April 24, 2013

Letters, legends and lies

By Susan Bordo
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In the middle of May 1536, over a thousand spectators gathered at the Tower of London to witness the execution of Anne Boleyn. Anne has become perhaps Henry VIII’s most famous wife, in part because of his notorious treatment of her and in part because of her own strong personality.

Part biography and part cultural history, Susan Bordo’s riveting new study, The Creation of Anne Boleyn, brings Anne to life through a close reading of existing sources contemporary to her, as well as through a lively exploration of the many cultural representations of Anne, from the 17th century to the present, that have made her a pliable figure, defining her personality by the mood and temperament of the time.

Bordo reminds us that the historical record on Anne is almost nonexistent. In his efforts to eradicate Anne completely from his life and the memory of the court, Henry purged all letters—except for 17 from him to her that are housed in the Vatican—and portraits of her. We know very little about her appearance, and apart from a few inscriptions in prayer books and two letters which may be from Anne to Henry, almost all of our knowledge of Anne is secondhand, coming from “malicious reports of Eustace Chapuys and other foreign ambassadors to their home rulers and various ‘eyewitness’ accounts of what she said and did at her execution.”

Bordo vividly recreates an almost moment-by-moment account of the events leading from Henry’s decision to execute Anne up to her death. Why was Anne executed in the first place? Bordo points out several theories: Her miscarriage might have led Henry to suspect that she was guilty of witchcraft; Henry eagerly embraced Cromwell’s suggestions that Anne was an adulteress; Cromwell acted without Henry’s instigation because Anne had publicly opposed Cromwell’s policies.

In most 20th-century novels, Anne is depicted as a “strong-willed young woman with personal qualities that are quite attractive.” By the early 21st century, Bordo points out, novels such as Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall depict Anne as “selfish, spiteful, vindictive” and a “scheming predator.” Yet, on many websites devoted to Anne and the Tudor period, Bordo discovers that young women view Anne as “neither an angel nor a devil; she was [a] human . . . who was ambitious and intellectual.”

Bordo’s eloquent study not only recovers Anne Boleyn for our times but also demonstrates the ways in which legends grow out of the faintest wisps of historical fact, and develop into tangled webs of fact and fiction that become known as the truth.

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