Review: The Creation of Anne Boleyn

Saturday, April 13, 2013

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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. (from Amazon)

I love books that are just as much historiography as history; sometimes it can be just as interesting to dissect the "known" story and how it came to be as telling the story itself. This may seem an odd preference from a blogger of historical fiction but it's actually what a lot of good historical fiction does. It removes the stereotypes, the images from movies and TV and (yes) the bad historical novels. It reminds you that these characters didn't always exist in books - they were real people. This can be surprisingly hard to remember when you've read a dozen novels about Henry VIII.

I've been reading about Anne Boleyn for two decades now and thought that I couldn't possibly come across a book that would make me consider her in a new way. 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.

Boleyn is divided into three parts: the first part is a kind of mini-biography of Boleyn but with the very clear purpose of examining the known sources on her life and evaluating their veracity. The fascinating final chapter  in the section asks "Henry: How Could He Do It?" This is the first biography of Anne (at least that I can remember) that asks such a question and doesn't treat her death on the scaffold as the inevitable end point of her life.

The second part looks at how Anne's death laid the groundwork for subsequent centuries' making and re-making of her image. It's incredible to see how many different faces the historical Anne acquired in the progression towards the present day. The third part is a treat for historical fiction fans, looking at the last fifty years of portrayals of Anne, from the well-meaning historical inaccuracies of Anne of a Thousand Days to the travesty of The Other Boleyn Girl. Bordo's interview with actress Natalie Dormer actually made me appreciate Showtime's The Tudors in a new way.

I have only one small problem with this book and that's the strange pseudo-computer generated cover. The book deserves much better and I hope it won't dissuade readers from picking it up.

Readers looking for similar books can try out A Magnificent Obsession; Queen of Fashion and The Resurrection of the Romanovs. All three books in varying ways either challenge the history we thought we knew about famous figures such as Queen Victoria, Marie Antionette and Grand Duchess Anastasia or present one aspect of their life in such a new way, it makes us reconsider their entire lives from a new perspective.

Bordo's book has every right to stand amongst these finely written works of history and I hope every historical fiction fan has an opportunity to read her work.


Sarah Johnson said...

I've been looking forward to this one ever since reading an excerpt from the author's interview with Natalie Dormer on her blog. From that I came away with positive impressions of both women and the integrity with which they approached their subject. I agree with you on the strange cover.

Susan Bordo said...

Thank you so, so much for the lovely review!! But would it be possible to change "Boro" to "Bordo"? (I'm sure it's a typo!) Cover portrait, by the way, is an original portrait by Brazilian artist Alexander Jubran. I don't think it is computer generated. I chose it because I wanted something to suggest the creation of fantasy and imagination rather than the same-old historical portraits that are on every other book, and the readers of my facebook page love it. Sorry you don't, but very happy that you liked the book--that's much more important to me!! Susan.

Historical Fiction Notebook said...

Susan: All fixed - so very sorry about the typos!

It's interesting to know the background behind the cover. Perhaps it will grow on me as time goes by.

I wish you the very best of luck with this fabulous book!

Susan Bordo said...

Thanks so much! And now off to post your lovely review on my facebook page....Have a great day, Susan.

Tiffalex said...

This comment doesn't have anything to do with your book review (although it was lovely and I am now going to check it out at the library), but I was wondering if you could answer some questions that I have about your profession. I am a 26 yr old graduate student looking to change career paths, and am really interested in what you do, how you got your job, any recommendations etc.
If you want to email me, my email address is:
kohlert@vet(dot)k-state(dot)edu. Any information at all will be greatly appreciated.
Thank you!

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