It began for me with an email from England, and a young writer looking for a feminist to co-author a book with him. The book was to be about famous women and their pursuit of pleasure, in defiance of rules and restrictions, both social and dietary. The message to body-image-obsessed contemporary women: stop counting calories and start living; the weight will take care of itself. The proposed title: “The Anne Boleyn Diet.”
When I told friends, they either sniggered--“How much does a head weigh?”-- or looked deeply puzzled. The book wasn’t really going to be about Anne Boleyn, I explained, she was just one of many, from Cleopatra to Queen Latifah, whom we’d be writing about. She was only in the title because, well, it was such a great title.
It was a great title. And someday, perhaps, someone will write that book. For me, however, things took a different turn. I knew next to nothing about most of the pre-contemporary women on our list, so I started reading. I could have started anywhere—with Emmeline Pankhurst or Lillian Russell or Golda Meier—but Anne Boleyn was the title character, if only as a metaphor, so I decided to begin with her. And couldn’t stop.
It was my own, overeater’s version of the Anne Boleyn diet—a total gorge. I consumed Boleyn voraciously, sometimes several books a week, one after another, like a chain-smoker. I rented movies and documentaries, read all the popular histories, delved into all the scholarly debates, and discovered the thriving industry in Tudor fiction: Murder Most Royal. The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn. The Lady in the Tower. The Other Boleyn Girl. I gobbled them like candy. My lust for Boleyniana was right up there with “Cherry Ames, Junior Nurse” (4th grade), James Bond (college), Sylvia Plath bios (graduate school) and OJ Simpson and Jon-Benet Ramsey (my “job” as a pop culture critic.)
I wasn’t the first, of course, to become fascinated by Anne Boleyn. The story of her rise and fall is as elementally satisfying—and script-wise, not very different from--a Lifetime movie: a long-suffering, post-menopausal wife, an unfaithful husband and a clandestine affair with a younger, sexier woman, a moment of glory for the mistress, then lust turned to loathing, plotting, and murder as the cycle comes full circle. It’s all so incredibly juicy and, unlike those favorite movies that you watch over and over, knowing exactly what’s coming, the expectation of repeated pleasure was accompanied by the possibility of discovering, in each version, something new. One knew how it would end, of course, but every writer, every dramatist, just as different actors and actresses bring something different to Hamlet or Willy Lohman or Blanche Dubois, got there by a slightly different route.
Like many before me, I fell in love with Anne. I loved her speech at her trial, in which she describes her one “crime” as not having shown Henry enough humility—I think that’s an extraordinary, “feminist” insight for a woman of her time. I loved her dark, ironic sense of humor, which never left her, even at the end. I loved the fact that she never tried to aspire to the beauty-standards of her day, but wore her own style with supreme confidence, probably altering ideas about beauty in the process. I loved her passion for education, and for making the bible available in English to all subjects. I loved her courage, stepping right into the epicenter of politics during a volatile, dangerous time. I loved the fact that she expressed her jealousy rather than suppressing it as a “good” wife should. I loved the way Elizabeth is so clearly her daughter, with that distinctive blend of brains, femininity, assertiveness, and flirtatiousness that they both apparently had.
I also started to see Anne in every young woman who came to my office or emailed me, struggling with the contradictory demands of being female in complex times, asking themselves: Can I be myself—fully myself, sexual and smart, serious and playful, sometimes demanding, sometimes jealous, sometimes too loud, sometimes wanting only to be left alone—and still be loved? Can I be loved—fully loved, body, soul, and mind—and still remain myself? If forced to choose, what will I sacrifice and what will I hold fast to? Anne’s own struggle to remain fully herself, although in a very different time and culture and with much higher stakes, speaks powerfully to these young women, and I think that’s a big reason why she, as I discovered, has become an icon for many of their generation.
At the same time as I was falling in love with Anne, I was amazed at how many tired old stereotypes and myths still existed about her—and even in works of some respected historians, whose work is very valuable, but who slip into “temptress” and “vixen” language when they talk about Anne. I was also surprised at how much reliance there is on the reports of Imperial Ambassador Eustace Chapuys, who sent a running report of activity in the English Court back home to Emperor Charles. Chapuys’ bias against Anne was virulent. He called her “the concubine” and “the whore” and spread rumors that she was planning to poison Katherine and her daughter Mary. Historians warn against that bias, but many go on to accept his reports (even when they are unsubstantiated) all the same. And perhaps most of all, I was disturbed at the way in which fictional accounts, such as those of Philippa Gregory, have become “fact” in the minds of many readers.
All this inspired me to become something of a cultural “detective” in search of the “real” Anne. It was then that I began to see how little we actually know about the “real” Anne, and how differently she has been interpreted and represented according to the fantasies, anxieties, political and religious agendas, etc. etc. of various generations, factions, writers.
For supporters of Catherine of Aragon like Chapuys, she was a Lutheran “heretic,” ambitious schemer, and manipulator of Henry’s passion. For Elizabethan Protestants, she was the unsung heroine of the Protestant Reformation. For Catholic propagandists like Nicholas Sander, she was a six-fingered, jaundiced-looking erotomaniac, who slept with butlers, chaplains, and half of the French court. For the romantics, particularly in painting, she was the hapless victim of a king’s tyranny. In post-war movies and on television, Anne has been animated by the rebellious spirit of the sixties, (Anne of the Thousand Days), the “mean girl” imagery of the nineties (The Other Boleyn Girl), and the “third wave” feminism of a new generation of Anne-worshippers, inspired by Natalie Dormer’s brainy seductress of The Tudors, to see in Anne a woman too smart, sexy, and strong for her own time, unfairly vilified for her defiance of sixteenth-century norms of wifely obedience and silence.
One big goal of my book is to follow the cultural career of these mutating Annes, from the poisonous putain created by Spanish Ambassador Eustace Chapuys—a highly biased portrayal that became “history” for many later writers—to the radically revisioned Anne of the internet generation. So, the new title: The Creation of Anne Boleyn. As I look at the ways in which Anne has been “created” and “recreated,” I also challenge many of the myths and stereotypes that have followed Anne through the centuries, and I will provide some new, provocative answers to the unsolved mysteries of her life. What did she look like? What was it about her that caused such strong feelings in those around her? Did she love Henry? Did Henry love her? And if he loved her, how could he have ordered her death? What brought about her downfall? And most of all, why does she continue to fascinate every new generation?
US edition available in both hardcover and paperback!
Here's what two great Annes have to say about The Creation of Anne Boleyn:
"Thank you so much for your book... It's beautiful, intelligent, and true." - Genevieve Bujold
"Thank you so very much for encapsulating my journey in playing Anne with such eloquence and generosity in your strong, discerning book." - Natalie Dormer