UK professor looks at Anne Boleyn and sees a misunderstood young woman

Contributing Culture WriterApril 14, 2013 

  • IF YOU GO

    Susan Bordo discusses and signs 'The Creation of Anne Boleyn'

    When: 7 p.m. April 18

    Where: Joseph-Beth Booksellers, The Mall at Lexington Green, 161 Lexington Green Cir.

    Learn more: (859) 273-2911, Josephbeth.com

Feminist scholar Susan Bordo has at least one thing in common with Henry VIII: She fell in love with Anne Boleyn.

Bordo, a professor of English and gender and women's studies at the University of Kentucky, became enamored with England's famously beheaded 16th-century queen after a journalist approached Bordo in 2007 to co-author a book about famous women and their pursuit of pleasure. Boleyn was to be one of many subjects.

But Bordo soon became infatuated with Boleyn, and it became clear that she deserved her own book.

The result is Bordo's latest book, The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England's Most Notorious Queen (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27). It is not a biography aiming to set the record straight so much as a detailed exploration and analysis of five centuries' worth of evolving versions of Boleyn's life and character.

Bordo says that she responded so strongly to Boleyn because she is not unlike the many young, misunderstood women Bordo may meet in her writing or teaching, women who inspire what Bordo calls a "maternal impulse."

"I've always had this kind of sense of when young women have been misunderstood and a desire to help them be better understood," she says.

"One of the most fascinating things is how misrepresented she's been, both positively and negatively," Bordo says. "When you begin to explore the many, many biographies and histories and fiction and movies and plays, it's almost as though Anne as a person disappears in everybody's imaginary fantasies.

"You cannot find the real Anne."

That's what Henry VIII wanted.

Before Boleyn's beheaded corpse was even cold, Henry's servants were hard at work eradicating every trace of her from the royal residences. Her letters are rumored to have been burned, her portraits destroyed.

"There is just not enough that remains of the historical record, especially that has not been distorted," Bordo says.

What we do know: Henry married Boleyn after leaving his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Boleyn was in her 30s when she was beheaded, the first English queen to be executed. Her daughter was Elizabeth I, who would go on to be one of England's longest-serving monarchs.

One of the main obstacles in finding the "real Anne," is that much of the only surviving records about her were written by political enemies.

Take Eustace Chapuys, for instance. The ambassador from Spain was sympathetically portrayed as a loyal confident to the usurped Queen Catherine of Aragon in Showtime's hit series The Tudors, but he was Boleyn's bitter political enemy. In detailed accounts to Charles V, Chapuys frequently referred to Boleyn as "the whore." Chapuys' highly biased accounts of Boleyn have become the bedrock of history's understanding, or rather, misunderstanding, of Boleyn because they are among the few records that exist.

Once Bordo realized she could not retrieve and rescue the "real Anne," a new fascination emerged: outlining the history of our culture's enduring obsession with her.

"From starting out like I wanted to find the real Anne, I then moved to being fascinated with the different ways that different generations have taken her story and turned it to their own uses," Bordo says.

"Anne is this multifaceted, many-textured but still mysterious presence in history that brings out the fantasies of the culture and people writing about her," she says. "In a way we're falling in love with some of our own projections. It's the same as what happened with Marilyn Monroe — there's a mystery there that enables people to see in her what they want to see."

Bordo says one of the reasons Boleyn is a lasting figure in our cultural consciousness is that her tale has all of the elements of a really good soap opera.

"You've got the betrayed first wife, a younger, gorgeous woman — even though she wasn't that young and that gorgeous — a king pursuing her for six years, seven years maybe, that's extraordinary," Bordo says. "The idea that a man like Henry VIII would pursue a woman for that long and then, of course, the fact that she was the mother of Elizabeth, probably the most influential monarch, the fact that she was accused of crimes like adultery with all kinds of men, including her own brother— that's part of why people keep recycling her because it has the elements of a gripping soap opera."

Bordo doesn't think that any single portrayal of Boleyn in film or books is completely accurate — there is just too much that cannot be verified — but she does think some contemporary portrayals capture striking truths that were previously overlooked, like the irony that Henry was likely so attracted to Boleyn because of her intelligence and wit.

Moving in circles of highly independent, intellectual women like Marguerite de Navarre at the French court, Bordo suggests Boleyn came of age thinking her own thoughts and was accustomed to expressing them — which might have been her undoing, particularly when it came to her Protestant leanings.

"When she was on trial, she said at one point that she was not guilty of the crimes, but if she was guilty of anything it was of not showing the king perfect humility," Bordo says.

"I find that an amazing comment, because it suggests that Anne understood that she had stepped outside of her prescribed place and done something that, according to the expectations of women and especially queens in those days, was a crime, just not the crime she was accused of," she says.

"She leaned in too far."


IF YOU GO

Susan Bordo discusses and signs 'The Creation of Anne Boleyn'

When: 7 p.m. April 18

Where: Joseph-Beth Booksellers, The Mall at Lexington Green, 161 Lexington Green Cir.

Learn more: (859) 273-2911, Josephbeth.com

Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer.

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