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Charity Wakefield as Mary Boleyn, pregnant by Stafford, preparing bundles for the road-journey from court, POV Jessica Raine as Jane Lady Rochford (Peter Straughan-Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall 2015)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve returned to the Tudor Matter these past couple of days, finally finishing Alison Weir’s biography, Mary Boleyn, having read two more books on Anne Boleyn, and watching several times Phillipa Lowthorpe’s daring and free film adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl. Barring none, including Wolf Hall, Lowthorpe’s film is the most original of the films with Anne Boleyn as stealth or obvious heroine (which began in the 1960s with the no longer tenably watchable Anne of the Thousand Days).

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Natasha McElhone as Mary Boleyn, POV Jodhi May as Anne Boleyn (The Other Boleyn Girl, scripted and directed by Philippa Lowthorpe, 2003)

Lowthorpe’s film is totally different in feel and angle, deeply inward in its approach. Andrew Davies is listed as one of the film editors; well what happens in this as in other of his films, is that central character address us regularly; the character faces us, the assumed audience, directly and tells us their innermost emotions, is ironic, pleads with us, justifies themselves.

The 2003 Other Boleyn skips most of the outward pageant scenes we are so familiar with; it assumes we know the history, or the broad outlines, ad we hear of what’s going on off-stage, as this person beheaded, that falls from power to poverty, the accusation of Anne, the trial, the outcome. The film zeros in on the inner worlds of the two Boleyn Sisters and partly George. Outstanding performances (as usual) by Jodhi May (an unsung great actress) and Steven Mackintosh (he also doesn’t get his due, he was terrifying in Prime Suspect and perfect in Sandy Welch’s Our Mutual Friend, just the right amount of fearful tyranny for Lady Audley’s Secret). What we see is how twisted is the psychology, how neurotic and desperate and how Anne Boleyn is driven to become amoral early on – the young girl punished for allowing a love affair with Harry Percy to proceed to informal betrothal and bed, and she is exiled to be left utterly solitary, in poverty, and to empty hours at the cold Hever Castle for a long while. She learns her morality and lessons from the like of father and uncle. We have many scenes where either Mary or Anne faces, focuses on what seems to be us, spilling out their reflections and intense agons, resentments, despairs. Mary escapes not only death but a hard life — this is romance history — because Stafford loves her and she learns to love him and when she marries him. It is documented in the histories that this was so at least initially and perhaps for the rest of their lives together. The second time Stafford married, it appears it was also for love! The exile gives Mary space and time because she has Stafford with her, the house they live in, her two children probably by Henry, to become someone different, at peace far more. While at court, when she was coerced into becoming Henry VIII’s mistress and cuckolding the willing but agonized Carey she is going in the direction of Anne’s ruthless amorality, and (this is said to be in enough records, and is dramatized in the 2008 movie and Wolf Hall, then replacing Anne in bed while Anne was pregnant and Henry could not do without a bedmate each night.

Lowrthorne’s sexuality is not focused on genitals, not violent, but affectionate, sensual over skin, very physical — there is few shots on womens breasts, it’s rather sensual, lots arms and hands, and soft focus, the couples’ backs.

Unlike Justin Chadwick and Peter Morgan in their 2008 The Other Boleyn Girl,

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Scarlett Johannsson as Mary Boleyn watching Eddie Redmayne as William Stafford from afar (The Other Boleyn Girl, Morgan and Chadwick, 2008)

Lowthorpe ignored Gregory a lot. She makes Mary the older for example, she takes liberties and cuts out Mary’s first child, a girl (Alison Weir thinks this girl was Henry 8’s) and her boy is said to be Henry 8’s. Lowthorpe turns George Boleyn into a deeply anxious sycophantic hero on foot, he has to be driven into having sex with Anne, his sister, and does, to get her pregnant yet a third time — ended in a nonviable still born male fetus, January 1536. In the depiction of George, Lowthorne defies masculine stereotypes at the same time as she does not make him a homosexual man. Lowthorpe suggests what thus far the biographies I’ve read have not — (except for Mantel from an outside perspective), that Anne was sexually transgressive now and again lightly, and then went to bed with George because after her third miscarriage she felt she must produce a son and Henry was the problem. Court life encouraged this.

When this film eschewed the actual beheading, and instead fast forwarded to 2015 to show us the square plaque commemorating to see bas relief sculptures, I was taught there is a voyeuristic fascination, a kind of sadism being fed by these beheadings. There was no obligatory scene of a women terrified to death. We fast forward to the present and where there is apparently a stone which marks the place where AB was executed and we see people looking at it.

