Telling Tales of Anne Boleyn
Strikingly beautiful raven-haired goddess or six fingered witch with a sallow complexion? Sara Coen meets PhD student Laura Saxton and discovers Anne Boleyn is defined by which book you happen to pick up.
Anne Boleyn is a master of disguise in English literature and this is exactly what makes her so compelling and intriguing. There are literally thousands of biographies, historical accounts and novels written about her –each of which cast her in a dramatically different light.
Arguably the most famous queen consort in English history, second wife to King Henry VIII, the woman for whom England’s ties with the Catholic Church were severed, and with her life cut short by the executioner’s sword –Boleyn’s story is politically fascinating, making her the perfect protagonist for any good story.
Growing up reading a lot of historical fiction and biographies, and majoring in history at ACU, I became interested in how authors construct their narratives about Boleyn –this famous historical figure we actually know very little about.
Despite all the myths, legends and documentation, many of the facts about Boleyn’s life are inconclusive, extremely vague, and often clouded by rhetoric, rumour and propaganda – so naturally imagination has filled in the gaps.
We don’t even know where in England she was born; only that she spent some time in France before she became Queen of England. Her death also lends itself to much conjecture. We are not exactly sure how old she was when she died, only that she was convicted of treason and adultery and subsequently beheaded.. There is also much debate about the reasons behind her execution. Some scholars think she was guilty and others believe she was plotted against.
My thesis – Anne of the thousand tales: representations of Anne Boleyn in the English written word –examines how ten 21st Century authors construct very different narratives about the same woman.
Historical narrative is heavily influenced by the time in which the author lives, so it was important to limit the texts to a specific time period, with similar influencing factors.
Among the fictional and non-fictional texts compared in the study are Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, Eric Ives’ The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Emily Purdy’s The Tudor Wife (now out of print), David Starkey’s Six Wives:-The Queens of Henry VIII, and Susannah Dunn’s The Queen of Subtleties.
I am interested in how the authors discuss certain events in Boleyn’s life, their theoretical perspectives, the ways they construct their ideas about her, and where their evidence comes from.
Significant questions such as ‘how is history written’ and ‘how are women portrayed in English literature?’ are explored along with ideas about gender, sexuality, power, and Medievalism.
So far the study would suggest that there is a significant contrast between the ways in which authors depict Boleyn depending on factors such as their audience, genre, perspective and influences. For some she is a glamorous, courageous and intelligent heroine whilst others define her by her downfall, sexuality and death.
Boleyn’s physical appearance is hotly debated. Some authors describe her as having black eyes, a long neck, unsightly moles and warts. There is even talk of her being a witch with physical deformities, including a sixth finger. Others depict her as exotically beautiful with flowing black hair and pure white skin.
In reality, the only conclusive image we have appears on a coin made to commemorate her coronation which is damaged and defaced –so it’s all just speculation.
Postmodern scholars refer to history itself as fiction – and this idea underpins my research. We can never truly access the past. We can only build our arguments by piecing together the fragments that remain. With this approach comes a whole range of implications about how historians use language, gather their information and string together their narratives about the past. Hence, everything is fiction.
Anne Boleyn may not be the most important figure in terms of Australian society today, but the many tales written about her can teach us quite a bit about history as a construct.
We begin to see just how fluid our understanding of the past can be, and we question things more. Perhaps everything we think we know about history really is just fiction.
This post was originally published in the ACU Alumni Magazine, Issue 2, Winter 2012, and can be viewed online here.
Feature Image: Miniature of Anne Boleyn attributed to John Hoskins, in the Collection of Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry