Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions

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Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions. By G. W Bernard. (New Haven:Yale University Press. 2010. Pp. x, 237. $30.00. ISBN 978-0-300-16245-5.)

G. W. Bernard's Anne Boleyn is Anne Boleyn as we have never known her. Despite the claim of the inside cover, it is not really a biography. It is a book about interpretation- a series of intricate arguments unpicking previous interpretations of a historical character whose role and importance have always been contested. Interpretation is everything, because, in Anne's case, the surviving evidence is regrettably incomplete and impressionistic. Indeed, much of the evidence comes down to little more than early interpretations. Even Bernard's favorite source, Lancelot de Carles's contemporary poem on the queen's unhappy fall and fate, was originally drawn up as an object lesson in mutability, an exploration of patience and providence, and not in any sense a simple history or testimony. The scantiness of the sources gives the book an inevitably unbalanced structure. Anne's reign as queen- her last three yearstakes up two-thirds of the book, and half of that focuses on her fall, her last three months. Yet the book is both entertaining and instructive. Bernard is nothing if not argumentative, and the reader is always drawn into the debate, applauding as the author slaughters another sacred cow or else raising an eyebrow at some dubious move in the argument.

The absence of evidence is Bernard's stock in trade, and it is in negative mode that he is at his best. His book is an extraordinarily successful demonstration of how much less we know of Anne than we had thought. A shrewd critical eye is turned on the circumstances and motives of those who created the historical record on which our limited knowledge depends; and an even sharper eye distinguishes between evidence and interpretation or opinion. Thus he points out that there is simply no contemporary evidence for the almost universally shared opinion that Anne resisted Henry's advances for years, making marriage the price of sexual surrender- although there is no more evidence for his own theory that it was Henry, not Anne, who wanted marriage rather than an affair. Bernard's insistent skepticism has many triumphs along the way. The notion that Anne's final and miscarried pregnancy delivered a deformed foetus is decisively swept away, as is the equally curious notion that accusations of witchcraft were overshadowing the queen in her final months. The idea that Cromwell orchestrated a fiendish plot to bring about Anne's destruction is shown to rest on nothing more than a somewhat ambiguous remark of Cromwell's, hearsay evidence after the event. Bernard's skepticism, however, is not entirely consistent. His most eye-catching, albeit tentative, claim is that maybe Anne really was guilty of at least some of the charges of adultery on which she was convicted. …