“Bordo’s sharp reading of Boleyniana and her clear affection for this proud, unusual woman make this an entertaining, provocative read.”—Boston Globe
Part biography, part cultural history, The Creation of Anne Boleyn is a reconstruction of Boleyn’s life and an illuminating look at her very active afterlife in the popular imagination. With recent novels, movies, and television shows, Anne has been having a twenty-first-century moment, but Bordo shows how many generations of polemicists, biographers, novelists, and filmmakers have imagined and reimagined her: whore, martyr, cautionary tale, proto-“mean girl,” feminist icon, and everything in between. Drawing on scholarship and razor-sharp analysis, Bordo probes the complexities of one of history’s most intriguing women, teasing out what we actually know about Anne Boleyn and what we think we know about her.
“Riveting . . . 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.” —Book Page
“Engrossing . . . Ms. Bordo offers a fascinating discussion.”—New York Times
The Erasure of Anne Boleyn and the Creation of "Anne Boleyn"
For Anne, the arrest was sudden and inexplicable. At the end of April 1536, the king, by all outward appearances, was planning a trip with her to Calais on May 4, just after the May Day celebrations. She had no idea that at the same time the trip was being organized, the Privy Council had been informed of planned judicial proceedings against her, on charges of adultery and treason. Her husband was a genius at keeping his true intentions hidden. He had it down to an art: the arm round the shoulder, the intimate conversations, the warm gestures of affection and reassurance. And then, without warning, abandonment — or worse. It had happened with his longtime counselor and second Lord Chancellor, Thomas Wolsey, who saw him ride off one morning with promises of a friendly conversation that never happened. More famously, it had happened with Thomas More, whose intellect Henry had once valued above any other man’s and whose conscience he had pledged to honor, then punished with death. This time, however, Henry’s turnabout was not only fatal but also unprecedented. For the first time in English history, a queen was about to be executed. And, if Henry had gotten his way, written out of his memory — and history.
Even before the execution, Henry had begun the business of attempting to erase Anne Boleyn’s life and death from the recorded legacy of his reign. On May 18, the day before Anne’s execution, Thomas Cromwell, aware of rumors that people were beginning to question the justice of the verdict and concerned that foreign ambassadors might write home sympathetic accounts of Anne’s last moments, ordered William Kingston, constable of the Tower of London, to "have strangerys conveyed yowt of the Towre." Kingston carried out the order and assured Cromwell that only a "reasonable number" of witnesses would be there, to testify that justice had been done. In fact, by the time of the execution, delayed still further due to the late arrival of the executioner from Calais, there were more than a thousand spectators. For unknown reasons and despite Cromwell’s orders, the Tower gates had been left open, and Londoners and "strangerys" alike streamed in.
As Anne prepared for her death, distraught over the delays, which she feared would weaken her resolve to bravely face the executioner, Henry was spending much of his time at Chelsea, visiting his future bride Jane Seymour and making plans for their wedding. He was eager to remarry as quickly as possible. But first he had to eradicate Anne. Even before the call sounded her death, dozens of carpenters, stonemasons, and seamstresses had been hard and hastily at work at Hampton Court, instructed to remove all signs of Anne’s queenship: her initials, her emblems, her mottoes, and the numerous carved, entwined H’s and A’s strewn throughout the walls and ceiling of the Great Hall. Similar activities were going on at other royal residences. Henry was determined to start afresh with his new wife. Sometimes, the alterations were easy. Anne’s leopard emblem became Jane’s panther with clever adjustments to the head and tail. Various inscriptions to "Queen Anne" could be painted over and replaced with "Queen Jane." He got rid of her portraits. He (apparently) destroyed her letters. But the task of erasing Anne was an enormous one, since even before they were married, Henry had aggressively enthroned her symbolically in every nook and cranny of his official residences. Not surprisingly, especially since Henry wanted it done with such speed, many H’s and A’s were overlooked by Henry’s revisionist workmen. Today, even the guides who provide information to visitors at Hampton Court are not sure how many there are.
Researching this book has been a lot like standing in the middle of that Great Hall at Hampton Court, squinting my eyes, trying to find unnoticed or "escaped" bits of Anne, dwarfed but still discernible within the monuments of created myths, legends, and images. In part because of Henry’s purge, very little exists in Anne’s own words or indisputably depicts what she did or said. Although seventeen of his love letters to her escaped the revision, having been stolen earlier and spirited away to the Vatican, only two letters that may be from Anne to Henry remain, and one is almost certainly inauthentic. Beyond these and some inscriptions in prayer books, most of our information about Anne’s personality and behavior is secondhand: George Cavendish’s "biography" of Cardinal Wolsey, which credits Anne with Wolsey’s downfall; the gossipy, malicious reports of Eustace Chapuys and other foreign ambassadors to their home rulers, Constable Kingston’s descriptions of her behavior in the Tower, and various "eyewitness" accounts of what she said and did at her trial and execution. Since Henry destroyed all the portraits he could lay his hands on, it’s even difficult to determine what Anne actually looked like. Later artistic depictions, all of them copies and only a few believed to be copies of originals done from actual sittings, are wildly inconsistent with one another, from the shape of her face to the color of her hair, and her looks, as described by her contemporaries, range from deformed to "not bad-looking" to "rivaling Venus." Whether or not these portraits are actually of Anne is a source of constant debate among historians and art historians.
