Anne Boleyn: Susan Bordo Assesses Fact Versus Fiction

In 1536, when King Henry VIII of England gave the order to execute his wife, Queen Anne Boleyn, he sought to erase her not only from memory, but from history. Nevertheless, today – almost 500 years later – she continues to be one of the most famous women in European history.

Centuries after her death, the image of Anne Boleyn continues to stand the test of time, though not without some discrepancy on what that image actually looks like. There’s Anne the raven-haired temptress with six fingers on one hand and an insatiable appetite for power. There’s Anne the freethinking, reformist intellectual with a wit to match. There’s Anne the brazen and Anne the bold, Anne the beguiling and Anne the brave, Anne the vixen and Anne the victim. There is the Anne who had it coming, and the Anne who went down a martyr.

Feminist philosopher Susan Bordo explores each and every one of these images in her book The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen, locating their place in both academic treatises as well as fictional narratives and pulling them by their roots. Part biography, part cultural history, The Creation of Anne Boleyn separates – as best it can – the facts of the queen’s life from the media representations that have found footholds since her death.

Click on image to enlarge.

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Susan for a Zoom conversation about all things Anne Boleyn. I began, of course, by asking Susan how the project started.

“I got an email from a young man in England who wanted to write a book with me on ‘famous women with great appetites’ – whether it be for food, power, or intellectual advancement – ‘who had been misunderstood’.” Susan said yes, and decided to start with Anne Boleyn.

Susan told me that she has always been drawn to the narratives that, while becoming sedimented in the minds of the people, continue to exist with holes. And so, she was drawn to Anne’s story: “I spent a couple years reading everything, watching every movie and the few television shows that were out at the time.”

I started swimming in the stream of Tudor culture. It became my life.

But the really compelling elements of her book came when Susan started to venture out into the field, interviewing the authors, playwrights, actors, and screenwriters making media about Anne Boleyn. “I started swimming in the stream of Tudor culture. It became my life.”

I reached into my memory, thinking back to my own introduction to the tragic plight of the young queen. What I found was a neatly packaged set of chocolate bars, seven in total. Each wrapper featured a different portrait – three wives flanked each side of a double-chinned Henry who peered at me with beady eyes. I was a twelve-year-old on my first visit to London.

Fast forward to my 11th grade European history class, where the students joined the teacher in a recitation: “divorced, killed, died, divorced, killed, survived,” committing the fate of each wife to memory. Anne was the second, by the way – the first to be “killed.”

divorced, killed, died, divorced, killed, survived

After years of knowing Anne as simply one wife out of six, I finally got the chance to really meet her in the 2008 film The Other Boleyn Girl. This Anne? She was a bit of a bitch. Adapted from Phillipa Gregory’s historical fiction novel of the same name, The Other Boleyn Girl was possibly the worst introduction I could’ve gotten.

“Most people don’t realize that this book is actually historical fiction,” Susan told me. “Every time she was interviewed, Phillipa Gregory emphasized its basis in fact. I think that she did a lot of damage that way. We tend to think that the breakdown of the factual universe started with Trump in politics, but the fact is that it was breaking down long before that in cultural media.”

The intentional omission of information in order to make a story out of history, the presentation of fiction as fact, might have been accepted and even expected in Anne’s time. History writing as a genre was just beginning to establish itself, and it was perfectly normal for a writer to add drama to make information more palatable to an audience, or to write with a personal or political bias. According to Susan, “People were expected to take sides,” to advocate for their champions, whether that be Catherine of Aragon (Henry’s first scorned wife) or Anne (Catherine’s younger and more beautiful successor).

More and more, people are creating stories that serve their own purposes.

But the fact that writers are still doing this today is alarming. As Susan says, all it takes is constant repetition of a certain narrative for the lines to blur, for that narrative to take hold in the minds of people as truth. “More and more, people are creating stories that serve their own purposes.” For Susan, writing her book on Anne was important in that it gave her the opportunity to try to separate fiction from fact wherever possible.

“In the past, it was common practice to include a sort of disclaimer” on one’s historical writing or historical fiction. Even today, we see these disclaimers in books, movies, and television shows. Still, dramatized accounts of history go un-disclaimed.

For example, take the Netflix series The Crown (which began its first season in 2016). The Crown does not include a disclaimer. Regardless of your feelings on the British Royal Family, you could understand why they made such a fuss about Netflix refusing to include a disclaimer on the serialized version of their lives.

Prince Charles’ relationship with Camilla Parker-Bowles may have been painful for his wife, Princess Diana, but it hardly warrants the slew of online hate the actual Camilla received after the fourth season of the series premiered. Whatever the actress who played Camilla may have said on screen, it is dangerous to attribute scripted lines to real people.

When I first heard Anne’s story as told by Phillipa Gregory in The Other Boleyn Girl, I took it upon myself to research further into the actual history. I knew the movie was historical fiction. And quite frankly, I did not believe that the real Anne Boleyn had convinced her own brother to have sex with her after her third miscarriage so she could get pregnant, pass her baby off as Henry’s, and remain in his favor. Suffice it to say that my skepticism was later validated.

