An Anne Boleyn for a Post-Modern Generation

By her own confession, philosopher Susan Bordo is obsessed with Anne Boleyn. The very cover of her new book alerts the reader to the fact they are about to experience something more than straightforward history.

The Creation of Anne Boleyn

Susan Bordo

Oneworld, January 2014



By her own confession, philosopher Susan Bordo is obsessed with Anne Boleyn. The very cover of her new book alerts the reader to the fact they are about to experience something more than straightforward history. Bordo's Anne, resplendent in her dark sunglasses, is a Tudor Queen who has become the plaything of pop-culture, symbolic of both the cultural goggles through which she is viewed and her need for protection from the glare of five centuries of fierce public interest. The glasses are as much a symbol of a new way of looking at Anne as the iconic "B" necklace signifies traditional historical methods. This isn't just a narrative of the controversies of Anne's life, although Bordo achieves that with clarity and insight, it is an energetic and delightful deconstruction of Anne as an icon, for a post-modern audience.

With her background in Feminist thought and the culture of the body, Bordo is well placed to analyse the significance of questions like Anne's colouring or her sixth fingernail and the meanings they have imparted through time. Her approach also allows for Henry and Anne to breathe a little, to be viewed as real people, with all their inconsistencies and failings. Dividing the work in two, she deals first with the history, approaching the known facts with common sense and questioning some of the approaches that often get taken as Tudor gospel. Fascinated as Bordo may be, she does not let this cloud her objectivity when unravelling some of the legends and romance of her subject, presenting a realistic view of her intimate relationship with the King. In a refreshing response to the nature of sources, she goes beyond the usual methods of historical analysis to explore the linguistic choices of Anne's documenters, particularly the associations of language and authorial intention. This has been long overdue.

Next, Bordo explores the many and varied portrayals of Anne over time; her "after-lives" in fiction, film and TV. After detailed interviews with authors, historians, actors and film makers, this makes for an accessible and interesting read; one that feels relevant and familiar to today's reader. Through these fictional portrayals we see recognisable elements of the Tudor queen alongside specific moments in the arc of her reconstruction, such as the delightful anecdotes of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton discussing the role or Anne's post-war incarnation, with more "pluck" for modern girls. Bordo examines the way Anne has been co-opted into the stereotypical roles of feminist icon, whore and martyr, before taking the debate right up to date with the many online forums and groups that have allowed the Queen the last word.

Without question, this book is going to prove controversial. In fact, it already has. Dismissed by some academics on the basis of the cover alone, considered a travesty and insult to the Queen, its tone of irreverent reverence has already irked some readers used to a more traditional narrative approach. This is a shame, as Bordo's style will embrace a whole new readership and strides boldly into new territory. Anne Boleyn is not exclusive academic territory: her image, in all its varieties, is the historical interface between the discipline of history and the legions of fans who first encountered her in a popular novel or on the big screen. For those devotees who have haunted Hampton Court, hoping to catch a sense of their favourite, this is a necessary book, a bold and welcome book. Even for those who come to the text with a background in the period, there are still surprising discoveries to be made in the way that the Victorians perceived Anne and her feisty post-war construction. This is the work which deals most effectively with the Boleyn phenomenon, which is still claiming new hearts and minds well into the twenty-first century.

Perhaps most enjoyable of all is the personal nature of The Creation of Anne Boleyn. Readers are invited to accompany Bordo on her own voyage of discovery, sharing her own experiences in the search for Anne, from being hit by a London bus to her conversations with actress Natalie Dormer. Bordo does not shy away from confronting the fandom associated with Anne; the possessive "my Anne" response and the teenage crushes from viewers of The Tudors TV series; she understands this as a cultural phenomenon, embraces and honestly seeks to explain it. Recent years have seen far too much belittling of popular history and Bordo bravely strides into the no-man's land between serious historical narratives and the perceived "dumbing-down" of shows designed to entertain. The Creation of Anne Boleyn represents a new approach to an old topic, an iconoclastic study of how modern culture has appropriated the sixteenth century for its own purposes. Bordo has reclaimed Anne for a new generation.

Buy the book here


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