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

June 1, 2013

I wanted to like this book so much more than I did. It’s hard to go wrong tracing Anne’s posthumous evolution from from non-person to seductive vixen to Protestant martyr to giddy flirt to the many twentieth and twenty-first century Annes we all know and love, and there’s enough source material to take a container ship to the bottom of the Atlantic. And the book is certainly readable – it’s written in a light, engaging style, with all sorts of interesting digressions on the historical perception of Anne’s hair colour, a roundup of what Victorian children’s histories had to say about her (they ranged from the “really good” Anne who was slandered by the King’s friends saying “wicked things” about her to the Anne who was innocent but nonetheless suffered “the penalty of her wicked ambition”) and Dostoevsky’s description of the last five minutes of life before one’s execution, coupled with the author’s own experience getting knocked down in the street and believing for a split second that she was about to be killed by a bus. It was here that I learned about Francis Hackett suing Maxwell Anderson, claiming that Anne of the Thousand Days was ripped off from his novel Queen Anne Boleyn (having read both, I can say that Hackett only wished he was that interesting). I liked all of this. The beginnings of Anne’s web presence, and the fascination she holds for readers and bloggers, was naturally of great interest to me, and the interviews with Genevieve Bujold and Natalie Dormer, both of whom played Anne to great acclaim (in Anne of the Thousand Days and The Tudors respectively) were quite good – Bujold’s reply to the question of who else should play Anne has been deservingly quoted in almost every other review. “Me,” she told the author. “Anne is mine.”

And then … there’s the rest of it.

The author, along with a great many other people, has her own image of what the real Anne was like. The central problem with the book arises from the fact that she makes no effort to keep this imaginary Anne from intruding into her assessments of Anne-related materials. Unfortunately this causes some serious problems with source evaluation and usage. The first half of the book, which consists of a sketch of Anne’s life, notes with justice that Chapuys and Cavendish cannot be treated as unbiased witnesses, but the trouble is that once they’ve been thrown out wholesale, there’s very little left except a few scraps, panegyrics from a generation later, and one’s own imagination, which is a treacherous guide. George Wyatt and Alexander Aless are given more serious credence, but as they were writing during the reign of Anne’s daughter, their biases would be just as strong as those of Chapuys and Cavendish, just in the opposite direction. The strident denunciations of the latter two leave a bad taste in one’s mouth – Cavendish’s “biography” of Wolsey is referred to in sneer quotes, and it’s seriously proposed that Chapuys may have rendered material assistance to Cromwell in creating the plot against Anne (Chapuys’ description of her trial and condemnation, in which he says openly that there was no valid evidence against her, is not noted). It’s made clear early on that the only trustworthy account of Anne is the flattering account, which leads to such problematic episodes as the recommendation of Joanna Denny’s laughably prejudiced biography for a realistic take on Anne, and the inclusion of an anecdote from Miss Benger (writing in 1821!) telling of how Anne once persuaded Henry to ride in a supposedly haunted forest to show him the error of superstition. While it’s noted that the anecdote “may be apocryphal” it’s still supposed to “square in spirit with what we know about Anne,” namely, that she was a major proponent of the English Bible and religious reform. While the latter is certainly true, it’s unclear why Benger’s early nineteenth century romancing is more worthy of possible belief than Chapuys’ contemporary reports of Anne’s supposed designs on Mary’s and Catherine’s lives. There’s also a great deal of unmoored speculation on Henry VIII’s psychological state and upbringing, based largely on Francis Hackett’s biography – which, while interesting, is inaccurate in many ways and not even close to definitive. The standard in biographies was set by J.J. Scarisbrick’s Henry VIII, which appears nowhere in the bibliography.

There are some other startling omissions from the bibliography. Garrett Mattingly’s biography of Catherine of Aragon is nowhere to be seen, and neither is Julia Fox’s biography of Lady Rochford, which might have saved the author from error when she noted that Chapuys “hinted at Lady Rochford’s involvement” in Anne’s downfall, as it’s made clear there that Chapuys “hinted” at no such thing – he never mentioned her at all. It’s a very important dog that didn’t bark in the question of Lady Rochford’s guilt or innocence. Another important omission is that of Katharine Thomson.

