Thursday, February 25, 2016

Book 13: The Creation of Anne Boleyn

"Why is Anne Boleyn so fascinating? Maybe we don't have to go any further than the obvious: The story of her rise and fall is an elementally satisfying- and scriptwise, not very different from- a Lifetime movie: a long-suffering, postmenopausal wife; an unfaithful husband and a clandestine affair with a younger, sexier woman; a moment of glory for the mistress; then lust turned to loathing, plotting, and murder as the cycle comes full circle."

Dates read: December 29, 2015- January 2, 2016

Rating: 9/10

Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived. It's how you remember what became of the six wives of Henry XIII. That there's even a way to help you remember the love life of a monarch whose reign is 500 years in the past speaks to the enduring cultural relevancy of Henry and his wives. And if you were to ask someone off the street to name you just one of them, I'd put my money on it that they'd name Anne Boleyn. Witch, feminist before her time, seductress, all of the above and more....a lot of people have a lot of opinions about Anne, who she was, and what she did. But who was the "real" Anne Boleyn, and why do we still care?

Susan Bordo is a popular culture/gender studies academic, and brings a welcome level of inquiry, research, and critical thought to her examination of the legends that surround Anne Boleyn. Nearly all of Anne's personal correspondence and even official portraiture were destroyed by Henry in the aftermath of her death, so we have to rely almost entirely on secondhand accounts (many of them hostile, like Spanish ambassador Eustace Chapuys) to know much of anything about her at all. This has created a narrative with substantial gaps, which can only be filled by conjecture.

The book begins with a walkthrough of what we do and can know with relative certainty about Anne (what she probably looked like, her upbringing in the French court, her move to England and courtship with Henry, her proto-Protestant religious beliefs, her short reign, and the circumstances of her death). It then examines the myths that have sprung up around her, and how they've varied over time. Bordo's research pops up interesting facts, like that the "Anne as headstrong teenager" strain of Anne's mythology only pops up after World War 2, when the concept of teenager-hood was just becoming a thing and audiences were primed by wartime media to be ready for plucky heroines.

Bordo is displeased with the popular historical fiction surrounding Anne, and she rakes it over the coals pretty hard. Phillipa Gregory gets an especially high dose of her ire, to an extent which I actually feel is unfair. Gregory has never pretended to be writing scholarly, academic history, and while there are definitely people who probably look at her books and think they're reading something that's been heavily researched for historical accuracy, I have to imagine that most of us understand that she's using outlines of the actual people who were her characters and taking pretty heavy dramatic license with the rest. It's not Gregory's "fault", per se, that her book became enormously popular and is probably most people's go-to reference for Anne Boleyn. Some of her statements imply that she does hold herself out as somewhat of an authority in the era, but at the end of the day, there's a reason her books are filed in the fiction section. Then again, I own and enjoy many of Gregory's books, so maybe I'm just defensive.

At the end of the day, if you have an interest in Anne Boleyn that was sparked by the dreaded The Other Boleyn Girl, or Natalie Dormer's incredible portrayal on The Tudors, or Wolf Hall, or anything at all, really, you'll enjoy this book. It's accessible, well-researched, and put together in a way that makes for a really enjoyable reading experience!

Tell me, blog you have a favorite historical figure to read about?

Note: Review cross-posted at Cannonball Read

1 comment:

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