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The Secret of Our Obsession With Anne Boleyn

Hilary Mantel's new novel feeds our curiosity about a woman who played the real Game of Thrones. Was she history's first modern woman?

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She’s a feminist icon. Misogynist whipping girl. Pop culture darling.

Beheaded for treason, the second wife of Henry VIII was said to have seduced hundreds of men. To have birthed a monster fetus. To have three breasts. Six fingers. Some called her a martyr. An intellectual. A victim of tyranny. A mortal enemy of the Church of Rome.

Since the late spring day in 1536 when a French swordsman sent her reeling from this world, we've been fascinated by the queen whose love affair rocked history when Henry split from the Pope by divorcing his first wife to marry her. She has been reborn in our imagination many times. The last decade's Tudormania explosion brought us new Annes in Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl (filmed as a motion picture starring Natalie Portman in 2008); Showtime’s The Tudors; and even revivals of an Italian opera, Anna Bolena.

Hilary Mantel’s harrowing new novel Bring Up the Bodies, a follow-up to her best-selling Wolf Hall (2009), gives us Anne through the cool and canny lens of Thomas Cromwell, a close adviser to Henry VIII who engineered the queen's downfall with relentless calculation. She even has her own Tumblr page.

Questions whirl across the centuries. Anne, what motivated you? Did you love the king? Were you devout in your faith?  How did it feel to miscarry a baby and find yourself on a scaffold three months later, condemned to death by a king who pursued you for years?

Anne Boleyn’s story whets our appetite through its melodramatic ingredients: sex, royalty, intrigue, and brutality. It also fascinates us for occupying the alchemical moment in England when the High Middle Ages was transforming into the Renaissance, papal dominance was giving way to Protestant independence, and feudalism was lurching toward capitalism.

As Americans, the Tudor world has special significance as the progenitor of our own. Early colonists carried their inherited Tudor-era suspicion toward monarchs and affection for the bourgeoisie to our shores, setting up towns and governments according to their Tudor predilections. We see a bit of our own turbulent world in the one they left behind– a Hobbesian jungle where life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." Anne’s time was as rife with corrupt monks and courtiers as ours is filled with greedy politicians and financiers. In such worlds, power is everything, and life seems uncertain.

Apart from the familiarity, there is also something arrestingly avant-garde about Anne Boleyn. She could not fit neatly into the script of her time. She wandered off the page, chastising her overlord and cracking sardonic jokes from her prison cell. She seems a person of flesh and blood, brimming with thoughts and emotions generally erased in the flattened visages that greet us in the portrait line-up of Henry's six wives.

Women, in particular, may see a glimpse of ourselves in the figure stretched on the rack of the insuperable contradictions of femininity that still torture us. Virgin and temptress. Mother and lover. Wise woman and witch. Dependent and dominatrix. We might identify with her plight, every arrow poised against her as she plays high-stakes poker in a man’s world, her intelligence always read as conniving, her ambition as manipulation. We shudder at the unceasing demand that she be, above all things, a reproductive Superwoman, birthing children of the correct sex under unimaginable duress. Never mind the hormones. The grief for the lost babies. The knowledge that her husband was execution-happy as no English monarch before or after.

Anne’s story might be a nightmare, Technicolor version of our own. We want to understand the snare that caught her because somewhere, underneath the trapdoor, the demons that set upon her have never fully quieted.

Joan Kelly offers tantalizing clues in her essay, “ Did Women Have a Renaissance?” (1977). She illuminates the clashing cultures of courtly love and kingly privilege that turned Anne -- by most accounts an intelligent, charismatic, fashionable woman whom King Henry adored – into a wife so hated that he would give her the distinction of being the first English queen to be tried and executed.

Women in the Tudor era, as Kelly explains, were dancing on the knife-edge of a transition that would not be kind to them. Anne was cut to pieces by it.

We are taught to think of the Renaissance, with its burst of art and culture, as a time of expanded possibilities for human beings. But Kelly argues convincingly that this was not so for women. The High Middle Ages, with its tradition of courtly love that reflected the bonds of reciprocity between vassal and lord, offered a much friendlier playing field for women---particularly those in the nobility.

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