There is a question I am expecting to be asked when Metropolis Ink publishes my young adult novel, The Light in the Labyrinth, in the not too distant future. Why on earth write about Anne Boleyn again? With another anniversary of Anne Boleyn’s execution fast approaching – a day that always makes me pause in remembrance of her – I thought I might as well answer that question now.
I was only a child when Anne Boleyn first captured my imagination, when the wonderful Genevieve Bujold embodied her in Anne of The Thousand Days. Sometimes I really wonder how I ever survived my childhood. My siblings were not at all happy that I used our father’s love of English history to talk him into taking us all, on a rare family outing, to a film about a Tudor Queen. Elizabeth I was already my childhood hero, after a brief taste of her story hooked me as a ten-year-old. After the film, Anne Boleyn joined her daughter as another of my heroes. Following that film, I began reading all the novels and nonfiction I could find about Anne and Elizabeth.
Those history books and historical novels made it very clear that women in this period were seen as the property of men to be exchanged and discarded, especially when their value as vessels of reproduction was no more. Even their identities did not really belong to them, but belonged to their fathers, and then their husbands.
During those early years of learning about the Tudors, Anne Boleyn stood out to me (and still does) as a strong, vibrant, intelligent and very brave woman. Henry VIII knew this; during her trial for her life Henry VIII described her as a woman of “stout heart”.
Like all of us, Anne Boleyn wasn’t perfect. History provides many examples of her temper and political ambitions. But Anne lived a life that tottered on a knife’s edge, in the midst of plots and conspiracies. Marriage also did not bring her great joy, rather difficult pregnancies and an unfaithful husband who told her to shut her eyes and endure, “just like others who were worthier than she, and that she ought to know he could humiliate her in only moment longer that it taken to exalt her” (Ives 2004, p. 192). I don’t think it is surprising that she displayed a temper on occasion.
I have researched Anne Boleyn for a long, long time. My research has given me far more reasons to respect and admire Anne than not. She never deserved the vilification that happened in her own times, when she was called a goggle-eyed whore, a witch and the scandal of Christendom. I really believe an indication of her true character lies in the fact that Anne Boleyn’s kin and friends must have spoken highly of her to her daughter, Elizabeth. They must have spoken highly – why else would Elizabeth wear, until her dying day, a ring containing her own portrait and that of a much younger woman – the portrait of her mother.
This undeserved vilification has continued down the centuries. The injustice of her vilification gives me cause for much reflection. I agree with Eric Ives, Anne Boleyn’s most important and respected biographer, when he describes her as a woman who should be regarded as a feminist icon. Ives’s thorough and excellent biography constructs a very intelligent, God fearing woman “who broke through the glass ceiling of male dominated society by sheer character and initiative” (Ives 2004, p, XV). I cringe at the labels flung at Anne because witch, bitch and whore are still words flung at far too many women today who refuse passivity, but desire to be agents of their own destinies. They are labels rooted in patriarchy.
Anne Boleyn kept the devotion and love of Henry VIII for years. So much so, he turned his kingdom upside down to marry her. But his love did not survive their marriage. Perhaps the reason for this was very simple. Anne was now Henry VIII’s Queen and her primary role was to give him his prince – the prince who would ensure Henry’s legacy to England did not involve another bloody civil war. Anne did not give him his prince, but only Elizabeth. Henry had no idea that his daughter was indeed a legacy.
In an attempt to be just to Henry VIII – believe me, as a Libran, I really do try to be just –I believe he was truly terrified of leaving a civil war behind him. I also wonder if his head injury of 1536, a head injury that not only left him unconscious and his court fearing for his survival, but also may have resulted in Anne Boleyn losing her last chance to give him a son, may have left him brain damaged. I believe most people who study the period recognize that Henry VIII became increasingly paranoid after that event.
My commitment to Anne Boleyn has only grown stronger over the years, which might help explain why I have used her once again as a major character in my fiction. But that is only part of the answer. My first novel left me with an unanswered question: Why did Henry VIII turn so viciously against Anne, a woman who seemed once the grand passion of his life? It could not have been just because she failed to give him a son.