“See,” said Susan. “You did that part. But most people don’t. And we’ve lost, to a large extent, the ability to be skeptical, to discern fact from fiction.”

So, at some point in history, Anne Boleyn the person – a real historical figure – ceased to exist, and Anne Boleyn the character was born, and this character became a blank canvas on which people could project their own ideals, philosophies, and motives. And that is just fine, as long as there is a disclaimer.

Spencer introduces itself with an epigraph reminding the audience that this is “a fable from a true tragedy.”

Now take Spencer (2021), the latest stab at depicting modern British Royals. Spencer is an imaginative conjecture about what happened over the course of one Christmas weekend in the life of Princess Diana. Appropriately, Spencer introduces itself with an epigraph reminding the audience that this is “a fable from a true tragedy.”

As Spencer’s Diana cracks under the cold pressure of her husband – the Prince of Wales – who can’t be bothered with her, and the family –headed by his mother the Queen – that seems to hate her, Diana finds solace in the memory of Anne Boleyn, another wife scorned by her husband and his mistress. Again, Camilla is the home wrecker. Much like Jane Seymour – Henry’s third wife – might’ve been to Anne? More irony, remember when Anne was the one who supposedly wrecked Queen Catherine’s home?

In Spencer, Anne is a tool meant to make audience members sympathize with both her plight as well as Diana’s. Unfortunately for me – someone who has now read quite a bit on Anne Boleyn and the Tudors – the opposite effect took hold. Anne did, after all, replace a loving wife. However, this is a “fable” and Diana is the central figure. It’s perfectly acceptable to take one element of Anne’s life and heighten it so that Diana (and the audience) can identify with her.

“You were talking about Anne as a projection in Spencer, and I completely agree.” Susan continues, “Right now we’re in a rehabilitative moment when it comes to Anne. For so long, the ‘default’ Anne was Phillipa Gregory’s scheming queen. Now people are using Anne in a different way. The filmmaker saw not just the parallel of being scorned by ‘the other woman,’ but also the idea of being a victim of the media, a person who is nothing but currency.”

Diana’s story has been currency for almost fifty years. Meanwhile, Anne’s story has been currency for almost five centuries. “You might say the symbolism, though, the communication of these parallels, are a little heavy-handed. Like you, I didn’t feel emotionally compelled, knowing all that I know about Anne.”

I’m glad that Kristen Stewart overplayed it a little bit…

What both Susan and I did love about the film was Kristen Stewart’s Oscar-nominated performance. “I’m glad that Kristen overplayed it a little bit,” Susan said. “In doing so, she almost signals the artifice of creating a historical figure. She walks the line between accuracy in her gestures, her posture, her walk, and exaggeration in some of her behaviors and expressions of emotion. You knew what you were looking at… This wasn’t a photograph or a home movie, this was a person who had become an icon.”

Kristen Stewart’s performance reminds us that this is, after all, still a character. Just as we know the performers onstage are just that, performers, so too do we recognize Kristen Stewart’s Diana as a character, a version of the person. We expect drama in theater over naturalism, and naturalism over drama in film. Maybe we should rethink that?

It’s been almost a decade since Susan wrote The Creation of Anne Boleyn. And though she’s gone on to write other books and pieces, she would love to revisit the book for an update. “I feel I still have a lot to say.”

The Tudors (2007-2010) was fresh content back when The Creation of Anne Boleyn was first published, but now there is so much more media available. How about Jodie Turner-Smith’s Black Anne in the new British miniseries Anne Boleyn?

“I’m still fascinated by how we continue to rewrite Anne’s story,” Susan concludes. And, of course, I agree.

© Roza M. Melkumyan (3/24/22) Special for FF2 Media

Click on image to enlarge.


Order Susan Bordo’s book The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen.


Use of book jacket courtesy of Susan Bordo. All Rights Reserved.

“Near contemporary painting of Anne Boleyn at Hever Castle, c. 1550” is in the Public Domain. The name of the painter is unknown and the portrait has no affirmed provenance, nevertheless, it’s certainly lovely to look at 😉

Tags: Anne Boleyn, Jodie Turner-Smith, King Henry VIII, Roza Melkumyan, Spencer (2021), Susan Bordo, The Creation of Anne Boleyn, The Creation of Anne Boleyn - A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen, The Other Boleyn Girl

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As a member of the FF2 Media team, Roza writes features and reviews and coaches other associates and interns. She joined the team as an intern during her third year of study at New York University. There she individualized her major and studied narrative through a cultural lens and in the mediums of literature, theatre, and film. At school, Roza studied abroad in Florence and London, worked as a Resident Assistant, and workshopped a play she wrote and co-directed. After graduating, she spent six months in Spain teaching English and practicing her Spanish. In 2019, she spent a year in Armenia teaching university English as a Fulbright scholar. She has continued to live in Armenia, and loves every second of it. Her love of film has only grown over the years, and she is dedicated to providing the space necessary for female filmmakers to prosper.
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