The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen* by Susan Bordo
I read it as a: paperback
Source: my own collection
Length: 345 pp
The Creation of Anne Boleyn is a study on the woman, in all her various incarnations, who was wife to a king, a catalyst to the English Reformation, and mother to Elizabeth I. The book covers a wide range of areas ranging from actual history to literature, film, TV, and pop culture interpretations of Anne Boleyn.
There were some enjoyable things about this book. Bordo takes a feminist approach to her writing and interpretation of Anne, which of course is something I appreciate. She is a women’s studies professor, so approaching the topic of Anne Boleyn from the perspective of gender studies rather than a pure historian’s point of view is a nice change of pace from some of the recent things I have read on the subject. I also think that, because the writing tone is engaging and entertaining, it might entice other readers who are new to the topic of Tudor studies to be inspired to learn more about the subject on their own as a result.
There were many issues throughout the book as well, though. As many others before her, I think Bordo leans too heavily on Eustace Chapuys’s letters about Anne. It is true that he did not like her and had many reasons to hope for her downfall. However, although Bordo frequently states in one way or another that Chapuys shouldn’t be trusted in regard to his opinion on Anne, not once did she mention that he only had a couple interactions with Anne directly. Most of his information about Anne came second- and third-hand from others, which she did mention in passing, but I think it is important to remember that his whole job was to report to his boss, Charles V, what was said at court. Chapuys was Charles’s ambassador, so he was likely repeating many of the things he had heard; he was doing his job when he said that “a gentleman known to me” called Anne a whore or said that she had adulterous relations or whatever else. We cannot possibly know that he was “gleeful” when Anne’s downfall came, because unless one is a time traveling mindreader, there’s simply no way to know what he was thinking. I think we really have to take much, if not most, of what Chapuys says in his letters about Anne with a grain of salt. No, he probably didn’t like her at all, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that every single word he wrote about her were his own true thoughts, either.
The book also had a tendency to attack authors with whom Bordo disagreed, which I don’t think is the most professional approach. She makes a lot of valid points about many popular authors who seem to think their historical fiction books are the same as gospel truth and are well researched, when in fact neither is true. I won’t say which authors Bordo takes such exception to, only that I completely agree. They, at least, tell a good story even if it’s totally inaccurate. Bordo, however, champions some authors who also have problems as well, if not to the same degree as the others. The difference seems to be that the ones she champions are ones who paint Anne in a very positive light rather than as the traditional Jezebel or even as a flawed and imperfect woman. Her own bias comes through the most strongly here. Also, Bordo herself does the same things she accuses others of doing, which is to make declarations of historical fact without supporting evidence, or making claims that are contrary to evidence in hand. At one point, she calls Henry a pussy-whipped husband, which is really unlikely to be true, don’t you think? There is evidence that he was ruthless and even brutal when he needed or wanted to be long before he met Anne. Similarly, her treatment of Katherine of Aragon and Mary is really bad. You don’t have to be Team Katherine to be able to acknowledge that Henry treated his first wife and daughter abominably. Fighting to keep a marriage and position to which she was born does not make Katherine stubborn or self-righteous, as Bordo suggests. It makes for good historical fiction, perhaps, but not really for nonfiction. Additionally, I really don’t think quoting people from one’s own Facebook page is adequate for a “scholarly” book. I was really annoyed by that and disappointed that this book was passed off as scholarly. It’s kind of the equivalent of “My mom thinks my story is cool,” and it doesn’t pass muster. For someone who is a doctorally prepared professor, she should do better than resorting to ad hominem attacks on authors or scholars whose positions she disagrees with, and use better supporting evidence.
At the end of the day, this is far more a pop culture commentary than a biography. It is useful in its way for a starting point into further, more academic studies by actual Tudor scholars. It was interesting as a feminist cultural study, but I wouldn’t recommend it as a source for any theses.