Did Anne Boleyn write this letter or not?

In case you didn’t know, this blog is named after Anne Boleyn. I’ve been reading about her since I was just a kid, and I think she’s one of the most interesting and influential historical figures ever. When I first learned everything there was to know about her, there was one thing that still remained a mystery: did she write a letter to her husband and king, Henry VIII, right before she died?

There’s a letter that’s commonly said to have been written by Anne, but historians are still fighting about whether or not it’s a forgery. It’s said to be one of the best-written letters in the English language, and it’s totally sassy. Basically, the letter accuses Henry of wanting to get rid of Anne just because he was lusting after another woman, and Anne refuses to confess to a crime she didn’t commit. It’s saucy stuff. Read the whole thing here, and be amazed.

26246011So, given that there’s a lot of myth surrounding Anne, Sandra Vasoli, the author of the faux autobiography about Anne, Je Anne Boleyn, decided to do a lot of research about the letter and tried to prove it was authentic. The result was the e-book Anne Boleyn’s Letter from the Tower: A New AssessmentIt’s sort of complicated to parse, but allow me to say that despite the effort Vasoli puts into trying to convince the reader that Anne did write the letter, I’m still not convinced.

If you’re any kind of fan of history, you know how easy it is to think you know historical figures as if they were people living today, like they’re friends. It’s also easy to fall into thinking that people from history thought and acted like we do. Actually, it’s the complete opposite. History is so freaking complicated because culture varies so drastically even in the span of 50 years. How are we supposed to understand the motives and passions of people who lived in the 16th century? It may as well be a different planet. For lack of a better term, 16th century people (and most historical figures) are complete aliens.

Even though I did enjoy reading some new insight into Anne’s letter, it’s clear from the book Sandra wrote that just because she wants to believe Anne wrote it, she skews her argument in that angle. The book isn’t really convincing because instead of providing new evidence and refuting older arguments, all she does is trace the possible movement of the letter hypothetically from Anne’s hands to where it sits now, in fragments at the British Library.

So many questions are still left infuriatingly unanswered, and the small amounts of evidence Vasoli uses to answer these questions are insufficient. Like, if Anne didn’t write the letter, who did, and why?

I enjoyed reading this book but it left me with even more questions than before. This is why it’s so hard to study history: because we get emotionally attached to historical figures (obviously, I do too!) and then we can’t study it objectively. But as long as there is literature about Anne Boleyn and new things to discover, I’ll be waiting to buy it all, read it all, and learn a little bit more.

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Walking "In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn"

Okay, this will be the last Anne Boleyn–oriented post for a while, I swear. I can’t help it; when May comes around I keep getting email notifications about the anniversary of her death and I just get the itch to read about her all over again. I began with the “Anne Boleyn Bible,” as it is affectionately nicknamed: Eric Ives’s The Life and Death of Anne BoleynThen I finally bought In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn, a fan-written, exhaustive account of all the places Anne would have visited in her lifetime, a list that takes 287 pages to explain and describe. The result is nothing short of mesmerizing.

9781445607825A couple years ago I visited the UK on a study abroad trip and visited Anne’s memorial in the Tower of London, then I went to Hampton Court Palace and snapped pictures of the artifacts on the ceiling of the “Anne Boleyn Gateway” and then I took a solitary trip to the idyllic Hever Castle where Anne spent her childhood and I thought I had seen, if not all of it, then most of it. Oh, how wrong I was (photos below of my trip!).

Authors Natalie Grueninger (@OnTheTudorTrail) and Sarah Morris visited something like 75 locations during their Anne Boleyn Grand Tour and took it upon themselves to write an extremely well-researched book about these places that is one part guidebook and one part ode to Anne. The authors take extensive pains to delineate exactly which parts of British castles/palaces/houses are contemporary to Anne’s time, deconstructing each site wing by wing.

Excerpted from the entry to Richmond Palace:

“Richmond Palace in Surrey…was also well known to Anne Boleyn, as it provided an opulent backdrop for a pivotal moment in her life, one that would establish Lady Anne as much more than a passing fancy….Approaching the house from the river, Anne would have seen the elegant facade of the royal apartments rising from the banks of the Thames…All that is now left to see of Richmond Palace, where a young lady once outplayed a cardinal, is the main gateway and part of the outer range facing the green.” (68-69)

They intersperse the entries with historical background (in wonderfully chronological order) and emotion-filled conjectures about what Anne would have seen, where she would have walked, how she would have felt. And though it falls slightly into sentimentalism at times, suspending my inner critic allows me to imagine Tudor England as it would have looked to a young Anne, an Anne as Marchioness, as Queen, and finally, as a condemned traitor awaiting her death. The result is both informative and slightly chilling. It’s…real.

One of the authors, Natalie Grueninger, runs a fabulous website called On The Tudor Trail, “a website dedicated to documenting historic sites and buildings associated with Anne Boleyn and sharing information about the life and times of Henry VIII’s second wife.” Definitely check it out! Get the book on Wordery.com at this link.

A few photos from my own meager Anne Boleyn tour:

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Hampton Court Palace

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Hever Castle

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The Tower of London memorial

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Hampton Court Palace

 

Fashion // Le Temps Viendra

Spring is here in full force! I found this skirt at Forever 21 and I’m not crazy about how it falls, but I like the texture of it. I wore this on a windy spring day and definitely liked how the kimono made this outfit a little more appropriate for day. I wore my favorite spring boots from Chicwish and a red bag for some color! Happy June, everyone!

