When I found out that Susan Bordo had a book on Anne Boleyn coming out on the 9th of April I did a snoopy dance of happiness. I am an ardent intellectual admirer of Dr. Bordo. As an student in anthropology I read several of her books about the cultural reflections of the body; they are considered to be seminal, paradigm changing texts and she is one of the brightest stars in the Humanities’ sky, so more than one class used her work as a teaching tool. Frankly, I think there is no one better at deconstructing the cultural narratives that are scripted around a subject – especially narratives that are used to reinforce socially ascribed gender differences. In short, Bordo is another intellectual heavyweight who could widen the breach that has been cut through the malarkey surrounding Anne Boleyn’s mythic “bad girl and schemer” persona.
Dr. Bordo’s book, titled The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen, looked like it was going to be everything I hoped it would be. The blurb certainly filled my nerdy, feminist heart with glee:
“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, 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 re-imagined 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.”
There was no way I could wait until the 9th to get my mitts on this book. Thus, I contacted the author and used a tactic I like to call “obsequious pleading” until she agreed to let me have one of the advance copies.
Have you ever been so excited, and experienced so much build up, about an event or item that there was almost no way to avoid a big letdown, or at least a minor disappointment? Well, that didn’t happen. I am the little pig who went squee squee squee all the way home I loved this book so much!
Bordo has the intellectual chops and the academic clout to pull no punches when taking apart the misogynistic cocoon that has frequently shrouded the authentic Anne Boleyn, and there was no historian so grand that he or she was safe from the accusation of shenanigans. She called historians out for any assertion about Anne’s life that lacked credible evidence, including G.W. Bernard and his “hunch” that Anne had committed at least some of the adultery she was accused of (p.233). She also frequently illustrated how a historian’s personal interpretation of data was often presented as “fact”, such as David Starkey’s descriptions of Anne as a “ruthless predator” with no actual proof to back up his claims (p.3-6). She also took apart the motives behind Starkey’s irrational, hypocritical, and petulant tirades about “feminized history”, much to my delight (149).
Neither were fictional authors who misrepresented Anne Boleyn allowed to go on their merry way. If an author stated that he or she tried to make the character or history of Anne Boleyn mostly accurate but changed things for the sake of the narrative flow or story, it was fair play to them. Bordo would point out their historical errors and lament their contribution to the ongoing demonization of Anne Boleyn, but she also clearly supports the fiction author’s right to borrow from, but not necessarily recreate, history. For example, Hilary Mantel’s work, which is hardly flattering to Queen Anne and is not particularly realistic, was lauded for its creativity, writing style, and the fact that Mantel never claims that “her” Anne is the “real” Anne Boleyn (p.227). In contrast, the work of novelist Philippa Gregory is eviscerated, not so much for her egregious “distortions of fact” as it is for her “self-deceptive and self-promoting chutzpah”, wherein she falsely claims to be a “trained historian” who has “very strict rules of accuracy” in her writing (p. 226). Furthermore, Bordo meticulously presents Gregory’s novel, The Other Boleyn Girl, for what it is – a well-written and entertaining, but profoundly inaccurate, portrayal of history.
There were, of course, some things in the book I disagreed with. I am an academic. As a species we critique everything; it is a rite of passage in graduate school. However, those things had less to do with Anne Boleyn than general history. For example, Bordo cites David Cressy’s book (Birth, Marriage, & Death) to argue that Tudor medical care would be the underlying factor in the fetal and neonatal mortality rate suffered by Henry VIII’s offspring (p.121-122), but that ignores Cressy’s minute examination of 16th century church records which show that child mortality, while terrifyingly and tragically high, was not as high as commonly believed. Moreover, Bordo did not mention the fair chunk of evidence showing that the rate of unsuccessful pregnancies for Henry’s queens were atypical of their time, even factoring in the prenatal care and birthing rites of the period. Finally, she seemed to be dismissive of the skill midwives brought into the delivery room, or at least did not explicitly make sure they weren’t included in her litany of bad Tudor pre and postnatal care. I did my dissertation on midwifery, and I can assure you that midwives were hella good at their jobs. Biomedical doctors didn’t match the midwife’s success rate until the 1920s. All my sources are cited in my book, Blood Will Tell, for those want to know more.
Speaking of Blood Will Tell – I must share the agonizing reality that in Dr. Bordo’s book she disdained the theory put forth by Dr. Catrina Banks Whitley and myself, believing it to be mere sociobiological claptrap. Her thoughts on the theory were scathing, especially the speculation about McLeod syndrome. She argued that the “gap between “could” and “true” widens to the point of absurdity” when the theory posited that severe mental deterioration as a result McLeod syndrome could have spurred Henry to turn so suddenly and viciously against Anne, and scoffs that McLeod syndrome would “collapse the three-year trajectory of a politically troubled, emotionally intense marriage into a diagnose from House” (p. 122). Ouch!
Such harsh evaluations by an academic hero of mine caused my bottom lip to tremble in a rather pathetic manner. Fortunately for my lip, Dr. Bordo sent me an email to tell me that she would have viewed the theory less negatively if she had looked at it in more depth at the time of her writing and:
“at the point at which my book went into production, your book wasn’t yet out but the theory was being splashed over the papers and internet—and in that form, it sounded to me like a biologically reductive theory of a very complex set of relations, so my very brief discussion of it … did not, I’m afraid, do justice to what sounds … like a much more subtle and complicated explanation … It’s unfortunate (I’ve been the victim of it myself several times) that the cost of becoming more “public” is often mis-representation in the media … Only after it was way too late to make any substantive changes in my own book did yours come out, and I started to hear wonderful things about it.”
My lip stopped trembling.
Although she has certainly not given a ringing endorsement to the theory, and many people will read a harsh synopsis of it in her book, I am happy that she told me she is more open to the possibility that it is not an entirely wretched idea. Even if she is never convinced that the theory has any merit, other Tudorphiles have disagreed with me *cough Claire Ridgeway cough*but have still given my scholarship due credit, and unless Henry is exhumed and his DNA tested as conclusive proof, that is often the best I can hope for.
Bordo’s book is a thorough examination and dissection of Anne Boleyn’s historical and cultural aspects. I cannot recommend it highly enough for anyone who is interested in this famous queen and her multifaceted reputation.