Friday, 28 June 2013

Why Do We Hate "The Other Boleyn Girl"'s Anne Boleyn?

Above: Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl (2008).
A late sixteenth-century portrait of Anne Boleyn from a lost original; artist unknown.
Were they really so different...?

Those who are serious about Tudor history often view Philippa Gregory's bodice ripper of a novel, The Other Boleyn Girl (2001), with little more than contempt, dismissing the book curtly and cuttingly. Susan Bordo, who has recently written an intriguing book on Henry VIII's infamous second wife, The Creation of Anne Boleyn, states categorically: 'many of the details, and indeed the whole premise of the book, cannot be defended as anything other than pure imagination'. Claire Ridgway, of The Anne Boleyn Files, warns her readers that 'The Other Boleyn Girl is not a factual retelling of Anne Boleyn's life or even that of Mary Boleyn... there are many, many inaccuracies in the book, along with fallacies and story-lines that have no factual basis'. The late Irene Rheinwald, a historian of Anne Boleyn, complains: 'I have no idea how this travesty was foisted upon an unsuspecting public with such extraordinary success'.

Surely it's obvious, first and foremost, that the novel is just that: a novel. It is fiction. Perhaps historians and researchers get far too worried that the general public cannot tell the difference between a novel and a serious academic study. Anyone with an ounce of sense would recognise the sheer melodrama in this book, the exaggerations, and above all the very prominent distortions. The film, of course, was even worse. But, hang on a second. Isn't The Tudors just the same - fiction? And yet that TV series has been sensationally popular amongst the general public, and has not nearly been as condemned by historians and researchers as The Other Boleyn Girl. Indeed, Gareth Russell likens it, when comparing it to Philippa Gregory's novel, to a historical documentary. But The Tudors is also rife with errors and misconceptions. At least the women in The Other Boleyn Girl dress like Tudors, which is more than can be said for The Tudors.

It is possible that historians and Tudor writers are so resentful and emotional when it comes to The Other Boleyn Girl, it will be suggested here, because the portrayal of Anne Boleyn is simply what they do not want to see, they cannot accept that Anne was ever like that. An article in The Guardian questioned why Anne was presented as nothing more than 'a scheming trollop'. Writers castigate Gregory for presenting an Anne Boleyn who is sadistic, cruel, vain, ruthless, ambitious, scheming, spiteful, arrogant, and merciless. The one-dimensional characterisation is, for many, completely unconvincing and downright insulting. Historians take serious issue with such presentations of Anne. Retha M. Warnicke, in her study The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn, (who ironically Gregory relies heavily on for her novel), bemoans how simple gender stereotypes and hostility towards women in the Tudor period encouraged dark portrayals of Anne Boleyn, presenting her as a murderess, witch and adulteress, which have endured to the present day.

The book has serious flaws, and writers are right to point out the numerous errors and the wild storylines. The rivalry between Anne and Mary, for instance, is certainly exaggerated and distorted; in reality, the two girls were separated as teenagers when they went abroad to serve European queens and probably had little to do with one another thereafter, until a very public fall out when Mary married beneath her in 1534. The story line of incest between Anne and George is similarly wild and inaccurate, as is the portrayal of the Boleyn family, the heavy emphasis on witchcraft and sorcery, and the suggestion that Anne was involved in poisoning her enemies.

But the simple fact is this: Anne Boleyn lived almost 500 years ago. As with all controversial personalities, every source which is concerned with her life is unquestionably biased, reflecting the author's own religious and political interests, and, above all, how they perceive women. Gender stereotypes filter to us through sources produced in the Tudor age. If one follows the Protestant tradition preserved by writers such as John Foxe, Anne Boleyn was a highly virtuous, religious, and charitable queen who was blessed by God and personally selected by Him to marry Henry VIII and lead him away from superstition and corruption embodied by the Catholic Church. She thus fulfilled God's mission in leading to the break from Rome. Capping off her sensational success, Anne then gave birth to the ultra Protestant queen, Elizabeth I. For Protestants, Anne could no wrong, and her very name symbolised virtue and goodness, although these writers carefully avoided the issues of Anne's downfall and execution on charges of adultery, incest, and treason.