Katharine (Mrs. A.T.) Thomson wrote her Memoirs of the Court of Henry VIII in 1826; it was similar in spirit to Miss Benger’s earlier and Miss Strickland’s later socially-oriented histories. Omitting her nonfiction book is no problem; there were many similar works. However, in 1842 she wrote a three-volume novel called Anne Boleyn, An Historical Romance which would appear (if one excepts the Novels of Queen Elizabeth from 1680) to be the first full-dress novel about Anne Boleyn. However, it is not noted at all. My Friend Anne, from 1900, is noted, but is assigned an inaccurate publication date of 1935. The Favor of Kings, published in 1912, is stated to be “the first full-length novel about Anne.” These are far from the only errors present in this section. Brief Gaudy Hour, thoughtfully compared with other literature aimed at young women just after World War II, is said to plunge Anne and Percy into “a passionate, doomed – and fully sexually realized – affair” instead of dating or “planning a wedding,” like other stories of the time starring young, lively women. But it isn’t quite as straightforward as that. Percy gives her a ring, saying “In spite of everything, we shall be betrothed,” and Anne accepts it, telling him that she will “plead our pre-contract” to her father if he insists on the Butler match. When they do sleep together, after Wolsey has tried to end the attachment, it’s to try and force the issue; Butler will never have her if she’s no longer a virgin, and her parents will have to let her marry Percy. (Technically speaking, they become legally married at this point as they had “precontracted” earlier, thought neither quite seems to realize it and they can’t really insist on it later due to awkward circumstances). But it’s certainly not an “affair” in the sense of Anne’s affair with Thomas Wyatt as depicted in Evelyn Anthony’s Anne Boleyn, published eight years later, in 1957, and not mentioned in this book. Furthermore, the episode in Brief Gaudy Hour in which Anne celebrates in yellow on hearing of Catherine’s death, and is rebuked by a black-clad, mourning Henry, is described as “a brand-new fiction.” In fact, the episode has its origins in Agnes Strickland (possibly drawing from an earlier source, though I couldn’t tell you which) writing in 1844 and cited in the bibliography.

On the day of her royal rival’s funeral she not only disobeyed the king’s order, which required black to be worn on that day, but violated good taste and good feeling alike by appearing in yellow, and making her ladies do the same. The change in Henry’s feeling towards Anne may, in all probability, be attributed to the disgust caused by the indelicacy of her triumph. (217)

The exultant Anne rebuked by the hypocritically mournful Henry appeared on at least one earlier occasion, in M.L. Tyler’s Anne Boleyn: A Tragedy In Six Acts (1884).

As I wrote in an earlier essay, Reginald Drew’s Anne Boleyn is marshalled as evidence that earlier fictional Annes tended to be blonde – but no note is made of the nineteenth century written works which describe her as having a “gipsy” complexion and “raven” braids. Blonde Annes were certainly plentiful in paintings, but when it comes to literature, Drew’s book was an exception, and not typical of any other Boleyn books.

Also unusual among Anne books is The Other Boleyn Girl (2001), which receives a tremendous amount of attention in this book (as it did in the outside world). Inaccurate, sexed-up, dramatic, guilty on most of the charges, and immensely popular with readers, the book has been taken down many times by exasperated historians and history-lovers who have been asked “Did she really sleep with her brother?” one too many times. The author, Philippa Gregory, has famously claimed to be meticulous about historical accuracy and also that Anne was “guilty of at least one murder” (which one she never specifies – presumably the poisoning at Bishop Fisher’s, though actually two people died in that one). Takedowns and fact-checking essays on The Other Boleyn Girl are all over the place, and this book is no exception. The trouble is that the critique of The Other Boleyn Girl‘s approach becomes muddled with the interviews which the author conducted with several other authors of Anne Boleyn novels (Robin Maxwell, Hilary Mantel, and Margaret George most prominently), all of whom express a strong distaste for Gregory’s approach and their own commitment to relative accuracy.

This was not, I believe, a particularly wise approach. First of all, having four or five different interviewees all chiming in with their own evaluations of how dreadful the book is smacks of overkill; I would have preferred to hear more about the books that they themselves wrote, and the choices they had to make, rather than how horribly Gregory did it. For that matter, I would have liked to see an interview with Gregory herself, or at least an attempt at one, rather than just secondhand sniping. Secondly, having read these authors’ books, it was tempting to line their own books up next to the “Fact Checker” for The Other Boleyn Girl and see how many of the inaccuracies appeared in their own works as well – and it’s hard to resist the conclusion that their anger lies not in the fact that Gregory portrays Anne inaccurately, but that it’s not the kind of inaccuracy they prefer.

