by Susan Bordo
With the possible exception of her daughter, Elizabeth I, Anne Boleyn is the most well-known and notorious of England’s queens. She captured the heart of a king, but refused to become his mistress. His quest to divorce his wife and marry Anne was the great scandal of the day and led to the establishment of the Church of England. But once he had Anne, he quickly tired of her – and after three years of marriage, Anne’s head was chopped off by an executioner. Susan Bordo writes not a biography of the famous queen – for there are many of them already – but a cultural history of Anne Boleyn. She questions the reliability of early documents about Anne Boleyn, written by men wishing to discredit her. She shows that Anne’s role in society has shifted time and again, from a Protestant whore to a virtuous martyr, from a proto-feminist to the puppet controlled by powerful relatives. Bordo also looks at many 20th and 21st century depictions of Anne in literature and film, revealing how the Zeitgeist of the day altered Anne’s role in everything from Anne of a Thousand Days to The Tudors.
Susan Bordo might be Anne’s biggest fan, eager to rehabilitate her. As she makes her way through a brief biographical sketch of the queen, she rejects many of the “documentary truths” gleaned from the letters of Eustance Chapuys, a diplomat for the Holy Roman Emperor who befriended Catherine of Aragon, that have long been considered primary sources about Anne Boleyn. Bordo argues that Chapuys’ observations cannot be trusted, since Anne was naturally the enemy of a representative of Spanish interests. I had not realized how dependent our knowledge of Anne Boleyn is on Chapuys’ letters until Bordo began dismissing his claims; many of the nastiest gossip and worst rumors about Anne have no source other than his letters. The result is a vague outline of Anne Boleyn – for while Bordo enthusiastically eliminates sources, she has nothing new with which to replace them.
The second half of the book is far more interesting than the first, in my opinion. When Bordo dives into cultural history, she shines. It becomes clear that Anne Boleyn becomes a mirror to reflect the outside world, and rarely are there serious attempts at portraying her accurately. In 19th century historical paintings, she is blonde and voluptuous – the Victorian standard of beauty, to be sure, but nothing at all like the appearance of the historical Anne as described by her contemporaries. (Catherine of Aragon, Anne’s great rival, suffers similarly – although she is nearly always depicted as dark-haired, she actually had reddish-gold colored hair.) She has been the tragic star of epic romances and a selfish, vain queen destroyed by her own ambition. Best of all, Susan Bordo’s book is quite up-to-date, and her praise of The Tudors and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and criticism of The Other Boleyn Girl is a must-read for fans of Tudor fiction.
I really enjoyed this book because it so clearly illustrates the difference between a historical person and the “idea” of that person. It happens again and again – just think of the difference between Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra and her historical counterpart, or the constant evolution of how Jesus Christ has been portrayed over the centuries. Since I’m a huge Tudor fan, I’ve seen and/or read most of the media Bordo mentions, but I would think of all these Anne Boleyns as “The Tudors Anne” or “Philippa Gregory’s Anne”. I never thought about what all these Annes reflect about the readers/watchers of the 21st century, but now I’ll never be able to read a book or watch a movie with her in it the same way again.
4.5 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2012: Fashionista Piranha on hiatus until May 24th
2011: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
2010: Where Am I Wearing? by Kelsey Timmerman
2009: Discussion Question: Ruining Your Books