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.


  1. Hello, I just wanted to say I've just recently discovered your site and I'm really enjoying the articles you've written. Keep up the good work!

  2. "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."
    Erm, no, we do not like it because Philippa Gregory makes various statements in the author's notes section which mislead the reader. She presents her theories as fact. It is not just a novel, when you read the author's notes, it is a retelling of history in Gregory's opinion.
    Every week I receive at least one email from someone who has taken the book as 'gospel' and so it really does damage. It is not a case of being "emotional" or "resentful" because it doesn't present Anne as we see her, it is a case of being annoyed by the damage the book does.

  3. I have to agree with Claire, utterly.

    I think to say that The Other Boleyn Girl has more merit simply because its costumes are more accurate than The Tudors is to say that fashion trumps personality. Which, outside of Milan Fashion Week, is not the case. As for this article's decision to prefer the negative comments of Anne to the positive, if one were to follow that line of argument than your own interest in Katherine Howard would be null and void, too. If one was to accept solely the contemporary opinions of her, then Katherine was nothing more than an empty-headed slut who slept her way to oblivion. That, after all, is the Katherine of the majority of the contemporary sources and thus of Lacey Baldwin Smith's biography.

    Anne Boleyn is not presented as merely unpleasant in The Other Boleyn Girl, but as a murderous sociopath, devoid of the capacity to feel guilt. To proclaim then that the book is both accurate and part of a feminist re-evaluation of history, as has been claimed, is utterly staggering. I thoroughly enjoy historical fiction and having written fiction myself I at no point expect any author to present a verbatim retelling of the facts, or to portray a character as I would portray them myself. How unutterably boring that would be! For instance, I thought Hilary Mantel's portrayal of Thomas More in "Wolf Hall" was a touch unfair, even though I am not exactly a huge fan of much of More's political legacy. I, like Claire, "cannot accept that Anne was ever like that" simply because she wasn't, not because we can't accept points from novelists. It is not a case of intellectual myopia.

    Finally, while I disagreed strongly with your decision to elevate the eyewitness accounts (if Chapuys's can be called that), over those on her household staff like William Latimer, it is an interpretation that you as a student of history are entirely justified in making. It is what makes the study of history so rich and diverse. However, in tying them to the portrayal offered in "The Other Boleyn Girl," I would tentatively point out (and it's perhaps only my opinion, as worthless as that may seem), that even the most hostile of sources, like Chapuys's, never once suggested that Anne Boleyn was ever as unrelentingly awful as she is presented in "The Other Boleyn Girl." It is, to paraphrase Wormald on Warnicke, quite the achievement for Philippa Gregory to have penned the most hostile portrayal of Anne Boleyn in five hundred years, harsher even than most of her real-life critics. The author's success is a tribute to the way she crafts a story, certainly. I know a great deal of people who enjoy Miss Gregory's novels greatly, and rightly so, they are immensely readable, but to then claim they're historically accurate, especially "The Other Boleyn Girl," is, I'm afraid, laughable.

  4. Thank you both for your comments. You know how much I respect your work.

    Perhaps I did not structure this article in the best possible way. The object of the article was not to theorise that Anne Boleyn was an awful, cruel, or murderous woman who lied, murdered and slept her way to the throne of England, as is suggested in Philippa Gregory's novel. I also do not seek "to prefer the negative comments of Anne to the positive".

    What encouraged me to write this article was after reading one review of "The Other Boleyn Girl" on Amazon. The reader made the astute point that most people felt that the portrayal of Anne was very unfair, but as she rightly noted, in the years 1527-33, when Anne was waiting to become queen, she must surely have experienced unnatural stress, unease, insecurity and fear about her future. She waited six years for an annulment which would make possible her marriage to Henry VIII. As the reviewer rightly suggested, it would have tried the patience of any woman. Any woman would have become volatile, fearful, shrewish.

    I did not write this article suggesting that Gregory's presentation of Anne should be taken as 100% accurate, because that would be absurd. I, of course, do not at all accept the suggestions that Anne was guilty of incest, murder and adultery; nor do I think she was a witch, nor do I believe she was sociopathic, evil, corrupt, or immoral. But I do believe that Chapuys may have had a point at times. While not for a second accepting his comments that Anne was probably guilty of poisoning Princess Mary, or hounding Henry VIII to put his wife to death, I believe that he may accurately be viewed as offering a presentation of how Anne reacted to the stresses and dilemmas of the years before she became queen. If she berated Henry for wasting her youth, who could blame her? If she voiced her displeasure in public, who could blame her - I think many women might have reacted in a similar way.

    I think Chapuys' comments have to be viewed in the same way that the laudatory accounts offered by the likes of John Knox should be. They offer us a view of how they perceived Anne, according to their own religious, political, and gender biases. I don't think she was evil, or sociopathic, or cruel. But neither do I think she was a godly Protestant matron who did nothing but advance the 'true' religion in England. That, in a sense, would be like pitting Alison Weir's negative portrayal against Joanna Denny's hagiography. But people, both then and now, are complex - if Anne was never a murderer, adulteress, or witch, she was certainly prone to anger, fear and unease.

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