Robin Maxwell, in particular, is free to criticize the book’s “vicious, unsupportable view of Anne,” but when she herself has written of a six-fingered, prophecy-haunted Anne who befriends Leonardo da Vinci, plays strip poker with a rapist Francois I, would be right at home at a 1970s consciousness-raising and considers her greatest early achievement to be the discovery of the clitoral orgasm (not to mention making several of the same errors that are in the “Fact Checker” such as having Mary Boleyn’s children be Henry VIII’s, and trumpeting her “twelve years of research” in her books’ Afterwords) I am inclined to take her outrage with several buckets of salt. Hilary Mantel may make the “fictional status of her novels clear” but her disclaimers at the ends of her books are less than comprehensive, and her greatest distortions – including the “Cardinal Wolsey Goes To Hell” masque which is presented as Cromwell’s motivation for vengeance against the five men who were killed with Anne, and which simply could not have happened as written – are not described by her as such. In fairness, the author does criticize Mantel’s own massaging of the record in omitting certain incidents (such as Cromwell’s threatening of Cranmer) which make him look less like divine vengeance on the wicked and more like a hired thug. But the effect of the constant pile-on on Gregory was such that I was getting exasperated and annoyed by the time the book turned to the far more interesting topic of why Anne as the Queen of Bitches was gaining such traction at that point in time, in contrast to the sympathetic portrayals of the previous decades.

Gregory and Mantel are not the only ones taken to task; Alison Weir, David Starkey, G.W. Bernard and several others are criticized for embroidering and over-dramatizing their non-fiction accounts of Anne’s career – justly, in most instances. But unfortunately, this book’s resemblance to one of Alison Weir’s productions is all too great; it’s quick, readable, entertaining, and entirely persuasive – if you know nothing about the background material. If you do, however, you’ll notice first one and then another inaccuracy, omission or misstatement, many of them quite small in themselves, but whose cumulative effect is to make the book feel less than trustworthy. (Among the small-in-themselves misstatements: Queen Claude is said to have not greeted Anne at Calais in 1532 out of deference to the Pope, when in fact she had been dead for eight years, and Isabella of Angouleme and Isabella of France are cited as adulterous queens who survived while their lovers were executed while ignoring the fact that the former may not have been adulterous and the execution of the latter’s lover was a quite different situation). And, like Weir’s book on Queen Isabella, everything must bend to flatter Anne. No report of nasty or aggressive behavior is to be believed – the chronicler’s hostility must mean that he’s lying. Any novel which portrays the “old Catholic view” of Anne as unpleasant in some way is given automatic demerits, even Hilary Mantel’s. Lastly there’s a sweet but ridiculous coda — similar in spirit to some earlier detours in which the author contrasts her own romantic and social experiences in the late 1960s to Anne’s — in which the author compares her daughter to Anne. Her daughter sounds like a lovely and courageous girl, but it was the ultimate case of projection – there’s nothing about Anne which suggests that her brand of courage would have rejected pink toys or enjoyed riding horses hell-for-leather. Of course, she may have. We’ll never know. But while the author has made a strong effort to categorize and analyze the looking-glass images of Anne that artists have chronicled over the centuries, in the end she falls through the looking-glass herself, chasing her own reflection.

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From → Book Overviews

  1. Tungsten permalink

    Holy cow. So we’ve gone from Anne the Martyr to Anne the Bitch, and now we’re making a play for Anne the Mary Sue? Because that’s the sense I’m getting from this.

    I think an argument could be made for Anne Boleyn as the ultimate personality test. Everyone sees her as they want to see her, revealing more about themselves than about the actual woman. A pity we’ll never know what she was really like . . .