This one won no awards and so has no feature — it’s budget was less than the other and it shows at moments — some minor actors for roles we needed better actresses at (Katharine of Aragon). Lowthorne’s is very much a woman’s film, with the three Boleyn children as in the 2008 movie shown playing games together in the fields as in 2003 the young adults are half making imply if they can stop the king. The season turned and cyclically returns to that.

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As in 2003 Boleyn Girl: Anne and Mary in the tower as Anne awaits her execution

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I’ve offered three actresses as Mary to emphasize how no one knows at all if any of the portraits said to be of Mary Boleyn are of her; those said to be of Anne are at least less hesitantly so. Also that Gregory’s putting Mary back into the tapestry, the carpet of history is was key step in transforming the way we tended to see the story, and led to this new flowering and new points of view on the old material. What I’ve come away with is how little we know and how we must remain sceptical even as we see this interpretation matters and that needs rectification. So briefly, Bernard’s and Ives’s books on Anne Boleyn and Alison Weir on Mary.

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Hever Castle, Kent, became the seat of the Boleyns

While away I read G. W. Bernard’s iconcoclastic (nowadays) Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions where he argues she was guilt of sexually transgressive behavior with the male courtiers surrounding her and Henry, or at least some of them. He makes a strong case for arguing this is as probable as all the insistence she was not at all; the problem is he is so successfully sceptical by the end of the book — like Alison Weir’s on Mary — I am so aware of how little we can know for sure. Thomas Cromwell’s life in comparison is hugely documented: since he wrote and did so much in public. What is so refreshing is how he acts on the kind of scepticism Weir tries to follow. A good deal of his book proves we know nothing about Anne Boleyn and Ives’s too has invented continuously.

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Kristin Scott Thomas’s enactment of Elizabeth Howard Boleyn, Anne’s mother, seems much closer to Ives’s portrait of Anne than any of the four I’ve seen (2008 Other Boleyn Girl)

Eric Ives’s Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. Like many writers about early modern to mid-18th century women he attributes agency where there is no proof of any. This is a great problem in studies of earlier women. So we are told that Margaret of Austria was Anne Boleyn’s teacher and Ives proceeds to analyze all he knows of Margaret’s accomplishments. Anne was a lady at Margaret’s court — to jump to the idea she was taught as if this were a governness is overdoing this. He doesn’t say this of Claude because the personality of the woman stops him.

Ives is much too partisan. He wants to keep Anne sexually uninvolved wherever possible. As a long reader of Renaissance poetry I know how old are the traditions of insisting much of what was written in verse was posing. Well without arguing this at length here (I can’t) a lot is not. A hellvua lot. Ives wants Anne to be too artful, too manipulative — she was more than Mary. He then in effects disdains Mary as this easy lay. Mantel at least respects her — as do I — for her later choices. He just dismissed Warnke — probably because she’s such an overt feminist.

The archive is anything but forthcoming and unbiased, by a combination of his reasoning, myriad sources to me is convincing: he sees Anne as centrally led out of her own political needs for allies and also her own education, bent, reading, to move into Protestant doctrine, foremost of course is to throw off the pope and allow Henry to be supreme head and thus marry her. He often relies on Chapuys, the Emperor’s spy-ambassador. Ives does go into the sex: he sees the problem of Henry not having an heir a function of Henry’s own sexual anxiety, incompetence, let’s call it repression from childhood. Mantel does not go that far but she does pick up on Henry’s potential hatred for Anne because she so held him off and it was in front of others, and how she did domineer at least until the first miscarriage and it became clear that it was probable that an heir was unlikely. Henry liked Jane Seymour’s passivity and wanted to believe her a virgin.

Most men will not countenance a continuing and especially an exclusive relationship with a woman who cannot or will not fuck, and where I depart from Ives is I wonder how much of Anne’s holding out was her fear of sex — the whole repressive Catholic background, the denigration of sex as lust, evil women doing it outside marriage, of pregnancy and childbirth, and if she did encourage Henry to use anal intercourse that suggests to me that’s a motive (as well as no contraceptives) I wonder if that played a part in how she allured by Henry because she was aggressive. Ives goes over how few women Henry had between Katharine and Anne, how Mary’s two children first appeared after she married Carey. Now Mantel has Henry VIII hating Anne Boleyn for refusing to fuck for so many years until they were near married — and that came out afterwards when no son resulted.