Catholics, however, wrote very differently about Anne. Eustace Chapuys, Spanish ambassador at Henry VIII's court during the time of Anne Boleyn, presented a monstrous portrayal of Anne. Referring to her consistently as 'the concubine' or 'the whore', Chapuys perceived Anne to be cruel, vicious, avaricious, scheming and immoral, and held her personally to blame for the ill-treatment of her stepdaughter Princess Mary, and suspected that not only had she bewitched Henry VIII, but had also poisoned Katherine of Aragon. This tradition was preserved in Nicholas Sander's notorious account, which suggested that Anne was actually the daughter of Henry VIII (and so eventually married her own father), and presented her as physically deformed, believing her to be a witch and evil sorceress who had enchanted the King and inflicted evil on the kingdom of England through causing a schism with the Roman Church. Other Catholic writers, such as the anonymous Spanish author of The Chronicle of Henry VIII, depicted Anne as immoral and licentious, taking numerous lovers behind her husband's back. These Catholic accounts, obviously, are very similar to Gregory's portrayal of Anne in The Other Boleyn Girl.

Because of the inherent bias, the political, social and religious agendas, and the persistent prevalence of simple gender stereotypes, it is impossible to know what Anne Boleyn was like. People are rarely black and white, and so it is certain that the real woman was a lot more complex and multifaceted than either Catholic or Protestant writers allow.

It is necessary to recognise the situation Anne was in. The king first proposed marriage to her in 1527, but she only married him in 1533, six years later, aged 32. She was under extreme stress, facing European powers who personally detested her and revered Katherine, and subjected to unrelenting hostility from the English people, who insisted that she was both a whore and a witch. I am wholly unconvinced that Anne Boleyn was nothing more than the almost perfect, submissive, idealistic and wholly religious woman presented by both Protestant writers in the reign of her daughter Elizabeth, and favoured in serious historical works written by Warnicke and Joanna Denny. As Jenny Wormald rightly writes in her scathing criticism of Warnicke's book, it is quite an achievement, 'to make Anne Boleyn a bore'.

Taking into account the very real hostility and hatred directed towards powerful women in the sixteenth-century, the references in letters written by courtiers, including both Anne's cousin and Cardinal Wolsey, to Anne's 'displeasure', means that it is NOT simply Chapuys who presents a woman who clearly had a temper. While Alison Weir might be slightly overstating her case in characterising Anne as 'an ambitious adventuress with a penchant for vengeance', and David Starkey singularly exaggerating in describing Anne as a 'brutal' predator who hunted down her 'prey', the Anne Boleyn of The Other Boleyn Girl might not be as far from the truth as we might like to think.

Anne was surely not a poisoner. She did not engage in murder; she did not tempt her brother with incest; she did not inflict misery and cruelty on her sister and relatives; nor did she use witchcraft to preserve her power. These are the real problems with The Other Boleyn Girl. But, if one looks critically and sceptically at sources preserved by the likes of Chapuys, which can to an extent be supported with other contemporary sources, and if one bears in mind the very real stresses and problems which plagued Anne and took on a toll on her for over six years, it is quite likely that she could be aggressive, highly strung, cruel and ruthless.

Anne Boleyn was certainly not 'a bore'. Nor was she perfect, saint-like, in fact. But neither was she the heartless poisoner, sorceress, and adulteress preserved in Catholic works. But it is quite possible that, in terms of her personality traits, The Other Boleyn Girl's Anne is not as far from the truth as we believe.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Anne Frank

The persecution of the Jews, known by the haunting Greek word the Holocaust, meaning sacrifice, by the Nazis in central and eastern Europe occurred over a period of three years, 1942-45, although it can hardly be doubted that the Jews have been persecuted since the beginning of the time. However, a collection of factors including the bleak economic climate in twentieth-century Europe, the devastating aftermath of WW1, and the desire of each country to strengthen and 'reborn' itself, meant that persecution, intolerance, and hatred were more prominent than they had hitherto been, and eventually led to mass murder, torture, and elimination. The Jews, of course, were the obvious and largest group of victims, although one must not forget about other persecuted groups such as gypsies, homosexuals, the disabled, Jehovah's Witnesses, and other races.

Anne Frank is known as one of the most discussed and famous victims of the Jewish Holocaust. On this day in history, 12 June 1929, she was born in Frankfurt, Germany as the second daughter to Otto Frank and his wife Edith; her sister Margot three years older. A Jewish family, the Franks lived in a time of increasing violence and anti-Semitism in Europe, of which Germany was a country which notably experienced such attitudes under the Nazi Party headed by Adolf Hitler. This family eventually fled Germany in the early 1930s for Amsterdam - they were among some 600,000 Jews who escaped Germany in the period 1933-39.

Anne's diary, known as The Diary of a Young Girl, is exceptionally intriguing as a document providing insights into the life of a Jewish family living in twentieth-century Europe on the brink of the Second World War. Anne's cleverness, wit, and outspoken nature shine forth throughout her diary, particularly in her often complex relations with her other family members while dwelling in the claustrophobic environment of the secret annexe. Also on this day, 12 June 1942, thirteen-year old Anne was first given her diary as a birthday present, and wrote in it regularly hereafter.

