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She’s Not There

October 23, 2013

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.

From → Miscellaneous

  1. Clare permalink

    The same can be said for modern day celebrities. We find ourselves saying we like, dislike, love or hate certain actors, musicians, even politicians, but how can we really like or dislike anyone we’ve never met.
    It’s difficult enough ‘knowing’ someone you’ve ‘known’ for 20 years let alone someone you’ve never met, and particularly those who died nearly 500 years ago.
    It all really boils down to perception. Everyone has a different perception, it just depends what that perception is based on. We can form our own opinions,, albeit shallow, of people we see on TV, but as you point out a lot of the perception of historical characters is formed by nothing more than someone else’s view of them, very often put forth with nothing more than personal opinion to back it up. The problem is that that opinion is often/ nearly always biased.

    • sonetka permalink

      Exactly — and I think the parallel to modern celebrities is apt, as most if not all of them are very image conscious and have people who control their coverage, preview interview questions, perhaps suggest some fan-friendly photo ops. I don’t blame them for doing it, it’s a business, and image control is a big part of remaining viable (as we’ve seen in instances where celebrities have gone off-script and torpedoed their careers in short order). But being the queen was also a career of its own — so when Anne sponsored a scholar or gave extra money for poor relief or a maundy, in addition to doing good she was also improving her image. Which isn’t to say that she didn’t really want to do it, but the fact that her position demanded such things makes her own personal opinions of them a lot harder (read: impossible) to suss out.

  2. I did enjoy the post, and it seems very sensible to me. What confuses me is the strong reaction you mentioned. Are people really likely to be up in arms over this issue? Or does it come down to the Trolls’ Mirror, as you said? I’d expect that in a fandom, maybe, but I’m not sure Anne Boleyn is a fandom . . .

    • sonetka permalink

      You’d better believe she’s a fandom! And in a sufficiently big fandom, people will fight about anything up to and including the colour of the sky, as you’ve doubtless seen many times.

  3. Annalucia permalink

    “I don’t like her, but I like reading about her.” A good answer, which I will use next time someone asks why I watch “Edward and Mrs. Simpson” and have read pretty well all the available biographies of both of them. I don’t like either of them – they seem not too bright, and he, at least, is still a storm-tossed adolescent at the age of 41 – but the story fascinates, every time.

    As for Anne – left to myself I would probably classify her as the Wicked Stepmother, charming courtiers when convenient but being heartless to Katherine and Mary. (Yes, I know – she couldn’t have done it without Henry’s sanction. But Henry steals every scene he’s in anyway,and we have to keep him offstage a while if we’re to get to know the women at all.)

    • sonetka permalink

      Edward and Wallis have almost the opposite problem — there’s too MUCH readily available information about them, little of it flattering, but there are lots of parallels all the same. Dissatisfied king, and a smart and ambitious, political hot potato “unsuitable” woman whom he becomes obsessed with … but of course, the relative power of the royal family had changed a lot. Not to mention that the Henry/Anne/Catherine triangle all seem to have been a lot more intelligent and better educated than the Windsors. (I like Frances Donaldson’s biography a lot, but couldn’t help shuddering at the description of Edward VIII’s education. So badly prepared as he was, how could something *not* have gone wrong?)

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