She’s Not There
How then did it work out, all this? How did one judge people, think of them? How did one add up this and that and conclude it is liking one felt, or disliking?
— Virginia Woolf
Claire Ridgeway’s post “Was Anne Boleyn `Nice’?” seems to have stirred up a surprisingly strong reaction, considering the content (which was very sensible and well-stated, and I quite enjoyed it — reader, go thou and do likewise). While reading it, I was reminded of a question I was asked a few months back, which was simply “Why do you like Anne Boleyn so much?” To which my answer was “I don’t like her. But I like reading about her.” I didn’t elaborate, mostly because my questioner was eight years old, but thought I might as well do it now.
By saying that I don’t like Anne Boleyn, I don’t mean it in the sense in which it would be taken if it were said about a living person whom I’d met. I mean it in the way I’d mean it if someone asked me whether I “liked” a painting I’d seen only in a badly printed black-and-white photograph. How could I possibly have enough information to say whether I liked it or not? I doubt my enthusiasm could go much further than “I find this painting interesting and wish I could see the original.” Now imagine the original has long since been destroyed and most of the extant descriptions of it come from two opposing camps: one which thinks the painter was a hack who desecrated every canvas he touched, and another which thinks his work was better than Leonardo’s on a good day. It won’t be long before the argument becomes less about the painting and more about the two camps scoring points off of each other — or, to put it more diplomatically, each camp doing its utmost to promote the arguments which support its view while gliding over the ones which may not be so helpful. Like a miniature Manichean struggle, one side will gain support for a while, then begin to slip while the other strengthens. But neither side will ever win, permanently, because there just isn’t enough information for anyone to say with finality that one or the other (or neither) is right.
There are so many huge blanks in what we know about Anne Boleyn, and there’s something about human nature which compels us to try and fill in blanks, or wrench some sort of pattern out of an incredibly sparse amount of information. The combination of Anne’s incredible career and the comparative dearth of information about her means that she’s been subjected to this, in both fictional and non-fictional treatments, to an almost ridiculous extent. There are a few others who have had it even worse (or better, depending on how you see it) — Shakespeare being a major example. Many of these treatments and studies are extremely valuable, and I wouldn’t want to be without them — not least because I’m no scholar and wouldn’t have any of the information I do otherwise. But, again like Shakespeare, the result of those tempting blank patches combined with extravagant admiration is that she’s become a mirror for most of her admirers (and, one could argue, a sort of Trolls’ Mirror for her detractors). As you run the gamut from John Ford’s Lutheran Anne of 1682 who bravely sends her real love away for his protection and seeks a martyr’s crown to Susan Bordo’s Anne of 2013 who fearlessly rides horses and won’t let any man tell her no, it’s easy to see how flexible people can be with facts in their desire to find, and demonstrate, a dominant pattern in her life. And I do it as well — I belong to my time like anyone else, and inevitably there are parts of the record on Anne which will strike me as more significant or realistic than other parts. Am I right? Possibly in some aspects, but in another century or so there will undoubtedly be new meanings drawn out of those old documents, and new Annes fashioned in the image of people who aren’t yet born.
So no, I don’t like her — I can’t, she’s a total stranger to me. But I do like the fictional women who share her name, and if they can tell me comparatively little about her, at least I’ll learn more about the other people who are also fascinated with the largely-blank canvas which is Anne Boleyn.