Ives lays out the three ways to take Cromwell that are now common; before Mantel’s book the 3rd was known only to scholars of the era (p. 150): 1) a fixer, hit man for others; 2) bureaucrat, brilliant politician, the archetype staff officer, very strong; 3) “a perceptive statesman, the original mind which reallocated the atomic weights in the periodical table of English politics” (I’d add religion as practiced in churches)

Very interesting is Ives’s account of why Anne was so disliked: yes other women disliked Henry’s dumping his wife, but there was real fear of revolt; Anne was often blamed for what Henry or Cromwell or More did: the brutality of the torture, the executions – and we may exaggerate because Cromwell was so good at gathering evidence so he could head off conspiracies. New taxes on churches, of course all those kicked out hated her; she was the bad adviser before Cromwell took her place. Her real fault was she didn’t have a son because had that happened all would have become silent around her. Ives is good at showing early signs of trouble in the marriage even before the first miscarriage. One must get past the long sections (half-skimming) where we are regaled (it must be) with all the ceremonies, rituals, gifts given and received the are connected to and with Anne. The more revealing objects are the paintings she is said to have caused to be painted – there is a real problem proving agency but some of this is persuasive . Realistic psychological paintings can tell a great deal if they have symbolic images readily interpreted by Ives. She did revel in being queen, in the court life she had garnered for herself.

But sometimes Ives rejects documentary evidence because what it says doesn’t suit him. Mary not ejected out of jealousy (from successful sex with Henry, from sheerly having gotten pregnant but because Mary did not try to marry up – the idea here is Anne wanted to present the family as having all these nobles in their midst. Mantel does not discount that in Mary’s tirade in Wolf Hall, but obviously she goes more for the depths of human jealousy and resentment because Mary got pregnant. Mantel opts for the latter. If image creation was Anne’s aim it was counterproductive as jewels and ceremonies just roused more resentment; it did not work to make her queen, something deeper afoot.

But most interesting to me was I suddenly came upon a stretch where Ives was trying to discuss the nature of Anne Boleyn’s religious faith. It was exactly the sort of material I labored for years on in Vittoria Colonna, found in Marguerite de Navarre, and Rene of Ferrra, not to omit Jeanne D’Abret. Anne owned manuscript epistles by Jacques D’Etaples, called Evangelical at the time but we might see this as mystique subjective stuff encouraging self-examination; he finds exchanges of manscripts of poems in this vein (between Colonna and Marguerite it was Colonna’s poems though Marguerite wrote her own more medieval like versions of them). I felt astonished and recognized the same problem Ives faced: how do you attribute this to the woman? What can she have liked this for? To tell the change from good works to faith doesn’t come near it. I suggest the analogy is women reading Rousseau: he thought women mattered and his treatises were taken as attempt to lay claim to their valid subjectivity.

Ives shows that George Boleyn wrote a dedication to his sister of a present of Tyndale to her: in this we see an intense closeness of feeling between them. Maybe they never came to sex, but I can see why Henry might find something disturbing here. Ives suggests the whole Boleyn family were a “hotbed” of Protestantism of this kind – I know from reading elsewhere Cranmore was and Anne was all for his high office, he supported her as far as he dared; he was one of those Mary burned – he was involved in trying to place Jane Grey on the throne.

I have never come across an adequate explication of what these women got out of these kinds of materials. In Colonna’s case mostly men afterwards have talked of her relationship with Pole and gone on to him, and deprecated her flagellations. She did flagellate herself – as did Wolsey
Some insight which translates the religious language into secular psychology is needed. Ives mentions the “fierce passions” that drew Henry and Anne together – their bedrooms were set up across a hall from one another before marriage but we haven’t got an equivalent of Freud to parse these women.

While it is very moving and a consistent portrait of Anne emerges from the book that shows her to have been (to use Cromwell’s words about her quoted as having been said by him shortly after she was executed) a woman of “spirit, intelligence, courage,” I don’t think his explanation of what happened at the end quite holds up. In a nugget, he fails to explain how a woman who in April at least seemed fully in control of her position and loved by the King enough, could by May be executed by him — along with 5 other men, all of them close to Henry. His inability to come to a satisfactory explanation comes from his refusal to see Anne as anything but innocent of all sexual transgression. There are a couple of significant holes in his long book and story. First he does not tell us what Anne said so hysterically when she went to pieces upon being taken to the tower.

Second he does not tell us what Kingston said in a letter about Anne while in the tower — it may be these letters are no longer extent but he does quote the Lisle letters repeatedly otherwise (keepers of the tower) and I’ve discovered another book which has Anne as sexually transgressive with her male courtiers seems to — by G.W. Bernard and I’ve bought that one now. If the letters don’t exist, then there is plenty of hearsay at the time about what the letters said.

