It is however but Justice, and my Duty to declare that this amiable Woman [‘Anne Bullen’] was entirely innocent of the Crimes with which she was accused, of which her Beauty, her Elegance, and her Sprightliness were sufficient proofs, not to mention her solemn protestations of Innocence, the weakness of the charges against her, and the King’s character … The Crimes and Cruelties of this Prince were too numerous to be mentioned … and nothing can be said in his vindication, but that his abolishing Religious Houses and leaving them to the ruinour depredations of time has been of infinite use to the landscape of England in general … (Austen, The History of England, which unfortunately omits Mary Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell, doubtless for reasons of space)
Dear friends and readers,
Though my daily presumed following remains at 83 (a mere drop of electrons in cyberspace), and on average I get about 200 hits a day, I here announce a new matter as if it might be influential.
When I studied medieval literature, I was told that imaginative literature did not value (nor was there money in copyright) literal originality of character and story, but everyone took from basic understood matters: 3 central ones were the matter of Arthur (still with us and producing new fiction and art), the matter of Charlemagne or France (this has gradually ceased, and its texts descend from Roland, as Orlando Furioso, Jerusalem Delivered), and the matter of Troy (Greek and Roman mythology and characters, viable until the mid-20th century and opera). The Renaissance and Shakespeare turned to contemporary short fiction in vast collections, mostly Italian in origin, Greek romance of the 3rd century.
I propose a fifth: the Tudor matter. These are all those familiar stories and characters which begin with Henry VIII, his court, his wives, and conclude with the death of Henry’s daughter by Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth Tudor I. It encompasses the stories of Mary Stuart (a foremother poet).
All these matters are open to endless re-doing and interpretation. Maybe we should credit the re-invention of this history as so much imaginative matter to Sophie Lee in her The Recess (1783, one of the first gothic and historical fictions), the first to tell the later parts of the Tudor matter as about the rivalry of Elizabeth and Mary Stuart through Stuart’s twin daughters; Walter Scott in several of his novels (Kenilworth, The Abbot, The Monastery), and Schiller in Mary Stuart. I’ve been deeply engaged by Renaissance women since I was 13 when I got my first adult library card and took out two fat tomes from the adult library, the lives of Jeanne d’Albret and Marguerite de Navarre (the latter woman as one of the acquaintance-friends of Vittoria Colonna part of a many years study). And this past couple of weeks in what spare time I had I’ve read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies (both, both won the Mann Booker prize), watched and blogged about Robert Straughan’s mini-series (the best PBS has aired in years), and been disappointed by the RSC stage play in NYC.
As everyone paying attention to this cultural phenomena thinks he or she knows, Mantel meant to rewrite Robert Bolt’s untenable idealization of Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons out of a couple of recent decades of scholarship re-formulating our view of Thomas Cromwell as no longer the corrupt complicit thug (as so indelibly played by Leo McKern).
I suggest here she had another source, or at least another kind of inspiration: women’s historical romance and feminist biographies, her stealth heroine out of Eric Ives’s The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, and the idea of re-visioning Philippa Gregory’s bringing out of the shades and into public memory, the almost forgotten Mary Boleyn, not to omit Jane (whom I reserve for anther blog, on Julia Fox’s biography of Lady Rochford). There’s nothing unusual here: women have been crediting as their source prestigious male books from Fanny Burney’s list in her Evelina, to Virginia Woolf who seems never to have read a woman contemporary, to Ann Patchett who attributes her Bel Canto to Mann’s Magic Mountain, when it’s clearly rooted in Francis Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden. Mantel also followed the rule for success for women writers by having a male hero as her surrogate.
Tonight I want briefly to defend the version of The Other Boleyn Girl directed by Justin Chadwyck, screenplay Peter Morgan, lavish production, done in HD (very early for this) with an expensive cast of brilliant actors, seemingly limitless budget for costumes, production design, locations. A commercial success, it was lambasted by the critics — by contrast to Wolf Hall, which has been praised as much as Brideshead Revisited (to be sure the 1981 mini-series) itself. It’s not a profound or great movie, but it is competent and has enriched and changed some of the directions of Tudor matter ever since.
The question of course is which Boleyn girl is “the other:” answer, both.
