The Fictional Afterlife of Anne Boleyn: How to Do Things with the Queen, 1901-2006

By Burstein, Miriam Elizabeth | CLIO, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

The Fictional Afterlife of Anne Boleyn: How to Do Things with the Queen, 1901-2006


Burstein, Miriam Elizabeth, CLIO


Since the 1980s, feminists pondering the historical romance and its immediate cousin, the erotic historical, have complained that even when the heroine is uniquely powerful, "the majority of the novels ... end, as do the traditional formula romances, with either the marriage of the heroine or the resolution of the love conflict." (1) One science fiction writer, Lillian Stuart Carl, pokes sardonic fun at such feminist objections to romance narratives in her 1999 story "A Rose with All Its Thorns," which takes the utterly humorless feminist Virginia, injects her with Anne Boleyn's memories, and sends her off to a career-making academic conference at Hever Castle. Unsurprisingly, Virginia finds that her first thesis--"Anne Boleyn was a prototypical victim of sexual harassment"--must give way to the truth: Anne was "neither saint nor sinner but, like most of us, a mixture of both." (2) Virginia's Anne-aided epiphany leads her to disavow Anne-the-victim and, instead, propose Anne-the-agent. No simple "martyr," as Virginia had once thought, this new Anne chooses to manipulate men with her sexual appeal, just as those men choose to fall prey to her machinations. Anne's flagrant sexuality thus disrupts Virginia's predetermined feminist script, even as Virginia in turn disrupts (caricatured) academic norms by transforming Anne's literally recovered voice into revisionist history.

Carl's short story critiques feminist revisionism in order to reaffirm the value of both romance and, as Anne says, "compromise" (52). But Virginia winds up where many theorists of both historical romance and historical fiction have gone before: the genre's feminist credentials hinge on the extent to which the heroine matures not just into sexual full bloom but, more importantly, into historical agency. (3) A number of critics have argued that in recent decades, the romance hero undergoes his own maturation at the heroine's hands, but neither his historical self-awareness nor his ability to effect change is ever at stake. (4) But, over the course of the last century or so, novelists writing about Anne Boleyn have found themselves articulating a position that resists the analytical categories feminist critics have brought to the historical romance. As novelists have discovered, Anne's story as received interacts unpredictably with genre conventions; regarded in one light, the remarkable proliferation of novels about Anne Boleyn testifies to the continuing failure of romance novelists to hammer her story into acceptable narrative form. In other words, Anne Boleyn's frequent yet problematic appearances in the historical romance shed unexpected light on how the genre's conventions both work and fail to work on their source material.

Anne's position in historical and biographical narratives has always been uneasy. In the nineteenth century, Paul Friedmann fretted that "very little is known of the events of those times, and ... the history of Henry's first divorce and of the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn has still to be written"--a judgment confirmed in the heated games of rhetorical ping-pong played out between Anne's most important contemporary biographers, Eric W. Ives and Retha M. Warnicke. (5) We know virtually nothing about Anne, and much of what we do know is buried under political or theological polemic. Moreover, Anne neither controlled her own iconography nor enjoyed an undisputed reign as a Reformation heroine. (6) As a result, unlike Elizabeth I or Mary, Queen of Scots, Anne has never achieved full-blown cult status; she attracts intense curiosity but only intermittent admiration.

In a sense, then, Anne is a void--and yet, despite all the room this emptiness leaves for imaginative maneuver, fictional representations of Anne have varied little over the course of the last century. Such Annes follow a pattern formalized by the late 1950s in which Anne is vengeful, near hysterical, frequently asexual, and power mad. Even Carl's "revisionism" is wholly conventional: her thesis that Anne was politically engaged, in control of her own sexuality, and ultimately the agent of her own downfall underpins nearly all representations of Anne Boleyn since the late nineteenth century. …

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