparkling eyes, wavy golden-brown hair which framed her face like a picture, and which her coif could not either confine or conceal.

Drew’s book embraces the Anne As Victim line, there’s no doubt about that, and its Anne could be Edouard Cibot’s brought to life. But another book Dr. Bordo cites, My Friend Anne (1900), far from depicting Anne as someone “who could be Mary Pickford” describes her this way:

Perhaps the woman never lived whose claims to beauty were more disputed than were those of our ill-fated friend Anne Boleyn. A fact it is that many persons did consider her downright plain. Scarcely a woman would ever allow that she had any real claim to beauty, yet were there few who did not look upon her with that peculiar involuntary expression which every woman instinctively recognises as a tribute of — perchance unwilling — but no less sincere admiration from those of her own sex. One thing is certain: for most men Anne did possess a fascination of some sort, none the less strong if it lay rather in some potent witchery of manner than in actual beauty of face or form. (53)

Anne’s actual colouring is not explicitly described. The paintings by G. Demain Hammond which illustrate the book certainly depict women with faces very much in the Gibson Girl line, but if there’s a Mary Pickford lookalike, it’s the heroine, Patience Linacre. Anne herself appears in only one picture, and since the paintings are reproduced in black and white it’s impossible to tell just what shade her hair is supposed to be except that it’s not pure blonde.

Furthermore it’s possible to find a scant few references to a “swarthy” or dark-haired Anne in nineteenth-century literary productions. The chief problem here is that before the twentieth century, the vast, vast majority of fiction surrounding Anne was embodied in drama, not novels or short stories (though a few of these did exist). Beyond a general suggestion that Anne was beautiful, or at least very attractive if not conventionally pretty, dramatists seldom spent much time describing her looks. Why should they? She’s already on the stage for the audience to see for themselves. But at least one gave us a hint: in Anne Boleyn: An Original Historical Play In Five Acts, Anne is described as

A cunning gipsy, with her velvet eyes
And nut-brown cheeks that pale or flush at will.

While her hair colour is not stated, describing her as looking like a “gipsy” probably rules out anything overly pale. As it stands, the description sounds quite close to Sanuto, or at least to Agnes Strickland’s paraphrase when she describes the “warm brunette complexion and sparkling black eyes of Anne Boleyn.” (Strickland also refuses to commit herself definitely on the hair colour question, although she does tell us from some mysterious source that Anne liked her hair in ringlets). But at least one nineteenth-century writer went further. In Annie Boleyn’s New Year (c. 1880), Anne reflects on her prospects, and her hair colour along with them:

Though the prospect of becoming queen consort is alluring, and a crown will well become these glossy raven braids, yet there are seasons like the present, when as if prophetically, my spirit shrinks from the honor; and the diamond circlet, only to be attained through a union with Henry, loses all value.

I do not, of course, mean to imply that every playwright and poet who decided to crank out a work called Anne Boleyn: A Tragedy was picturing her as dark-eyed, olive-skinned, and probably not blonde. Every era has its own fashions in faces, and people will inevitably think of famous past beauties in terms of what their own era thinks beautiful. But while writers may well have had subconscious images of Anne The English Rose, they had one advantage that the painters didn’t; in order to pursue their work, they had to read about her, if only a little. A painter depicting Anne Boleyn’s courtship or Anne Boleyn in the Tower didn’t have to know much more about her personally than the facts that she was, in fact, courted and did end up in the Tower. But even the most slapdash of writers was likely to encounter Agnes Strickland’s descriptions, or, a few decades earlier, Mrs. Thomson’s or Miss Benger’s. Mrs. Thomson, in her Memoirs of the Court of Henry VII (1826), rejects Sander’s description and describes Anne thus: “Her face was oval, her hair dark, and her eyebrows peculiarly arched; but her mouth was her most beautiful feature in her physiognomy.” (v.2, p.18) A few years earlier, Miss Benger, in her Memoirs Of The Life Of Anne Boleyn (1821) stated “That Anne was a brunette is pretty well known …. The fascination of Anne appears not to have resided even in her features, though of these the loveliness is almost universally acknowledged” (133).

It’s no surprise that the one book which unequivocally casts Anne as a pink-and-white, nineteenth-century ideal, Anne Boleyn (1912), is also one of the most fanciful works about her. The author knows of Cardinal Wolsey’s and Henry VIII’s existence, and that Anne had an attachment to Henry Percy, but other than that it’s a melodramatic kitchen sink featuring malevolent dwarf jesters, weddings interrupted at the last second, flights to the continent ahead of a villainous pursuer, an attempted abduction, a forced marriage, and sundry plot points which have essentially nothing to do with anything Anne or her compatriots ever did. That the heroine of the book should look as unlike Anne as she acts seems only appropriate. She’d be right at home in a nineteenth-century painting, but in the world of written fiction, she’s an anomaly.

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From → Essays

4 Comments
  1. I loved this blog!!! thanks so much for extending the discussion about Anne’s hair! Susan Bordo

  2. sonetka permalink

    Thank you, I’m glad it was helpful. I wish I could get a look at Anne Boleyn: An Historical Romance from 1842, but as it was written by the same Mrs. Thomson who wrote Memoirs of the Court of Henry VIII, I would guess that her hair is dark in that book also.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. A Break For Nonfiction: The Creation Of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo (2013) |
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