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July 15, 2005

Anne of a Thousand Days

Miriam Burstein is reading an awful lot of novels about Ann Bullen:

The Little Professor: Anne Boleyn, Ongoing: [Y]ou hope against hope that Anne Boleyn might keep her head, just this once--not out of any particular sympathy for her position, but because you begin to yearn for a little variety in the plotline.*... [F]ifteen novels in, the potential directions for the final article have begun to crystallize. We have representations of Anne, and then we have the questions those representations raise.... [W]hile some historical novelists clearly see themselves as doing full-fledged historical research (e.g., Mary Renault), many are simply trying to do enough research. Enter Anne Boleyn. When last I wrote, I noted that the links between these novels--mostly historical romances--and the actual scholarship on Anne were sometimes difficult to locate. It's now become even clearer that the Anne of the historical romances has become a self-perpetuating entity. We have a "received" Anne, who is given to hysteria, often sexually frigid (albeit flirtatious for reasons of policy), and improperly ambitious, but nevertheless innocent.... The occasional deviations from this Anne--either Annes who behave relatively sensibly or Annes who have sex lives apart from Henry VIII--cannot be explained by reference to historical scholarship; they're products of narrative necessity....

And then there are problems relating both to narrative structure and to popular ideas of historical agency. We're in the world of historical romances, after all, and historical romances usually involve, er, romance.... True Love (or Twu Wuv?).... Obviously, this sort of generic imperative poses certain obstacles for a novel about Anne Boleyn, given such inconveniences as political machinations, Catherine of Aragon, Henry's notoriously wandering eye, Jane Seymour, and the minor problem of Anne winding up rather reduced in height.... [A]ll of the novels have imposed some very twentieth-century notions about marriage for love, public vs. private behavior, and domestic space as an ideally depoliticized "private sphere" on sixteenth-century maneuverings that firmly resist any such scripts.... I cannot see how Henry VIII's married life can be rewritten as a "private" affair; all of his machinations in that area make hash of our own public/private distinctions. If anything, "the personal is the political" takes on new meaning when applied to [Henry's] relationship with Anne....

[A]ll of these novels... are effectively "post-Christian": none of them represents a world in which Catholicism might be both omnipresent and taken for granted. Characters tend to be either saints... or the equivalent of Thomas Huxley (somewhat early in the historical record, to be sure).... With just two or three exceptions, Anne is always represented as being a skeptic with a purely opportunistic interest in Lutheranism; Henry VIII, however, is usually diagnosed with a bad case of Bulstrodism.**... At the same time, the novelists are acutely conscious of the divorce's momentous importance for English national history. They thus have to balance hindsight with the characters' own cluelessness--or, alternatively, they grant the major players some awareness of the importance of their decisions.... I'm wondering to what extent this strategy is meant to somehow mitigate the narrative's tragic effect.

And so, onward. Still looking to finish up the novels before the beginning of fall.

*--Actually, there is a novella in which Anne stays alive: Nancy Kress' "And Wild for to Hold."

**--"There may be coarse hypocrites, who consciously affect beliefs and emotions for the sake of gulling the world, but Bulstrode was not one of them. He was simply a man whose desires had been stronger than his theoretic beliefs, and who had gradually explained the gratification of his desires into satisfactory agreement with those beliefs." (Middlemarch, ch. LXI).

Clearly I have to go read Nancy Kress's "And Wild for to Hold."

Posted by DeLong at July 15, 2005 11:24 AM