Sunday, November 22, 2009

Anne Boleyn!

Our book today is Marie Louise Bruce's remarkable 1972 biography Anne Boleyn, and it's remarkable for two noteworthy reasons, the second more noteworthy than the first. The one reason is that this was Marie Louise Bruce's first work of serious history, yet it's extremely readable and very well researched. And the other reason is that the thing is an extended defense of its subject. Bruce sees Anne Boleyn in the round - she's never shy of citing a fault or flaw - but she ultimately likes Henry VIII's bewitching wife and dislikes how historians from Anne's day to this have piled opprobrium on the poor girl's pretty head.

You don't see much of that in modern scholarship. Anne Boleyn is usually good and properly hated - for her ambition, for her coquettish ways, for her willingness to see Henry discard his lawfully wedded wife Katherine in order to take up with her, and for lots of other reasons besides. In the cold winter light of historical hindsight, she seems to stand on a small stage with the handful of other figures whom it's acceptable to condemn whole-heartedly.

Not so Bruce, who's done a great deal of research but isn't wary of tweaking it here and there to suit her main purpose, which is to present as favorable a portrait of Anne as that research will allow. Take for instance a tiny incident in days when she was just a courtesan and not yet a queen:

By the autumn of 1528 Lutheran books, printed in Antwerp, Mechlin and Brussels and hidden in cargoes smuggled in from the Low Countries, were secretly and avidly being read at Court. Anne carelessly left her copy of William Tyndale's Obedience of a Christian Man lying about in the recess of one of her windows. Here it was seen and borrowed by the suitor of her lady-in-waiting, Anne Gainsford. Dr Sampson, the Dean of the King's Chapel, removed it from the young man and, doubtless with a look of horror, gave it to [Cardinal] Wolsey, who took it to the King. King Henry, the Cardinal knew, equated heretics with rebels, and hated both equally.

This is true partisanship massaging the facts. The real Anne Boleyn never did a careless thing in her life, including this time: she left that book in plain sight hoping it would be brought to the King - she never for an instant doubted her power over him, and she used this incident to gain the whip-hand over Wolsey. When Anne learned of what Wolsey had done, she famously snarled "Well, it shall the dearest book that ever Dean or Cardinal took away,"and even Bruce admits that she never forgot a slight and was invariably ruthless to those she perceived as her enemies:

To those who worked in her interests, Anne was generous; remorseless to those who worked against her. Henceforward [after July 1529] she would not rest until she had persuaded Henry to wreak vengeance upon the Cardinal. And though Henry, remembering Wolsey's long efficient service,had earlier in the year been inclined to disregard Anne's suspicions, after the disastrous end to the trial he too was ready enough to find a scapegoat.

But despite all this, when Bruce's narrative comes to the tawdry drama that terminated Anne Boleyn's reign and life - her trial for adultery and treason, in which she was accused of sleeping with a baker's dozen men, including her own brother - the ersatz queen finds no more staunch defender than her biographer, who ends her account with this little declaration:

To believe in the innocence of the woman who catapulted England into the Reformation became part of the Protestant credo. Was she innocent? I believe she was. But proof, of course, there is none. The evidence remains circumstantial. In the end we are left with Anne's own cryptic plea to posterity as she stood on the scaffold: 'If any man will meddle with my cause, I pray you to judge the best.'

Hard to know what to make of that problematic word 'innocent.' Was Anne innocent of the trumped-up charges Henry's minions used to get her head on the chopping block? We hardly need Bruce's elusive proof to exonerate Anne of incest - the hideous exaggeration of it bespeaks the typical overreach of tyranny. But reading this very entertaining book gives you the distinct impression Bruce is hinting at a much larger kind of innocence, and there's just no possibility of that. This is the Anne Boleyn, after all, who once said that being England's queen was 'the greatest wealth that is possible to come to any creature living' - and England already had a rightful, beloved queen when she said it. She was adamant selfishness incarnate, willing to let the kingdom, the people, the Church - literally the whole world - blast into flying shards if only she could get what she herself wanted. You can't make heroes out of such stuff, no matter how hard you try. Mary Louise Bruce tries harder than any other biographer I've read, and you should find her book and read it on that account ... but keep and eye on your crown while you're at it.


pharmacy reviews said...

I started reading because of my Spanish classes, so Anglo-Saxon literature is practically a whole new are of knowledge I'm starting to get into.
Very clever review by the way, I think I will look for in on Have you ever read Dylan Thomas poetry? One of the few I've read and it was wonderful.

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