Upon hearing that Susan Bordo has a new book out, fabulously entitled ‘The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen’, we immediately jumped at the chance to have a chat with her!
If you didn’t know, Susan is a modern feminist philosopher, known for her contributions to the field of contemporary cultural studies, particularly in the area of “body studies”. She is a Professor of English and Gender & Women’s Studies and holds the Otis A. Singletary Chair in the Humanities at the University of Kentucky. She is also beyond interesting!
Having such an affinity with Anne Boleyn, of course, we wanted to discuss the topics and issues covered within her latest release…but also pick her brains on how anyone can become a published author!
Without further ado…
Historical Honey: Here at the Hive we are huge fans of Anne Boleyn, and cannot wait to read your new book, ‘The Creation of Anne Boleyn’. The book looks at the known facts of her life whilst discussing the interpretations of Anne that we have seen on stage, television and in literature. What made you want to tell her story in this way?
Susan Bordo: Great question. I started out simply wanting to know as much about Anne Boleyn as possible. It was only after I had binged on all the available bios, histories, novels, films, etc.—and then went back to the contemporary documents to see what versions were supported—that I realized what a shape-shifting creation of cultural imagination Anne has been, and how little of that creation is well-grounded in documented fact. So much of what we believe is actually gossip that has been alchemized into “history” over the centuries!
However, as a cultural historian I wasn’t interested just in exposing the stereotypes and biases, but in exploring why and how the different versions of Anne emerged, appealed, were challenged etc. when they did. Anne came to seem to me to be a sort of “Rorschach” figure, who tells us more about ourselves than we ever will know about her. But that kind of exploration requires an interdisciplinary approach—you need to enjoy and have some expertise analyzing literature and film as well as history and biography—and you need to be willing to make connections between “high” and “pop” culture. It seemed a project that I couldn’t refuse!
HH: No matter how much time passes, the public are still obsessed with Anne. In your opinion, what is it about her that draws us in like moths to the flame?
SB: There is and always will be a core of mystery—an absence–about Anne, because we actually know so little about her that hasn’t been filtered through the impressions and reports of enemies and supporters. The woman herself, in “her own words,” remains quite silent—we only have a smattering of largely inconsequential letters (the most consequential one has been disputed—although I argue its authenticity in the book), her reported speeches at her trial and execution, and her sardonic, dark comments made while awaiting her execution. But at the same time, extravagant claims about her motivations and actions have surrounded her from the time she entered Henry’s life, largely because of the cataclysmic events she inspired and the intense emotions she inspired among her early enemies—who, after all, were not just defending Katherine of Aragon, but the Catholic church itself. She got caught up in world-changing events, which turned her into a world-famous figure.
And then, too, her relationship with Henry had such a seemingly romantic beginning—not at all usual for those times—and such a disastrous end. The extremity of it all leaves us asking: What was it about her that inspired Henry’s passion? And how then could he later order her execution? Although it’s impossible to “answer” with authority, I do speculate about both of these in the book. I couldn’t keep my hands of it!
In this respect, Anne is a bit like Marilyn Monroe. The unanswered questions that surround them both encourage writers to believe that perhaps they can penetrate through the crust of iconography and stereotype to find the “real” woman. Of course, that’s a fantasy—but it’s one that has produced a lot of interesting analysis.
HH: In film and television in particular, which representation of Anne Boleyn would you deem to be the closest to the truth? And conversely, which representation is most offensive to her memory?
SB: It all depends on what you mean by “truth.” Factually, Anne of the Thousand Days strays very far from fact. But the portrayal of Anne—and Bujold’s interpretation has a lot to do with that—strikes at something that feels so “right” that I honestly couldn’t care less that that magnificent tower speech is a total invention. As more than one viewer has said, “It didn’t happen—but it should have.”
Genevieve Bujold, in ‘Anne of The Thousand Days’.
In general, I don’t expect total historical accuracy from fictional representations (they are fictions, after all)—but I do bristle at lazy, mean, or ideological stereotyping. In that respect, Philippa Gregory surely takes the prize for creating the nastiest, most reprehensible Anne—the sister from hell—in The Other Boleyn Girl. The book is also loaded with historical distortions, which I’m hardly the first to point out. But what I do that’s new is to place Gregory’s Anne in a long historical chain of representations, beginning with Eustace Chapuys, that credit Anne with just about everything awful that happened during Henry’s reign. It’s quite amazing how some variant on this Anne keeps being re-created. I think of her as our “default” Anne; many have challenged her (sometimes going way too far in the opposite extreme, and turning her into a protestant martyr), but like Freddy Kruger, she just keeps popping up.
HH: As a professor of Gender & Women’s Studies, and taking a look at your catalogue of published works, you are evidently passionate about body image and cultural representations of the body. How have our perceptions of the body and indeed of our body image, changed over time?