You might expect Anne to be resuscitated today at the various historical sites associated with Henry’s reign, but, in fact, she’s not very prominent there either. In the gift shops, thimbles, small chocolates, and tiny soaps "commemorate" Henry’s wives democratically. Everything is in sets of six, each wife given equal billing among the tiny trinkets, as though they were members of a harem. The "and his six" view of the wives is everywhere in Britain. Yet despite the "all wives are equal" spin of Hampton Court and the Tower of London, and despite the absence of Anne’s own voice and image among the relics of the period, she is undoubtedly the most famous of Henry’s wives. Ask any random person who Katherine of Aragon, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard, or Katherine Parr were, and you probably won’t even get an attempt to scan stored mental information. The name "Jane Seymour" will probably register as the apparently ageless actress well-known for Lifetime movies and ads for heart-shaped jewelry. But Anne Boleyn, at the very least, is remembered as "the one who had her head chopped off ."
Henry may have tried to erase her, but Anne Boleyn looms large in our cultural imagination. Everyone has some tidbit of Anne mythology to pull out: "She slept with hundreds of men, didn’t she?" (I heard that one from a classical scholar.) "She had six fingers — or was it three nipples?" (From a French-literature expert.) "She had sex with her own brother." (From anyone who has learned their history at the foot of Philippa Gregory.) She has been the focus of numerous biographies, several movies, and a glut of historical fiction — Murder
Most Royal, The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn, The Lady in the Tower, The Other Boleyn Girl, Mademoiselle Boleyn, A Lady Raised High, The Concubine, Brief Gaudy Hour — which, thanks to Showtime’s The Tudors, have multiplied over the last several years. (By a 2012 count on Amazon, more than fi ft y biographies, novelizations, or studies were published in the preceding fi ve years alone; and that’s without considering electronic editions, reprints of Henry’s love letters, or Tudor books within which Anne is a central, though not main, focus.) Anne has also become a thriving commercial concern (Halloween costumes, sweatshirts, coff...
—The New York Times"Bordo’s sharp reading of Boleyniana and her clear affection for this proud, unusual woman make this an entertaining, provocative read."
—The Boston Globe"A fascinating and accessible study of Anne Boleyn's history and popular myth."
—Shelf Awareness"A feast of feminism and history…fascinates readers, and informs and entertains along the way."
—Roanoke Times"Delightfully cheeky, solidly researched…[Bordo] uses her good sense and academic training to shrewdly chip away at historical commentary, which has hardened speculation into supposed "facts."
—The Daily Beast"Engrossing…blending biography, cultural history and literary analysis with a creative writer’s knack for narrative and detail."
—Louisville Leo Weekly"Rivetting…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. "
—Bookpage"Bordo’s skills are sharp as ever as she compares narratives from history and popular culture, revealing the bits of truth we know to be for certain about one of history's most elusive characters."
—Bitch Media"The perfect book for anyone interested in Anne Boleyn. Highly readable, interesting and thought provoking."
—The Anne Boleyn Files"Susan Bordo's Boleyn did the impossible - it made me excited to read about the Tudors again while reminding me to approach history and historical fiction with curiosity and a questioning mind."
—Historical Fiction Notebook"The University of Kentucky humanities chair does a superb job of separating fact from fiction in contemporary accounts of Boleyn’s life, before deftly deconstructing the myriad and contradictory portraits of her that have arisen in the centuries since her death. . . . The young queen has been the source of fascination for nearly half a millennium, and her legacy continues; this engaging portrait culminates with an intriguing exploration of Boleyn’s recent reemergence in pop culture." —Publishers Weekly "A great read for Boleyn fans and fanatics alike"
—Kirkus Reviews"Susan Bordo astutely re-examines Anne’s life and death anew and peels away the layers of untruth and myth that have accumulated since. The Creation of Anne Boleyn is a refreshing, iconoclastic and moving look at one of history’s most intriguing women. It is rare to find a book that rouses one to scholarly glee, feminist indignation and empathetic tears, but this is such a book."
—Suzannah Lipscomb, author of 1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII"If you think you know who Anne Boleyn was, think again. In this rigorously argued yet deliciously readable book, Susan Bordo bursts through the dead weight of cultural stereotypes and historical clichés to disentangle the fictions that we have created from the fascinating, elusive woman that Henry VIII tried—unsuccessfully—to erase from historical memory. This is a book that has long been needed to set the record straight, and Bordo knocked it out of the park. Brava!"
—Robin Maxwell, national bestselling author of Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn and Mademoiselle Boleyn“By turns sassy and serious, playful and profound, Susan Bordo cuts through the layers of legend, fantasy, and untruth that history and culture have attached to Anne Boleyn, while proving that the facts about that iconic queen are every bit as intriguing as the fictions.”
— Caroline Weber, author of Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution
"In The Creation of Anne Boleyn, we watch Anne Boleyn the woman transform into Anne Boleyn the legend—a fascinating journey. Susan Bordo covers Anne's historical footprints and her afterlife in art, fiction, poetry, theater and cinema, each change reflecting the concerns of a different era. Meticulous, thoughtful, persuasive—and fun."
—Margaret George, author of The Autobiography of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I
A Review From Open Letters Monthly:
"'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 Tow...
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