The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo

The Creation of Anne Boleyn isn’t the usual sort of book I recommend, as it’s historical non-fiction. But if you’re interested in history, in pop culture/pop “knowledge,” and in the way that the representation of women reflects society and not their reality, The Creation of Anne Boleyn is a great book to check out.

In this very readable and enjoyable book, Susan Bordo looks at the different ways that Anne Boleyn was been created and recreated since her death, always a different person depending on the political, religious and social needs of the time. She’s been a blonde damsel and a dark-haired seductress, a spirited feminist and the vile other woman. She’s had six fingers and disfigurations, been “the most beautiful woman at court,” an ambitious schemer, a victim of her family’s manipulations, a harpy who brow-beat Henry VIII, an innocent girl in love. And throughout it all, her intellectual interests and her major role in the Reformation and the religious changes for centuries afterwards have been erased in favor of more acceptable female roles — usually either the victim or the whore.

The book starts with a recap of Anne’s life and death — good if you’re not already a Tudor fan, but also fascinating if you have read lots of “non-fiction” biographies on her before. She discusses the biases and leaps that historians such as Alison Weir and the vehemently anti-feminist David Starkey have made in their own biographies, and explores how little we actually know about Anne (most of the things we do “know” come from the letters of one of Anne’s most melodramatic and biased haters, Katherine of Aragon fan and foreign ambassador Chapuys). Then the book looks at the different ways Anne has been characterized throughout the centuries. As a history nerd, I wish this part had been given more weight and exploration, but it’s fairly interesting.

But the most compelling part comes at the end, when the book looks in depth at portrayals of Anne over the last fifty years, with particular focus on the movie Anne of the Thousand Days, the Showtime show The Tudors, and Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl. Susan Bordo interviews many of the people involved in these productions, including a wonderful interview with Natalie Dormer, who fought to improve Anne’s characterization in the show and desperately wanted the audience to be on her side by her execution. The book is worth a read for this interview alone. Meanwhile, Susan Bordo’s take-down of Philippa Gregory, and the role she played in returning popular views of Anne Boleyn to post-execution levels of pantomime-ish villainy, is incredibly compelling, if also quite depressing.

If you’re interested in seeing how our warped media and cultural expectations have shaped and reshaped (and reshaped and reshaped) a woman who actually existed, interested in Tudor history, or just a fan of period dramas like The Tudors, this is definitely a book to pick up.

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