The Creation of Anne Boleyn

The Creation of Anne Boleyn Book Cover The Creation of Anne Boleyn
Susan Bordo
Biography & Autobiography
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
April 9, 2013

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.

This as distinctive a history book as I have ever read. It is not your usual attempt at a balanced critical analysis – it is full of opinions, aggressive, passionate – a real fan book. But it’s also erudite, well researched, critical – it’s not academically lightweight.

First of all, it’s as much about how media and culture has portrayed Anne, in all kinds of genres, and about Anne what she has to contribute to gender studies; so it takes the TV series The Tudors completely seriously, and how they chose to portray her (the author is also slightly unbalanced in her enthusiasm for Natalie Dormer, which made me ever so slightly uncomfortable). About two thirds of the book are about that, so if that’s a turn off don’t read it.

The negatives for me were that she is very aggressive about the shortcomings of fellow authors – David Starkey and Alison Weir come in for a broadside for what she sees as their uncritical and sloppy use of Chapuys as a source. She excoriates Phillipa Gregory who in Bordo’s view presents herself as a historian while making the unsubstantiated leaps that fiction authors are entitled to – as long as they are honest about it! It’s fun – but becomes distasteful. Secondly, I listened to it in Audiobook and the reader was very distinctive – excellent, but distinctive, and I think she added her own personality to the text.

The positives were legion actually; Bordo is very insightful – she really wants to understand how human beings would have thought and acted in this drama; I found myself agreeing with her a lot more than I disagreed, especially in the way Anne greeted death. Her discussion of the texts and sources is excellent – you really begin to understand the limitations, and she really brings home why everyone (over)relies on Chapuys. She is equally passionate about the commentators she does respect – Eric Ives and Hilary Mantel for example. As a cultural academic, he approach is fresh and invigorating.  I thought her discussion about how Anne (and many women in history) have a false dichotomy imposed on them was fascinating and slightly guilt inducing.

But I suspect you’ll either love Bordo’s treatment, or hate it. It’s a personal book (we find out a fair amount about Bordo’s daughter! But I liked that).  It really helped me understand just how potty people get about the Tudors and Anne Boleyn in particular. But whatever you think (and I’d love to know) I don’t think you’ll go away thinking this was just another book about Anne Boleyn – it is at very least thought provoking.

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