A photograph taken from the opposite side of the canal shows two four story buildings which housed the Opekta offices and behind them, the Secret Annexe

Anne's diary indicates her close relationship with her father, and illuminatingly details her blossoming friendship and, perhaps, romance with Peter van Pels, whose family also resided with the Franks in the secret annexe. Her relationship with her mother Edith was more strained, although she later expressed disgust at her earlier contempt for Edith. Anne's relationship with Margot also became gradually closer as the two became older. In this diary, Anne wrote regularly until the family were arrested in August 1944.

Who exactly betrayed those hiding is controversial, and will probably never be known for certain. They were all eventually taken to Auschwitz, separated from one another; Anne, by virtue of just turning 15 in June, escaped being gassed. In October, Anne, her sister and Auguste van Pels were transported to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. In March 1945, both Anne and Margot died from a typhus epidemic which decimated the camp, killing some 17,000 prisoners.

Anne's story, expressed in her diary, is famous the world over. We need not concern ourselves with the outrageous allegations made by some that the diary is fake, a forgery. Eloquently, beautifully written, the reader is haunted throughout by the knowledge of the writer's horrific fate which she could never have realised. Read as a historical source as well as an incredibly moving book, The Diary of a Young Girl reminds us all of the darkness and evil possible in human nature, and how quickly dislike, contempt and racism can manifest itself in violence, brutality, and murder. One can only pray that such horrific events never take place again - but sadly, they are taking place, every day.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

India: Cultural Patrimony and its Preservation: the Idea of 'Heritage'

I have just had the most amazing opportunity to visit and stay in Bangalore, India, for 10 days with my University for a Grand Challenge Dilemma focusing on issues of censorship, heritage, and the arts in India in the contemporary world, and how history has influenced changing culture in India, particularly due to the rapid influence of westernisation. It was a breathtaking experience and a real eye-opener.

The primary aspects we had to bear in mind included:

Heritage is not objective. It is a cultural concept embodying certain values and ideals. Each of us has our own ideas about what heritage is, meaning that these ideas are inevitably conditioned by our own upbringings, experiences and cultural context.

The model and style of cultural heritage in India is very different from that in the UK. For instance, there is perhaps more of a priority on preserving religious monuments in India. The state is much more extensively involved in preservation in the UK, with greater funding.

The western concept or definition of 'heritage' arguably does not translate well into Indian culture, and no attempt should be made to do so anyway, since the respective cultures of both countries are so different from one another.

To what extent is India able to retain and protect aspects of its cultural heritage in the face of various pressures, including modernisation and globalisation? When we interviewed natives, we had many differing answers, which was fascinating.

The trip to India including both academic aspects (lectures) and practical tasks (visits to villages, monuments, temples, the city of Bangalore, and elsewhere). The lectures focused on the core of Indian literature, the vedas, upanishads, darshanas, and Vedi architecture. The lectures were intriguing, given by renowned scholars in India, and encompassed:

- Villages of India: the soul of India lies in its villages, as famously noted by Gandhi. Villages are self-sustaining, agriculture-based, and are not dependent on cities. Villages preserve traditional culture, and it has been noted that around 69% of Indians today live in villages, of which there are at least 500,000.
- Indian Psychology: Exploring Inner Dimensions and Self-management: for me, this was perhaps the most interesting lecture. Unlike western psychology, which is grounded firmly in the external lab, Indian psychology is much more subjective and philosophical and began with the soul before moving onto studying the human mind and then behaviour. Psychology revolves around belief in 'existential awareness' and koshas, with a focus on developing self-awareness and expanding consciousness.
- Ancient Art & Architecture of India: this focused on Ancient Indian art and architecture from the Indus Valley Civilisation to the medieval period.
- Indian culture and its contribution to the world.
- Native aspects of Indian nutrition: we were all rather dubious about this 'scientific' lecture!
- Indigenous games.
- Indian cinema: an introduction: very fascinating lecture on how Indian cinema has grown and developed, celebrating its 100th birthday this year, and how it differs from British cinema in being more readily available to people at lower prices, as a regular way of enjoying oneself rather than being a privilege.
- Indian film.

Of course, the practical excursions in developing our insights into Indian culture today were incredible too, encompassing:

- Visiting a village: many people's highlight.
- Visiting schools.
- Visiting a guruluka (sort of religious school for children).
- Visiting Bangalore.
- Visiting Mysore: a renowned cultural and historical place.
- Visiting temples and the statue of Queen Victoria: showing the continuing influence of the British legacy in India today.

Overall, it was a fantastic trip and it will be exciting to write about our findings for our Grand Challenge, to be presented to the other groups doing the Challenge on Thursday 13 June.

An Indian village.