SB: That’s a great question, but a huge one—because context is so important. Different cultural traditions regarding eating, food, and beauty, advances in medical technology, digital imagery, and changing attitudes toward women’s and men’s roles—they have all figured in. I hate to be evasive, but having written several books about these topics, it’s hard for me to summarize! Of course, I’d love to have readers get my books. But I can also send a few PDFs, if readers are interested and want to get just a taste of the kinds of changes I explore.
HH: The advent of new technology and the constant pushing of advertising boundaries is having a huge impact on the way we feel about our physical selves, young women in particular. Do you believe that the sexualisation of celebrities has gone too far, or can we claw back some sense of realism?
SB: I love your phrase “claw back some sense of realism”—because that seems to be exactly what it will take! We have gone so far in terms of the normalization of cosmetic surgery and the digitalization of imagery that any departure from computerized “perfection” (lines, sags, bulges, wrinkles, etc.) is seen as a gross disfigurement. In many ways, this is even more concerning than the highly sexualized images—because in a sense those images aren’t as much sexual as they are exhibitionistic. And when looking “perfect” is your main goal (and a highly unrealistic one, of course), true eroticism takes a back seat to the anxiety and narcissism involved in displaying your body to another—looking sexy rather than feeling sexual.
HH: At Historical Honey, we are passionate about providing advice to young people. As an author, what advice would you give to young people looking to forge a career as a writer? What have been the main challenges you have faced, and how do you turn criticism on its head?
SB: I teach writing—it’s my favourite course—and my inclination is to take each student where I find him or her, and go from there. We spend a lot of time simply discovering each person’s passion: what he or she most wants to write about, and why he or she isn’t doing it. Often, it’s because they are afraid—that it’s been said before, that they aren’t smart enough, that they haven’t read enough, etc. etc. So we also spend a lot of time talking about the anxieties that come with writing. We start our discussions with a really terrific book, which I recommend to all would-be writers: Ralph Keyes’ “The Courage to Write”. I can’t tell you how much I love that book; if you want to write, order it immediately! For the fact is that writing DOES take courage—lots of it. Unless you hide your ideas behind a cloak of jargon, obscurity, clubbiness, and what Keyes calls “verbal fog,” writing about what you truly care about is one of the most personally exposing experiences you can open yourself to.
I’ve always been an iconoclastic and irreverent writer, so I had to develop a pretty tough skin early on, since I was always treading on someone’s (or some discipline’s) cherished territory, ideology, iconography. It happened at the beginning of my career, as I was part of a generation of feminist philosophers who were shaking up that discipline. It happened again when I challenged the medical understanding of eating disorders. And it’s happening again with the Anne Boleyn book and my tromping into a field in which, apparently, some esteemed figures seem to be off limits. At this point, I’m used to it. At the beginning, though, many tears were shed! What I’ve learned over time is that criticism—and it can be pretty rough–is the cost of actually saying something, and that for every hostile response there are a dozen grateful readers—grateful that someone finally said something that they’ve wanted to see said, wanted to say themselves. I am a fierce believer in opening things up.
My biggest challenge, though, was one that many writers face: economics. It’s difficult to forge a career as a writer directly, unless you are independently wealthy or have a day job that leaves you lots of time. Most of us have had to go through the back door, by taking jobs that allow you to exercise your writing skills (e.g. teaching, editorial work, internet, PR work, etc.) while you work on your short stories, novels, or critical books after hours. In my case, it was becoming an academic—and then unlearning everything I learned about writing as an academic!! Whatever your circumstance, it takes a huge amount of commitment and fortitude—but most of all, you have to have a passion for it. If you feel that you are only truly alive unless you are writing, you simply have to pursue it, no-matter what obstacles you face. If there is something you are burning to say, you have to say it, no matter how much ridicule or censure you invite.
And finally, you have to make revision your friend, not your enemy. I offer my students two “archetypes,” each of which is essential to the writing process: Dionysus and Apollo. Dionysus encourages us to allow our minds and hearts to respond freely, spontaneously, passionately—even if what emerges is a hot mess. Apollo is the pruner, the shaper, the gardener/sculptor who then enters the process to shape the ragged marble, the overgrown garden into something artful. Let Dionysus loose—but then be prepared to spend most of your time with Apollo.
Personally, revising is my favourite part of writing. First drafts are done with pounding heart, racing mind, nerves on fire. Revising—which I usually do early in the morning, before the sun is up and with my first cup of coffee beside me–is relaxing! And it’s so gratifying to see your ideas, examples, turns of phrase, emerge in the best form you can achieve.
HH: And lastly, a history-based question. You are hosting a dinner party, and have three spaces to fill. Which three historical figures would you invite and why?
SB: Anne Boleyn, Sylvia Plath, Marilyn Monroe. Because they have stories to tell that no one has heard yet.
To find out more about Susan Bordo, please visit the University of Kentucky’s web-page.