    • sonetka permalink

      Well, it’s a little more complicated than that — in some ways, she’s always been a Mary Sue for her supporters, it’s just that the definition of Mary Sue keeps changing. In the nineteenth century, it was the pious woman who sacrifices herself to save England from Popery, in the twentieth century she had a detour into Scarlett O’Hara/Amber St. Clare Sexy, Doomed Adventuress territory but was still presented sympathetically, with the implication that she would have been an ideal woman all around if her love affair with Percy hadn’t been thwarted. At the beginning of this century the ideal is turning more towards Spirited Woman Who Refuses To Accept Male Dominance But Is Very Empathetic. To her credit, the author knows this is a projection and describes it almost in those words when she’s quoting things like Facebook posts and blogs from modern young women which describe how they perceive Anne. (One of them said something along the lines of how Anne would have scorned Jane Seymour’s “Bound to Obey and Serve” motto by saying that women aren’t men’s doormats. I am … not so sure about that). But when it comes to her own projections of Anne she doesn’t seem to quite make the connection that because she associates things like not wearing pink and being daring while riding horses with courage, that doesn’t mean that Anne would have done so. And I think having several other authors all dogpiling on Philippa Gregory was really a mistake. Gregory certainly has her share and more of inaccuracies, but I think more time could have been spent on some nonjudgmental inquiry into *why* that particular book was such a monster hit (it’s something of a throwback to the Scarlett O’Hara Annes of midcentury, but much harsher) and less on the fact checking and criticizing Gregory’s inflated claims to historical accuracy. Having other fiction authors joining in makes it look like a case of sour grapes, and also invites comparisons to their own books, many of which make the same errors that that Gregory does.

      I would not, however, call Anne the ultimate personality test. I think Shakespeare still holds that title :). What profession or personality quirk hasn’t he been assigned over the last three hundred years or so?

  2. Clare permalink

    Thanks for this review, which was interesting to say the least. I haven’t read this book yet but I do intend to. I’m no Gregory fan, but for the likes of Mantel to criticise her is really a case of the pot calling the kettle black. I agree with you 100% regarding the Cardinal going to Hell. It was a completely ridiculous fictional devise, yet the sainted Mantel fails to mention that. Her comments on Gregory, when her own book was little more than a rehash of TOBG, is sickening. I now have another reason to dislike the woman; I can now consider her a nasty little hypocrite.
    By the way, I really look forward to your posts. You manage to articulate what feel!

    • sonetka permalink

      Thanks, I’m glad you like them! Mantel does have some good quotes in the book about how we always write from our own time and one should never believe one’s own story, but when you contrast with things she’s said elsewhere about the responsibility to be historically accurate, like here ( one does get the sense of being buffeted around a little bit. She writes beautifully, but she does make an art form of being so vague and contradictory that you can read whatever opinion you want into her statements. I had no problem with her Cromwell looking on Anne, George et al more as carefully and none-too-sympathetically regarded allies rather than friends. But that masque! (And a few other things).

      I might yet be driven to write a post called “In Defense Of Philippa Gregory.” And no, I can’t believe it either!

      • Clare permalink

        The problem is that the defence of PG would be to say she’s no worse than the majority of historical fiction writers. That’s kind of like defending Hitler on the basis that Stalin was just as bad! That was a joke by the way……………I think.

      • sonetka permalink

        How does “Philippa Gregory In Context” sound then? 🙂

  3. Clare permalink

    Sounds good to me!

  4. Ironically I was planning on reading this very soon, though now I don’t think I’ll bother. I’m not one for reams and reams of ‘this person is wrong for this reason, or this person is wrong for this reason’, by all means say why people are wrong but suggest why you are right more. I like a bit of PG bashing as much as the next person who has actually read a history book, but this just sounds extreme!

    • sonetka permalink

      The ostensible reason is that Gregory sets herself up as a historian, made that infamous claim about “responsible for at least one murder” (she’s probably thinking about the Fisher poisoning) and therefore misleads innocent readers into thinking her books are true. Having read the afterwords on many novels about Anne I can assure you that she’s far, far from the only novelist to talk up her “meticulous research” and make some really strange assertions in her notes about The Real Story Behind It All. She’s certainly not the only one who has readers thinking that the story she tells is hewing close to the historical line. I’ll do a compilation of them one of these days. But the impression I got was that Gregory’s real crime was not so much popularizing an inaccurate version of Anne as popularizing a hostile inaccurate version of Anne, and selling so many books that her particular inaccurate version became the go-to version for readers who were only casually interested in the Boleyn story.

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