He omits (as I’ve said) the accusation of sorcery which is the old accusation of how she betwitched him, but was at the time seen as his reaction to the two miscarriages and the foetus dying which was said to have been male. He does this partly to dismiss Retha Warnke’s book which he repeatedly calls nonsense. He cannot even get himself to talk about her idea that homsexual behavior went on between Anne’s male courtiers which included her brother, George.

The origin of this in the book goes back to his reading of the poetry of the early part of Anne’s time at the Tudor court which he refuses to admit has any sexual reality. He won’t have her having gotten into serious engagement (sex and a vow) with Henry Percy Northumberland. He won’t allow sex to have happened between her and Wyatt.

He will allow that she and her courtiers indulged in ugly and dangerous ridicule of the king’s prowess, that she flirted in the way of courtiers at the time, and got too familiar or too close with the men in her entourage, and that this ignited all Henry’s deep hurt, humiliation, anxiety.

He does suggest that Henry’s desire for a male heir and Henry’s inability to produce one is at the core of all that happened. So it is this humiliated resentful male with lethal power — and it has to be remembered he inflicted dreadful deaths on four of the men, a terrifying one (beheading) on George and Anne Boleyn. Everyone just stands there and let’s Henry’s power do it. One of the reviewers said we have to remember that Henry’s power was so tenuous that’s why he fell to axing people but it does not seem tenuous when he can have people burnt, drawn and quartered and axed to death.

Ives’s explanation has to rest on Cromwell; Cromwell emerges in this book as suddenly turning on the woman he had been serving for years. Ives has Cromwell as serving Anne more than the king in changing the kingdom into protestantism, not credibile really — even if she had a personal religion and books that resemble other queens of the era. Cromwell in a ruthless way concocts out of rumor and nothingness the whole fabric and makes it stick even endlessly denied by all but Smeaton (who was the core of the evidence, admitting to adultery with Anne, saying the others did this too, a miserable role no matter how you see his motives). Ives says people did dislike Brereton who had deliberately hung someone a jury in his district had first declared not guilty (that is in Wolf Hall and in the film). Cromwell killed her lest he be killed; he felt himself in danger but even here, we are left with why? Why did Cromwell suddenly feel so threatened? Ives goes over the politics and uncertainties over the emperor, and the French king, Mantel has it Henry let Cromwell know he wanted to get rid of Anne after she had the second miscarriage and he had started his liaison with Jane Seymour so Cromwell, fearful but reluctant (over Anne and one of the men, Weston), acted

Cromwell is Ives’s great villain of these 6 weeks — loading the jury with people utterly hostile to Anne, with one man dependent on him, but 96 people said guilty and many of them were not Cromwell creatures. Those biographies of Cromwell I’ve read or am reading work hard to counter or explain away this perspective (Tracy Boorman, John Schofield).

The reviewers of Ives’s book most admired his sections where the social construction thesis is strong: how Anne manipulated the court, her image, rose to power this way. Here my objection is these images she manipulated were believed in, she was supposed to be a numinous figure. All collapsed so suddenly that my idea of the phoniness of all this as seen through is plausible (to me). The other version of why it is all collapsed is that no one could accept her in the way they did women coming from regal numinous families. Ives thinks it’s the latter (not that the images were religiously intertwined) and that all her power resided in Henry’s favor if we are talking for real. He says that the courtcraft she rose to power on did her in.

Maybe it’s the sordidness of the sex and motives all round that is so hard for Ives to accept and see as explaining what happened — Mantel infers or insinuates this and her use of fiction (reminding me of the debate on Lolita) allows her to suggest this without making it explicit.

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Blickling Hall, Norfolk where Mary, Anne and George Boleyn were probably all born

Two flaws in Alison Weir’s book: first, as with so many of these people writing on earlier sexually transgressive women, like Ives and Warnke, she is adamently opposed to accepting any tenuous evidence of most of Mary Boleyn’s presumed sexual life. When she says there no evidence whatsoever for an affair with Francois I, there is equally no evidence for other of assertions about the Boleyn family’s motives. Having a little expertise in this area in the sense that I spent a few years reading these often lurid gossip kind of material (chronicles, letters, diaries) for Vittoria Colonna and Veronica Gambara, I know that often that is what evidence we have for women apart from biological and documentary entries (property changes) and their letters are few and often guarded, or censored. That Mary may have been promiscuous does not mean we have to call her a whore. I don’t. I recognize she’s coerced in part — as I see prostitutes. Second, Weir’s style. Someone said of one of Weir’s long books: a “great puddle of a book.” I’ll say. She will say the same obvious truism over and over,and she repeats evidence in a circle. She hasn’t got a style — I’m relieved there’s none of the different jargons in Ives or Warnke, but that does not make for entertaining reading.

