Review: The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo

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A groundbreaking retelling and reclaiming of Anne Boleyn’s life and legacy puts old questions to rest and raises some surprising new ones.

Part biography, part cultural history, The Creation of Anne Boleyn is a fascinating reconstruction of Anne’s life and an illuminating look at her afterlife in the popular imagination. Why is Anne so compelling? Why has she inspired such extreme reactions? What did she really look like? Was she the flaxen-haired martyr of Romantic paintings or the raven-haired seductress of twenty-first century portrayals? (Answer: neither.) And perhaps the most provocative questions concern Anne’s death more than her life. How could Henry order the execution of a once beloved wife? Drawing on scholarship and critical analysis, Susan Bordo probes the complexities of one of history’s most infamous relationships.

Bordo also shows how generations of polemicists, biographers, novelists, and filmmakers imagined and reimagined Anne: whore, martyr, cautionary tale, proto-“mean girl,” feminist icon, and everything in between. In this lively book, Bordo steps off the well-trodden paths of Tudoriana to expertly tease out the human being behind the competing mythologies.

It’s amazing how much we think we know about Anne Boleyn, arguably one of the most famous queens in history, and how little we actually do. Most of the information about her that popular media has latched on to based on its salacious nature came from men who hated her and had every reason to lie about their impressions of her. Anne herself is an enigma, cast by biographers as everything from a wanton temptress to an innocent victim. So where is the true Anne? Probably somewhere in between. A woman intelligent enough keep a king determined to marry her in spite of political upheaval, she also was a woman who a man at that time would probably find very hard to be married to. Plain talk and personal opinions might be fine in a mistress that has caught your eye, but in a wife who was expected to be seen and not heard, be demure and obedient, particularly with a man like Henry VIII, the very fact that Anne was Anne and couldn’t be anything other probably contributed to her downfall. Was Anne a feminist hero? Not exactly, but Bordo makes a very plausible argument that it was Anne’s determination to be nothing other than what she was that was probably the reason she made so many enemies in the boy’s club of Tudor court and eventually with her husband.

Most forgotten have been Anne’s contributions to the Reformation movement. She was a bright woman with deep interest in the Reformation and it is more than likely her clashing with Cromwell over how confiscated papal money was being redistributed (Anne was disturbed that it was going into private funds, not into educational and charitable coffers like she was under the impression it would be) that eventually led to his very concerted efforts to have her removed from power. Bordo also reveals a little into the psyche of Henry VIII, a man who seemed capable of discarding of a woman he fought for for years without a second thought (he spent the morning after her execution partying with Jane Seymour). Henry is a fascinating study into a man who would probably be diagnosed as narcissistic or borderline today. The unsettling way he could turn his affections violently off towards people he had initially loved is disturbing (and a pattern…Anne, Cromwell, More, and many others didn’t make it out of Henry’s former affections alive). It all goes to reveal that Anne was probably playing a game far more dangerous than she even realized and one that few people would have succeeded at.

The books is the strongest when analyzing the arguments about Anne herself and picking through the historical material. A word of caution though, just like the author discounts many of the accounts of Anne by those who would have been disposed to dislike her we have to keep in mind that the author DOES obviously like Anne and interprets some things very much in her favor without a huge amount of evidence (though many of her arguments are very logical and based on the psychology involved ring true). The book gets considerably weaker when it dwells on the many fictional versions of Anne (particularly The Tudors version). It is a fascinating read though for those interested in trying to get to the bottom of who Anne Boleyn was (and maybe the real answer is she is to some degree what the times make her).

4 out of 5

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