Mary Boleyn (a contemporary Tudor portrait)
Scarlett Johansson turned into luscious yet nun-like Mary Boleyn on her way to Henry’s bed (ever obedient to her family’s aggrandizing will)
I’d like to admit that my first reaction as I began to watch was as adverse as the most sneering of the reviewers at the time. The film presented the woman as at once all powerful (machinating openly, and especially both Katharine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn) pressuring men by telling them home truths that undermined their masculinity:
Anne Boleyn (contemporary portrait)
Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn actively manipulative schemer to become Henry’s wife
The romance trope also duly includes the idea they are helpless against demands of men that they have sex with them, follow their ambitions, even though they are stronger and smarter and foresee the destruction of what might make their children have long and valued and contented lives: if you are paying attention, there are more “other” Boleyn women beyond Jane Parkman, married off to George Boleyn, Lord Rochford. Lady Elizabeth Boleyn, the mother, who lost her son, daughter and a third daughter exiled in disgrace from court; Sir Thomas, her husband, died two years after the execution of George and Anne
Kristin Scott Thomas as Lady Elizabeth Boleyn as the highly intelligent strong faced woman who tells off her feeble corrupt husband, Sir Thomas (played by a weak Mark Rylance) but does not defy him
Gregory and after her, Peter Morgan, turns Katharine from the usual pious resigned stone into a woman who suffers intensely in childbirth and when she sees her Henry take up with Anne Boleyn very seriously asks him forthrightly if he means to break up his kingdom’s order and his marriage because a specific woman has denied him (fucking)
Ana Torrent as Katharine eschews cant piety, and
Yes the film also followed the exaggerations of the conventions of historical romance since Madame de Scudery wrote her Clelia, giving sumptuous and expensive visual realization to what has been used to give women’s historical fiction a bad reputation.
But as I carried on watching, by the time I came to the end I saw that it had all the considerable strengths and offering to women of characters surrogates which account for the continued strength and relevance to women readers of this form, and of historical biographies of women. This was clinched for me as I witnessed the closely similar unflinching presentation of the beheading of Anne (which I now think Wolf Hall 5 imitated)
I said to myself, if we (Mantel) can revise Cromwell the ruthless instrument of Henry VIII, turning England into a groups of people seemingly unable to fight back against state terror tactics, into a basically deeply human man, deeply engaged in throwing off the hypocritical cover-up superstitions of a fanatical Catholic regime, why not revise Anne – and Mary, Katharine as a wounded angry woman, bring in the mother of these two sisters, as an intelligent thwarted one who would have done better by her son and daughters — though in this version (as in Wolf Hall) Jane Boleyn is again the spiteful sexually frustrated product of a coerced marriage, and Norfolk a ferocious non-thinking monster (Bolt, I remind my reader, had Norfolk as well-meaning if obtuse, a loyal friend to More, indifferent to religion but not friendship).
Mantel has been doing and taken seriously for what Diana Wallace says most women’s historical fiction does: re-constructing marginal figures, bringing sexuality into play as an unspoken deep motive, extending what affects public life: Anne’s plight in both films, but made more central in The Other Boleyn (as all the births are showns as hardships, dangerous, out of the control of the woman) is she cannot will a healthy boy. The difference is Mantel centered her re-vision on a man who was once in public power and changed the nature of the English state church. Much more important than any woman writhing in childbirth (which we see Anne and Mary do more than once), and weep when either what emerges is stillborn or premature, or for whatever reason is rejected by the father (as when Henry VIII rejects his illegitimate healthy son by Mary Boleyn because he is now intent on gaining Anne).
The depiction of Anne is not one people will admit to finding likable. She is too performative — too amoral. A friend suggested to me she was a kind of Becky Sharp; I thought of Austen’s Lady Susan, Trollope’s Lizzie Eustace.
Another serious flaw derives from the attempt to make the film have wide reach (people who might not know or remember the details of the Tudor debacle). This probably led to the film-makers making the characters far too explicit. It is an exaggeration to present Anne as in councils with men and family members leading some plan — women didn’t do that. Every norm and punishment prohibited it. The explicitness with which sex was discussed was not done, unreal, improbable. What Mantel and Straughan have is literary tact — the difference between Richardson’s Grandison and Austen’s Mr Knightley is literary tact. So in Wolf Hall (the mini-series) Jane Seymour sits in on one council, but it is to ask advice, not to take any lead, and to seem to obey. If she is manipulative and ambitious, we must pick it up from the actress’s face.
