Thursday, 20 November 2014
Fantasies of a Bitch: "Anne Boleyn", Mean Girls, and Culture
Everyone loves a bitch. In one guise or another, bitches have occupied centre stage within every culture in civilisation. Medieval mean girls, ancient vixens, Renaissance shrews and modern Reginas reign supreme throughout their generations, tormenting, tantalising, manipulating, wreaking havoc, creating misery and doing it all with a stunning smile. Regina George, played by Rachael McAdams in Mean Girls, is the archetypal bitch of twenty-first century American culture: manipulative; beautiful; tormenting; ruthless; spiteful; and dizzyingly intelligent. Very much the "Queen Bee" of her school, where she rules the roost and throws every other female into the shade, Regina epitomises modern bitchiness in its every facet. For many, the Tudor equivalent of Regina George in modern America is the very mother of Elizabeth I herself, Henry VIII's second and most infamous wife: Anne Boleyn.
Susan Bordo, in her excellent, original and provocative book The Creation of Anne Boleyn, ponders why Anne continues to be represented in cultural works as hell on earth, asking 'who let the bitch out?' Eustace Chapuys, imperial ambassador during the majority of Henry VIII's reign, created a nightmare vision of Anne that has powerfully shaped, to one degree or another, every cultural representation of her since. Presenting her as 'that accursed she-devil' who used witchcraft and magic to lure Henry into marrying her, Chapuys suggested that Anne was craftily and cunningly planning the deaths of her rival Katherine of Aragon and her stepdaughter Mary Tudor. When she wasn't busy making threats and acquiring poison to do away with enemies, she was spreading Lutheranism throughout the kingdom, luring the king into ridding England of its rightful religion. As Bordo notes: 'What this view of Anne has done is create a vivid, provocative "template" which later generations have responded to in different, often highly polarized ways'. In short, Chapuys portrayed Anne in so vile and hostile a light that represented her as the bitch of the Tudor court, a woman who stopped at nothing to attain her own ends.
Chapuys's influence can be discerned in several contemporary works. Philippa Gregory's novel The Other Boleyn Girl presented Anne as a murderous, malicious and egotistical woman who bullied her siblings into doing what she wanted. She poisoned Katherine and several bishops, slept with her brother, and stole her sister's child in an act of coldblooded cruelty. The portrayal of Anne in Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies has been described as 'lethal' and so 'spitefully ambitious' that 'one feels any king would be justified in beheading her'. Yet there is very little to no evidence to support this. Aside from Chapuy's poison pen, and the later hostile account written by a Catholic priest, Nicholas Sander (who was himself a child when Anne was executed), contemporary accounts did not so vividly and fictionally present Anne as, in effect, the bitch of the Tudor court.
As Bordo notes, the femme fatale, the bitch, is an archetype of all cultures throughout the ages. Just perusing a GoodReads discussion entitled 'Why did everyone hate Anne Boleyn?' brought up the following claims:
'I... think she deserved to die though innocent of adultery and to other sexual misconduct but because she made C. of Aragon suffer so, slowly poisoning her to death, and treating Mary so badly. In those days queens seemed to have a Queen Bee syndrome and Anne was viciously true to form'.
'Today, she would probably be diagnosed as being a sociopath'.
'She was just cruel and crazy!'
'...She was definitely a wack job'.
'She was political and manipulative'.
'She was manipulative... today she would probably be diagnosed with a personality disorder'.
'She was a manipulator for sure'.
'Anne Boleyn was a horrible person... she stole someone's husband... she also treated Mary Catherine's daughter so badly...she deserved what she got in the end'.
What all of these views have in common is their underlying suggestion that Anne Boleyn was able to manipulate Henry VIII. She was the one who wielded power and control in their relationship. She pushed him around and made sure she got her own way. But, aside from the complete lack of evidence for this, this is in many ways an absurd and distorted characterisation of their relationship. Although some historians continue to view Henry VIII as malleable and easily led, they are very few and far between. Historians by and large generally agree that he held absolute power. Upon becoming king, he had two of his father's ministers summarily beheaded. He put to death two of his wives. He treated his elder daughter with remarkable cruelty. He put to death possibly as many as 72,000 people. He ordered the death of a 67-year-old woman innocent of any crime, who was then cruelly hacked to death. He was described as a 'tyrant' and 'worse than Nero'.
It then invites disbelief to suggest, as these readers commenting do, that Anne was able to manipulate and control Henry. People continue to believe that she was responsible for Mary's ill treatment. Yet, when Anne was beheaded, Henry continued to treat his daughter cruelly. There were even rumours that he would put her to death for refusing to recognise him as Supreme Head of the Church and because she refused to agree that her parents' marriage was invalid. This is apart from the complete lack of evidence that Anne had in any way, shape, or form, what resembled a 'personality disorder'.
So why do these views of Anne Boleyn persist? Partly, I suggest, is because history loves a bitch. Bitches are scapegoats. Queens are often closely aligned with bitchdom: consider Empress Matilda, Isabella of France, Margaret of Anjou and Elizabeth Wydeville just in relation to medieval England. They were blamed and condemned for their male relatives' behaviour. There remains a strange and very obvious reluctance to hold Henry VIII responsible for his actions. People automatically assume that he was a weak and easily led man who was manipulated by both his wives and advisers. When she wasn't luring him into bed, people think, Anne Boleyn was encouraging Henry to kill his first wife and her child. Evidence? None.
It's worth remembering, then, when readers stumble across a vengeful, demented Anne hellbent on revenge in a novel, or a particularly negative account of her actions in a serious academic study, or a TV portrayal of her as manipulative and sexually cunning, that these depictions of Anne the bitch are not grounded in, or informed by, any historical evidence. They derive from a culturally constructed archetype that has remained influential in every culture. Everyone loves a bitch, and for many, Anne Boleyn was the bitch of the Tudor period.