The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo
4th Mar 2014
Bordo’s approach to Anne Boleyn is unusual. Rather than being a strict biography or memoir of Anne, The Creation of Anne Boleyn is best described as a cultural history of the ideas and representations of her that have been made of her ever since she was Henry VIII’s mistress in the 1520’s. In interviews, the author has described herself as drawn to women who were “misunderstood in their own times”, characterizing Boleyn as such.
“If you are interested in when and why Anne has been depicted as she has been, and—as Derek Wilson put it—exploring the history of history, then I think you’ll enjoy the book.” “If you are interested in when and why Anne has been depicted as she has been, and — as Derek Wilson put it — exploring the history of history, then I think you’ll enjoy the book,” said Bordo when interviewed. If you’re one of the many who enjoy Tudor history, then I’d put money on you finding this a pleasurable and informative read.
Of all of Henry VIII’s wives, it’s Anne Boleyn who has continued to fascinate and disgust in the centuries since. It’s clear throughout that Bordo has a real passion for her subject, at turns describing Boleyn as a “free-thinker” and “intellectual” rather than the “soap seductress” that she has been turned into over time.
Though an academic by training, Bordo is not shy of praising pop culture when she feels it has done something correctly. The best depiction of Anne, to her mind, comes not from another academic (David Starkey is an “all-purpose media tart”) but from televisual bodice-ripper The Tudors. Natalie Dormer, who played Anne on the show, is interviewed in the book.
In looking at the way that Anne was depicted in her own time and since, Bordo illustrates how Britain’s first Protestant queen has been used as a muse or vessel for the beliefs of others. The Savoyard diplomat Eustace Chapuys, for example, loathed Anne and her Protestant beliefs, expressing his hatred so strongly and cruelly that, as the author points out, today we might brand them poison pen letters.
Because so few documents from Anne’s own pen still exist, the majority of what we know about the doomed queen comes from the journals and missives of others. This means that surviving documents about her are able to act as a kind of propaganda that historians and cultural critics are forced to question, debunk or support in order to build an argument.
Take one of the best-known myths about Anne, for example: that she had a sixth finger on one hand. At the time and for a few centuries after her death, this quite possible genetic quirk would have been seen as proof she was born a witch. It’s not true. Nor did Anne copulate with her own brother. Reading over how this kind of vilification was manufactured, it’s hard to imagine how Anne posthumously became a romantic and sexy figure in literature and on-screen.
A small criticism of the text is that towards the end it started to drag a little. However, the majority of it is enjoyable enough that one begins to wish Bordo was as willing to play the fame game as some other well-known academics. The world would certainly be a better-informed, livelier place if Bordo were part of the mainstream discourse.