Review: The Creation of Anne Boleyn, Susan Bordo

This is the Tudor segment of the Tudors-and-Plantagenets pair of posts that you may expect from this blog. The second episode of the Reading the End Bookcast, which appeared last Wednesday, does also mention the Plantagenets, although quite a bit farther back in time (Henry II).

(PS I love the Plantagenets.)

So, the Tudors! Susan Bordo has written this book (Amazon, B&N, Book Depository) that is right in my wheelhouse, a biography slash cultural history of Anne Boleyn as a person and as a semi-mythic figure. In the first half of the book, she explores what is known about Anne’s life. For this she draws from primary sources as well as numerous biographies of Anne, noting the biases of the various biographers and the places where the history is incomplete or untrustworthy (which is like, a lot of places, because this all happened in the 1500s). Bordo does not think much of David Starkey and Alison Weir. I do not think much of Alison Weir myself. Alison Weir and I are in an argument about Richard III that I cannot imagine will ever be resolved.

Though not as well-written or Janet-Malcolmy as a Janet Malcolm book, I loved this segment of the book for the way it explores different biographers’ and historians’ take on the same events. Since Bordo has roughly the same dog in this fight that I do — she likes Anne Boleyn and does not think she probably was such a vengeful hussy as some people have believed — I did not feel unduly worried that I was being sold a bill of goods. The book is obviously researched carefully, and Bordo says upfront which historians agree with what she thinks and which historians do not.

(I should just admit right now that I own prints of Anne Boleyn’s and Richard III’s portraits, and I have plans to get them shipped to me in New York, frame them, and hang them up on my living room walls.)

In the second half of the book, Bordo goes on to explore the portrayals of Anne in popular culture throughout the centuries, with a particularly lengthy discussion of Anne of a Thousand Days, The Tudors, Hilary Mantel’s books, and The Other Boleyn Girl. Here is where I discovered that Natalie Dormer is an adorable dear who really wanted to be the best Anne Boleyn in all the land but sometimes the showrunners of The Tudors were like, “No! Boobs!” My favorite bit of the second half of the book was when Bordo was talking about lesser-known portrayals of Anne — I kept tearing pieces off my electricity bill (which I was using as a bookmark) and marking pages with them so I could get remember to read, for instance, Mary Hastings Bradley’s 1912 The Favor of Kings.

I did regret that Bordo’s focus narrowed so sharply in the latter third of the book. There’s a chapter called “Anne’s Afterlives” that I enjoyed tremendously. That’s where all the pieces of my electricity bill went. I’d have loved to hear more about historical novels featuring Anne — where they all got their information and what the reception of them was like and so forth. Bordo covers these, but mainly only talks about Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel in more recent years. Has nobody else written novels with Anne Boleyn in them? I would read them! I would not read them with quite as much glee as a novel with Anne Boleyn that was published in the early 1900s, because early 1900s romance/adventure novels are my fave;  but I would still read them. I’d at least start them!

In sum, an extremely enjoyable read if you like Anne Boleyn or thinking about mythologizing history. I like both.

Note: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Also, the above links to places you can buy this book are affiliate links. If you click on them and then buy a book from that website, I get a very small amount of money. This in no way influences my reviews.

23 thoughts on “Review: The Creation of Anne Boleyn, Susan Bordo

  1. I have read a book by Jean Plaidy (Murder Most Royal), which is about Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.

    It was an enjoyable book, and seemed more authentic than that Philippa Gregory book, but then again…any book would seem like that anyway.

    Darn good yarn though. Check it out if you haven’t already read it.

    • Will do! I read a Jean Plaidy book once for school, because my history teacher said it was such a well-researched, detailed depiction of Marie Antoinette’s life. I remember being impressed with how carefully she seemed to have studied everything about Marie’s life. I’d definitely be up for another Plaidy book!

    • Yes! Brief Gaudy Hour! I read my mom’s literally to pieces during my early teen years. Left me with a lifelong affection for poor, doomed Anne and the snippets of Tudor history I retained have stood me in good stead these many years since as I’ve filled in the (vast) gaps of my knowledge of the English kings and queens.

      Must reread BGH, as I did replace that first fallen-apart copy with another. A little fearful that the magic will no longer be as strong, though…

      I’ve read other historical fictions (or tried to read them) featuring Anne Boleyn, but sadly could not get into any of them in the same way, as I somehow have fully accepted Brief Gaudy Hour’s portrayal of her and no others quite ring true.

      Ditto Josephine Tey and The Daughter of Time and my complete acceptance of her portrayal of Richard III!

      • The double (now triple) recommendation of Brief Gaudy Hour has been duly noted. I shall repair to the library for a copy, or if not I will investigate getting it through PaperbackSwap.

  2. I spent the weekend totally binging on S4 of The Tudors, which I had not seen before and got totally sucked into despite having burnt myself out on reading about the Tudors a few years ago. Maybe this means that I have un-burnt-out myself? Or maybe it just means that I like pretty people wearing pretty costumes.

    • Hahaha, yeah, that could be a thing. Pretty people in pretty costumes are fun for everyone. What happens in S4?

      • Catherine and Anne each get their own season, then S3 is Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleaves, and S4 is Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr, and ends with Henry’s death. I enjoyed the show, but am still not sure I’m un-burnt-out enough to dive into another Tudor novel (which is the reason I am the last person on earth not to have read any Hillary Mantel.) Non-fiction might be okay, though!

  3. This sounds a book I must read, I can’t get enough of the history and discussing different sources is right up my street. (I’m also not a fan of Starkey and have a love-hate with Alison Weir.) Very interesting about Natalie Dormer!

    • How come you’re not a fan of Starkey? And what makes you dislike Alison Weir? Same reasons as mine? Sappiness?

  4. Aw, shoot. I was going to be the FIRST to talk about Brief Gaudy Hour (my mom had it TOO and I TOO read it all up as a kid) but I have been beaten to the punch. *weeps* *recovers quickly*

    Have you seen “Anne of a Thousand Days”? I am very, very partial to Genevieve Bujold (you remember her from King of Hearts), and this film pretty much set in stone my vision of Anne.

    • Oh Mumsy darling, of course I remember you talking about Anne of a Thousand Days and Genevieve Bujold. I want to see it. As soon as it goes on Netflix I will read the crap out of it.

      I want to hear more about Brief Gaudy Hour!

        • Re: BGH – agreed. Not sure how it would stand up to re-reading at this point in my life. I too was 12-ish (maybe 13? let’s see, I was in Grade 7 or thereabouts) when I first read it. There were a few sexy (though extremely NON-graphic) scenes which completely bowled this innocent adolescent over! I’m now on the search for my copy. Dark green with yellow lettering…must be here somewhere…

          (And in its favour, a quick peek at the Goodreads page sees BGH rated decently high with loads of reviews. It’s also apparently been recently reissued. So it should be easy to get your hands on, Jenny.)

  5. It has been way too long since I read a Tudor book. In fact, I don’t think I read another one after I finished that monster by Margaret George 10 years ago. I really need to remedy that.

    PS: I don’t think too much of Alison Weir either. And I totally just typed weird first. lol

  6. Only sort of related but have you seen the TV adaptation of The White Queen yet? Lots of very pretty Richard (and lots of cool female characters from history).

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