From Wolf Hall, Kate Philips as Jane Seymour appealing to her brother Edward (Ed Speleers) for advice
We might fault Mantel for adhering to the conventions of good woman=docile and loyal (Liz Cromwell), presenting the hardship and pain of parturition discreetly, off-stage.
One might ask (and such romances implicitly do), if Anne is (and in histories seems to have been) ambitious and successfully manipulative (she is implicitly that in Wolf Hall — that’s what Charity Wakefield as Mary Boleyn is there to tell Rylance as Cromwell), so are most of the men — only this film they are mostly depicted as weak, and with misguided hubristic aims (Norfolk too), with Bernard Cumberbatch as the complicit courtier-husband, Carey,
He can dance but no more …
and Eddie Redmayne as William Stafford, if well-meaning, equally supporting the Henry regime, at least not active on behalf of either Anne or Mary, but waiting in the wings (as it were) to become good husband material for the remmants left of the Boleyn family rescued by the maternal power of Mary
This film ends with an exulting intertitle that Anne and Mary won after all when Elizabeth took the throne (another part of the Tudor matter is the story of Henry’s last intelligent wife, Katharine Parr who brought her up too)
Henry (played by Eric Bana who admittedly from the feature seems to have known little of the history) is presented as weak before women, duplicitous, stupid, sexually predatory, with some attempts at different kinds of shots.
This is the kind of historical romance where you are shown an evil world careless of women and children, where the only decent safe option is retreat. History tells us Mary did this twice in life, first with Carey (who did die), and then with Stafford for which she was severely castigated by her family, funds cut off from the pair, with the implication they were miserable. Well we don’t know that and they did live a long time and died in their beds.
The 2008 Other Boleyn Girl (there is another, earlier, 2003, which I hope to watch and comment on as an added comment to this blog soon) comes with features almost as long as half the film. These showed the care for and beauty of the cinematography (the many angled intriguing and sumptuous shots), how effective the costumes, and the uses of production design far shots in landscape, and heritage places. The actors in both sets of features talked about their roles. The actresses were made to feel central to their characters was their sisterhood; Jim Sturgess was told that the explanation for George’s behavior to Jane Boleyn (he would not have full sex with her) was he was gay, over-sensitive, and was nearly driven to incest because Anne feared that Henry could not give her the healthy “seed” for a boy.
He is shown as shattered by the pressure and terrified and protesting as the axe came down on him. This differs from the written records of the executions, but are they not biased in the direction of decorousness on behalf of the king’s “justice.” Chadwick said was he was aiming for was emotional immersion in family politics and fierce individual psychologies. As with the contrast between say Winston Graham and Daphne DuMaurier’s Cornish histories, Mantel’s book (like Graham) and Straughan’s film insofar as six hours allows roots and embeds her Tudor in the politics and wider social and economic realities of the Tudor era, while Gregory’s book (like DuMaurier’s King’s General, Jamaica Inn, and both the 2003 and 2008 films) keeps central focus on inward subjective private life.
The film begins with a married pair and three children (Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn walking, Anne, Mary and George playing in the grass) and ends symetrically (William and Mary Stafford walking, Mary’s two children by William or Henry and Elizabeth Tudor playing in the grass). Cyclical like woman’s life writing, like their experience of life. It would have been far greater to show the second set of children later on, but the soft-focus trope of refuge is too urgent.
I agree with Jerome de Groot (Consuming History), Helene Hughes (Historical romance) and the seminal essay by Miriam Burstein (on the typology of women characters in historical romances and history) that the key to the traditional approach to women figures (pre-feminism let’s call it) is to value the woman who is loyal above all, wary, stays in conventional roles, preferably at home; she is rewarded (as is Mary Boleyn by Gregory and in a way by Morgan) unless she drops dead from disease (Mantel’s Liz Cromwell). But I admit I often identify with these women. So part of the revision of Anne’s character comes from that. But by no means all: Anne argues ferociously with Henry in this film — this is born out as a “tempestuous marriage” by older historians like Scarisbrook on Henry VIII and Eric Ives too. Mary attempted retreat with Carey and then with Stafford in the historical record.
As I recently defended the Hampstead novel: women’s domestic themed fiction, women who write primarily to and for other women so as to forge imaginative connections and support, I have here at least explained and briefly explicated this well done women’s historical romance film.
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