Still Weir is so conscientious and goes over every smidgin of evidence that from her work you can erect a chronology and come up with an probable outline of Mary’s life. It’s interesting to me that four women who recur in these costume dramas provided powerful people after they retreated, were forced out or died: Edward Jane’s son was king for a time and he was important in preventing a total catholic take-over; Mary Tudor became queen but it was too late and she was too bloody, Elizabeth Tudor became queen and the two Lord Hunsdons from Mary Carey Strafford.

There exists a startling long and frank letter from Mary to Cromwell after her pregnancy and marriage to Stafford was found out. She was literally turned out of court with no money; Weir’s hard work and scepticism makes a strong case for the couple going to Calais and living there for some 6 years because Stafford had an appointment as a guard there and is found in records for these years there. But what was so dismaying was how she treated this letter: sheerly from the standpoint that Mary should have written the letter as a manipulative document, not openly showing emotion and realities that are (I know) so rare in letters until the 18th century when there is suddenly a extraordinary break-through and you get whole sets of letters where women (and sometimes) men too open their vulnerable lives up to one another.

Among other things the letter testifies to the rightness of Mantel’s instinctive positive treatment of Cromwell. It’s clear Mary feels assured the man has a heart. Weir assumes that he didn’t like this letter or disdained it because there is no record that anything was done for her; that does not mean Cromwell didn’t try — he was super-careful when it came to protecting himself in this lethal court. John Schofield’s Cromwell (a recent biographer) is a man who a woman could write such a letter to as Mary Boleyn wrote.

Weir quotes a few other people on this letter: they also disdain it. No one doubts its authenticity. There exists only one short letter by Anne Boleyn; if we had anything like the equivalent for Anne it would be well know and I suggest would made people defend Anne more — paradoxically as writers would probably equally disapprove.

My speculation or inference is that Mary is despised still because she did fail in her court career and because for all Weir’s hard work, people believe she was sexually available to men “too easily.” Weir won’t have her as a “great whore” but she does not respect her. Gregory tries to — and I wonder if some of her inaccuracies are her attempts to tone down the woman’s lack of success as this is understood by most. She did survive and there is enough evidence she was happy in her closing years, made her choice herself and courageously but what her choice was won’t do.

Not only does Weir’s case against Mary having intense sexual involvements with someone in France and again with Henry VIII fall down, but her own appendices seem to me to demonstrate beyond any doubt that Katharine Carey and Henry Carey, Mary Boleyn’s two children were Henry VIII’s — the way they and their children and children’s children were treated seems to me to have no other explanation. Weir admits to the probability of Katharine; what stops her from agreeing to Henry is that for her to have had two children by Henry shows an extended sex life and she wants to say Henry stopped having sex with Mary rather quickly. She will admit only the briefest of sex outside marriage episodes for Mary.

In Mantel Henry keeps Mary as a side-mistress, concubine really for when Anne is pregnant. The accurate phrase for these women who are at court and go to bed with these powerful kings is concubine. They are tantamount to slaves, their bodies endlessly available to men at court whom their families want to aggrandize with.

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Henry Carey, later Lord Hunsdon, favored by Elizabeth, Lord Chamberlain (probably Henry VIII’s son, and thus Elizabeth’s half-brother and cousin)

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Katherine Carey, later Lady Knollys, lived close to Elizabeth all their lives (Henry VIII’s daughter, and thus Elizabeth’s half-sister and cousin)

If I’m right (and Philippa Gregory has both of Mary’s children Henry’s), then it helps explain Henry’s intense sudden hatred of Anne. She excluded him until he betrothed himself to. Since he can sire children and healthy ones with other women (her sister for one), it must be he has 1) angered God in his choices, and 2) what was wrong with choosing Anne was she was sexually unchaste or not a virgin when he finally had her — and all the while she was refusing him. He looked at he courtiers and Leontes-like went into a crazed rage. Leontes in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale comes partly from Henry VIII as he was known about and Hermione’s speech is a piece with Katharine. That Shakespeare was gripped by the private aspects of the Henry VIII debacles is seen in his repeating it in his Henry VIII in part. Who then was the father of the stillborn baby Anne perhaps produced in summer 1535. Her brother who had aided and abetted her and been given so many financial plums.

Ta Nehisi-Coates writes and says that American black people, especially men walk around with bodily fear; it seems to me that all women until the 19th century and since only a (growing) minority can feel their bodies are their own, safe from invasion.

Chronology and outline of Mary Boleyn’s life (see comments)

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As in 2008 Other Boleyn Girl: Wm Stafford freely chosen by and choosing Mary Boleyn, for love, and her two children (above) by Henry

Ellen

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