Eco once wrote,“Sometimes one decides to tell a story only to get to know it better” (Eco 2005, p. 321). I decided get to know Anne Boleyn’s story better through revisiting her in the last months of her life. I did this by taking up the challenge of writing a young adult novel, the artefact for my PhD, ignited by that writer’s question of “What if?” What if it was true that Katherine Carey, Anne Boleyn’s niece, was with her aunt in the Tower, and also witnessed her execution?
Another answer for why I am so drawn to Anne Boleyn’s story was illuminated through the process of writing my PhD. It was also an answer inherent in my first novel, Dear Heart, How Like You This? This novel narrates the story of Anne Boleyn through the voice of Sir Thomas Wyatt, the poet. My Tom Wyatt loved Anne Boleyn with a consuming love, a love that too often controlled his life, but he was also a Tudor man. Whilst he recognized Anne Boleyn as an exceptional woman, he was often bemused by Anne’s attempts to own her life, her identity and destiny. Thus, despite telling it through a male perspective, Dear Heart, How Like You This? narrates a feminist story.
While an important subtext of the story ponders on the nature of love, another vital subtext involves the power that men have over the lives of women. I wish I could write had, but I cannot, not with over two hundred school girls kidnapped in Africa by Boko Haram, an Islamic terrorist group; supposedly, to be sold into marriage. Not with one woman dying every week in Australia at the hands of a man who is either her partner or former partner. My heart bleeds whenever I read these kinds of stories. Men’s violence against women is a global concern. That’s another thing that many women recognize about Anne Boleyn. Whatever power she possessed was determined by men, and taken away by men.
The Light in the Labyrinth, my new novel, deals with the awakening of a young girl to what it means to be an adult at the court of Henry VIII, when women’s lives were very much controlled by their gender. Once again, my research revealed Anne as someone determined to claim her identity – someone who refused to give up a voice given to her by the years of waiting for her marriage to Henry VIII. I know I am not alone in believing Anne Boleyn’s refusal to be silent ended by taking her to her meeting with a French executioner.
Society still regards strong women like Anne Boleyn as a threat. As an Australian, I watched with despair Julia Gillard, Australia’s first woman prime minister, was toppled – with great savagery – from power. Just like Anne, she too was called a bitch and witch during a campaign that led to her political death. Unfortunately for Anne Boleyn, her political death also meant her physical death.
For centuries, women have been regarded as inferior to men – and their property to do with what they want. The narratives of patriarchy still reflect the accepted mirrors of our world. Through my life, Anne Boleyn’s story has been important in helping me understand this – and I believe it has been important to other women, too. Anne Boleyn has been responsible for re-birthing me as a feminist, and I believe all of us need to be feminists, too. It is not that I don’t appreciate that our world also deprives men of authentic lives, but rather a belief that the failure to give equal value to women inflicts great harm upon us all. Our world will never be healed unless we rewrite this global narrative. We are all human, no matter our gender.
I will let Anne Boleyn, my hero, as she tended to do, have the final word:
Defiled is my name full sore
Through cruel spite and false report,
That I may say for evermore,
Farewell to joy, adieu comfort.
For wrongfully you judge of me
Unto my fame a mortal wound,
Say what ye list, it may not be,
Ye seek for that shall not be found.
(Believed written the night before her execution.)
Ives, E. W. (2004). The life and death of Anne Boleyn : ‘the most happy’. Malden, MA, Blackwell Pub.
Eco, U. 2004. On Literature. Orlando. Harcourt.
Wendy J. Dunn is an historical fiction writer from Melbourne, Australia. Obsessed with Tudor and Medieval Castile History, she is author the award-winning novel Dear Heart, How Like You This?. Wendy is also a scholar. She is diligently working to complete her doctoral degree in writing, recently completing her exegesis submission. Wendy’s new novel, The Light of the Labyrinth is expected to release soon in paperback, Kindle and e-pub. Wendy is a literature support teacher and Eltham North Primary School and also tutors students at Swinburne University in the Masters level writing studies. She is the mother of three sons and one daughter. For more information about Wendy J. Dunn, visit her website at http://wendyjdunn.com/.
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