Books: Search for real Boleyn loses its way
The Creation of Anne Boleyn: In Search of the Tudors' Most Notorious Queen by Susan Bordo (Oneworld, €27.99)
The king's "great whore" with six fingers, a projecting tooth, a "wen" on her throat and a third nipple; a devilish witch; a seductress, plotter and poisoner guilty of incest and treachery; an innocent victim of her husband's brutality; a strong-willed, intelligent and beautiful woman. Such have been history's myriad verdicts on Anne Boleyn, the most infamous of Henry VIII's six wives.
Anne was the woman for whom Henry cast aside his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, leading to the break with Rome and establishment of the Church of England in 1533. Three years later, having failed to produce an heir, Anne was arrested on charges which included adultery with five men, including her own brother. On May 19, 1536 she was led to the scaffold on Tower Green and beheaded.
In the centuries since her execution, when early accounts by her Catholic enemies established some of the most lurid caricatures, Anne's life and death has been constantly invented and reinvented in historical works, drama, biography and fiction, most recently in Hilary Mantel's award-winning Bring up the Bodies. Anne Boleyn remains one of the most controversial women in English history; pitied, admired and reviled in equal measure.
In her lively study, Susan Bordo charts the journey of the woman who has become one of history's most iconic femmes fatales. The author acknowledges her own "obsession" with Boleyn in the first few pages and her passionate attitude is apparent throughout as she gives voice to expressions of indignation, and frustration, at the way her subject has been misrepresented and maligned.
Bordo wades in against authors and historians who, she argues, mix fact and fantasy in their all-too-lurid accounts. The television historian David Starkey is referenced as a "self-confessed, all-purpose media tart"; Philippa Gregory, author of The Other Boleyn Girl, is slammed for her claims to historical rigour; and Mantel, while praised for her writing, disappointingly presents an "old, one-sided, extremist view of Boleyn" as a wily "schemer".
While at times excessive in her critiques, Bordo does present an interesting and timely reappraisal of representations of Anne in the years since her death. Because of limited surviving evidence there are, in fact, many things that are not known about the rise and fall of this Tudor queen.
Nevertheless, as Bordo demonstrates, she has exercised a magnetic appeal for generations. She has become a cultural construct, "a shape-shifting trickster", imagined and reimagined to reflect evolving attitudes and prejudices based on a potent mix of religion, misogyny and feminism.
Towards the end of the book, amid a somewhat ad hoc rehearsing of the films, novels, television programmes and websites in which Boleyn has appeared, Bordo's own autobiographical narrative intrudes awkwardly in the text. When discussing the 1969 film Anne of the Thousand Days, Bordo charts her own "personal rebellion" which saw her "drop out of school, have a lot of mindless sex, marry someone I didn't love and then suffer a nervous breakdown that made me unable to leave him".
Earlier, in an insert in the text entitled 'The Executioner's Sword and the Red Bus', she describes how a near collision with a London bus allowed her to "channel" Boleyn's last moments on the scaffold as she faced death.
Bordo's path through 'Boleyniana' is certainly an eccentric one, taking in both contemporary accounts of Boleyn's execution and random postings on social media sites dedicated to the Tudors.
While highly critical of the biased agendas of those who have previously and, according to Bordo, unfairly written on Boleyn's life, ultimately this book disappoints in proving to be just as polemical. Bordo's own self-confessed "rescue fantasy" is, by the end, all too evident and so the much-needed balanced critique of the afterlife of Anne Boleyn remains elusive.