Book Review: The Creation of Anne Boleyn
by Susan Bordo
“Why is Anne Boleyn so fascinating?” Susan Bordo asks at the beginning of her richly engrossing new book The Creation of Anne Boleyn. “Maybe we don’t have to go any further than the obvious. The story of her rise and fall is as 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 into loathing, plotting, and murder as the cycle comes full circle.” The invocation of the syrupy American cable network Lifetime is both a neat stroke and a warning flag – readers traumatized by flippant pseudo-history grow hyper-sensitive to such showbiz namedropping, and Bordo’s credentials as a feminist scholar can, in such circumstances, increase the fear of grating anachronisms (the past was a different country, a wise man once said, hardly needing to add, “They called ‘apples’ ‘oranges’ there”). Nightmare visions of “Anne the Party Grrrl” loom, hardly alleviated by Bordo’s puckish choice of section titles (“In Love (Or Something Like It),” “A Perfect Storm,” etc.).
But such worries are dispelled early on in The Creation of Anne Boleyn and never return. Bordo spends the first part of her book, “Queen, Interrupted,” recounting much of what we know about the actual history of Anne’s rise, reign, and ruin. It’s nimbly done, managing the small miracle of not feeling redundant despite the staggering number of times the story has been told before. But it’s the book’s second part, “Recipes for ‘Anne Boleyn,’ and its third part, “An Anne For All Seasons,” that gaily raise this book to the status of something quite memorable; it’s in these parts that Bordo gets at the real heart of her subject – not Anne Boleyn, but rather the infinite variety of cultural reconstructions of Anne.
Her enthusiasm is infectious, and her range is impressive, covering a dozen major novels – from Francis Hackett’s 1939 novel Queen Anne Boleyn to Margaret Campbell Barnes’ Brief Gaudy Hour (1949), Norah Lofts’ The Concubine (1963), and more modern bestsellers like Phlippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (partisans may wish she’d spared a mention for Suzannah Dunn’s sly and extremely impressive 2005 novel The Queen of Subtleties) – and all the major film and stage interpretations of Anne’s tempestuous relationship with Henry VIII, including the Charles Laughton camp-fest The Private Life of Henry VIII, the BBC mini-series The Six Wives of Henry VIII, the great 1969 movie Anne of the Thousand Days, and of course Showtime’s vamping, moronic The Tudors. It’s a shrewd strategy: now that Bordo has supplied her readers with the history, she can thrill and provoke them by citing the countless ways all these adaptations get the history wrong:
Anne of the Thousand Days, in addition to numerous other alterations of history, has that invented – yet somehow perfect – scene in the Tower between Anne and Henry. The Private Life of Henry VIII turns Anne of Cleves into a wisecracking cardsharp who is physically disgusted by Henry rather than (as history tells it) the other way around. A Man for All Seasons neglects to mention that Thomas More, besides being a witty intellectual, also burned quite a few heretics and was apparently not quite the devoted husband he appeared to be. The BBC production of The Six Wives of Henry VIII barely notes that there was a conflict of authority between Henry and the Church, beyond the issue of the divorce; its actually much more the wife-centered, “feminized” history that [David] Starkey berates than [Showtime’s] The Tudors, which spends a lot of time on the more “masculine” (and for Starkey, historically central) end of things: diplomatic skirmishes, wars, and court politics.
Half the fun of these segments of the book will be arguing with them. For instance, the claim that there’s no dramatization of the conflict between king and Church in The Six Wives of Henry VIII is starkly wrong – indeed, it’s in the Jane Seymour episode of the series that its star Keith Michell gives one of his most passionate performances, on precisely the subject of Henry’s struggles with Rome. Likewise the sustained, extremely intelligent attention Bordo lavishes on The Tudors, and especially petite, slope-mouthed Natalie Dormer, whose Anne Boleyn is about as sexually alluring as a distracted basset hound: the reader might fundamentally disagree with the elevation of such an unworthy subject (so to speak), but the discussion itself is too interesting to forego (when Bordo interviews Genevieve Bujold, who shot to fame in Anne of the Thousand Days, the actress simply says “Anne is mine”).
Bordo charts the changes in Anne’s portrayal over the years, drawing up handy lists of historical errors, sparing nobody, not even Mantel, whose books come in for some sustained nit-picking (although nothing on the order of the full-dress deconstruction Gregory gets)(and yet it’s all done with such wonderful candor that it wouldn’t be surprising to learn the novelists themselves enjoyed the critiques). The focus of the book in these parts shimmers all over the fictional landscape, always with an acute eye:
The Tudors has replaced Charles Laughton’s blustering, chicken-chomping buffoon with Jonathan Rhys Meyer’s lean, athletic bad boy. Wolf Hall exposes Thomas More as coldly, viciously pious and turns the ruthless, calculating Cromwell we know from depictions of his role in Anne Boleyn’s death into a true “man for all seasons”: warm, loyal, and opportunistic only because his survival requires it.
The Creation of Anne Boleyn creates in its readers the deep hunger for more of the same; it’ll be a cold-hearted reader indeed who doesn’t finish the book wishing Bordo would have expanded it into a big fat study of the history and fiction of all the wives – or better yet, of Anne’s own daughter, Queen Elizabeth I. But our author is something of an intellectual dynamo, and unlike poor Anne, she’s got plenty of options.