When is a historical biography not a historical biography? When it is written by Susan Bordo apparently! Because what she has produced is something so much more than this. This is a book that swallows you whole – I never felt that I was a passive receiver of information when reading this, but rather a respected reader who is continually being challenged. Because Bordo does not underestimate us - there is never a Starkey style “it’s obviously this…” instead what you have is a weighing up of the evidence and of the sources. My first blog for Royal Central was on ‘The Legacy of Anne Boleyn’. I was intrigued when I received a comment from Susan suggesting I would enjoy her new book. The more I read about Susan the more intrigued I became and The Creation of Anne Boleyn soon made its way to the top of my wish list.
Once I had the book in my hands I couldn’t wait to start and thought I would devour it very quickly - but I found I couldn’t because the book engages you all the way through. It is almost like you are having a conversation, where the other person keeps saying to you ‘but what about this’ and ‘have you considered this’ and I have to admit to answering out-loud on more than one occasion. This book is more than a biography of Anne – in fact if that is what you are after I would suggest the excellent Anne Boleyn biography by Eric Ives - Bordo’s book is also an examination of how we perceive her and how her image has changed over time. The first part of the book is devoted to looking at Anne herself, but rather than present the facts in linear fashion, Bordo examines what we know and from which sources. What this demonstrated to me more than anything was how little we really do know. A very confusing thing to digest when I feel I could describe this woman in great detail. At each step Bordo questions the evidence – where has it come from? And how have historians presented it?
At the same time Bordo does look at the major questions we are left with regarding Anne – such as how did her fortunes take such a dramatic downturn? Who really was responsible for her fall? How complicit was Henry? But her focus is more on why these questions still fascinate us. What is it about Anne Boleyn that has made her stand the test of time? Bordo makes the point that even before her execution Henry tried to erase her memory – but it quite obviously failed – it seems like the less evidence we have the more interesting she is. The question that keeps being asked is what was Anne really like?
The second and third parts of the book ‘Recipes for Anne Boleyn’ and ‘An Anne for All Seasons’ examine the ways that Anne has been represented since her death. It looks at both historical descriptions of Anne and of how she has been portrayed more recently on screen, on stage and in the many novels she has appeared in. It seems Anne is not subject to just one stereotype, but to several dependent on whether you perceive her as a predator or as a victim – and it seems that she still has the power to create strong reactions to her character. It is difficult to have a true understanding of who Anne really was, as she has produced such powerful, and conflicting responses.
In this section I particularly enjoyed the accounts of interviews with Geneviéve Bujold and Natalie Dormer who have both played Anne. What came shining through both interviews was the importance of their doing justice to her character, and the bond both seemed to feel with Anne. For me, they both seemed to capture something of the essence of the Anne that I picture – although, I think my Anne is neither a predator nor a victim. She is (as is a popular perception today) a very modern woman – with her own ideas, and values - woman who won Henry not on looks, but on merit.
For me the essence of this book, is what I have illustrated above, the idea of ‘my Anne’. For most of us who have fallen into the trap of becoming fascinated by her there will always be a ‘my Anne’ and what I have found in this book is an understanding of how her image has been created. The most obvious reason for her enduring popularity is the intrigue of her fall, but what Bordo has demonstrated is that the many different faces Anne has, have kept her an illusive and compelling historical figure. However, I would emphasis that this book is not just for Anne Boleyn devotees, it gives us an alternative way to look at a historical character and makes us think about how impossible it is to divide the true person from their image. I would recommend this to anyone interested in history.
This book has left me with two things – a long reading list of new Anne Boleyn material and secondly, with a desire to see more historical books of this type. Personally I would love to see one of Richard III, who it seems has gone from nephew killing villain to wronged hero.
The Creation of Anne Boleyn is currently available to pre-order from Amazon. Keep an eye out at Royal Central for Susan Bordo’s upcoming guest blog.