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Skirt and kimono from Forever 21, boots from Chicwish

Reads & Recs: History, Funny History, and a Girl Boss

FUNNY HISTORY: Now, it’s no secret I love Anne Boleyn (see here and here) and that Tudor history is a hobby and a passion for me (not unusual, really). Recently I followed a hysterical Twitter account posing as Henry VIII, @KngHnryVIII, and every day found myself laughing out loud at his outrageous tweets about bacon, cake, and defecating on the map of Spain. When I saw he was promoting an e-book on Amazon, I didn’t hesitate to spend a whopping $2.50 on it, and it was so, so worth the money. I would have paid $10 for this thing, and that’s saying a lot for someone who lives on $3 paperbacks from thrift stores.

71JSwrDSOuL._SL1000_The book is called Monarch of Your Bedchamber and the subtitle is, “Henry VIII’s Long Awaited & Extremely Helpful Guide to Relationships: Sex, Wooing, Marriage, Mistresses, Divorce, Beheading, A Bit More Sex & Full Metal Codpieces.” Full metal codpieces are over-represented in this book but I truly wouldn’t have it any other way.

Now, this spoof book isn’t just funny, it’s brilliant. It manages to be irreverent about history and accurate (mostly accurate, at least) at the same time. Narrated by King Henry himself, this book provides advice for the modern reader and a tell-all about his life—and his afterlife. I can’t help but include some choice excerpts that made me snort whatever drink I happened to be sipping at the time:

King Henry ruminating, on his deathbed, about dissolving the monasteries:

“I signed my will, entrusted my soul to Jared-Leto Jesus, and uttered my final words, which have been reported as ‘Monks, Monks, Monks…’ Which is only partially correct as I was actually working on a song that went ‘Monks, Monks, Monks, I tooks your junks, junks, junks away in trunks, trunks, trunks.'” (loc. 1105)

On the death of Catherine Parr’s husband, Lord Latimer:

“Her husband, Lord Latimer, was, however, doing the kingdom the huge favor of dying just then, albeit at a pace that I found slow to the point of being unpatriotic.” (loc. 1051)

And then there are examples of “Tudor erotic poetry:”

“You are my boiled swan,/My cheese,/My eel pie,/My succulent roast beef,/You—sweet lady—are/my bacon/With boobs.” (loc. 1200)

He also takes The Tudors to task for being inaccurate, which I thought was hysterical considering this “King Henry” admits to being in love with a time-travelling robot and is able to use Twitter from the beyond.

I also strongly suggest you follow his Twitter account for haikus about bacon and sex.

9781445607825ACTUAL HISTORY: So that’s what I read last week. This week, I am reading Sarah Morris and Natalie Grueninger’s In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn, a book which tracks Anne’s important locations, such as the place she was married, her birthplace, and the castle where she grew up. It also makes an effort to locate and describe her possessions, like the set of virginals she played currently on display at the V&A, the psalter she owned, and her Bibles translated to English and French. It’s lovely for someone like me, someone who has read about Anne for a long, long time. Get it here!

The author, Natalie Grueninger, runs an excellent blog called On The Tudor Trail. Definitely check it out!

 

9780399169274A GIRL BOSS: On my TBR list this month is #GIRLBOSS, the memoir/advice book by the founder and CEO of Nasty Gal, Sophia Amoruso. I’ve heard great things about this book and I’m trying to get my hands on it soon. I’ve read that it isn’t condescending or cheesy like self-help books tend to be. As a fan of Nasty Gal and—you know—a girl, I’m really excited to read it! Get your copy here.

So what is on your To Be Read piles/lists this month? Let me know in the comments. And Happy Memorial Day Weekend for those in the US!

 

 

Disclosure: this post contains affiliate links. Images from Amazon or Wordery unless otherwise stated. 

Exploring the real Anne Boleyn

I’ve talked before on this blog about my teenage love for historical fiction and also about my obsession (should we use that word?) with Anne Boleyn. I found her at a young age when I bought a children’s book about her—really. It was called Doomed Queen Anne and it was written for preteens. Her story, told in the first person, really enchanted me and it’s been the same ever since, and I know I’m not the only one.

Anne-Boleyn-IvesWith The Tudors and the inaccurate tosh that was The Other Boleyn Girl floating out in the world, I feel very compelled to share what I’ve learned about Anne Boleyn since I was a kid, helped along by a well-researched, fair, and brilliant biography by Eric Ives: The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. I recently re-read this book and once again was plunged into the world of the Tudor Court and saw Anne’s life play out, from birth to tragic death. So I’d like to share some interesting facts about Anne that make me admire her more every time I read about her.

She was considered an honorary Frenchwoman. She was sent to Belgium and then to France when she was 12 or 13 and served in the court of Queen Claude of France. She was an excellent pupil, launching herself into the popular humanist trend at the time (and became an acquaintance of Erasmus later in life). She was also a very skilled musician and had natural taste for the classics. Anne would carry the aura of French sophistication with her for her entire life, and bring this grace and elegance to her role as Queen of England.

She challenged beauty norms and revolutionized style and fashion at court. At a time when English roses were the standard of beauty, Anne shattered the ideal. Instead of blonde and fair, Anne was dark, possibly with brunette or auburn hair, and sallow skinned. She was also thinner and less curvy than was considered attractive, but she used her unique traits to her advantage. She was especially proud of her hair and her dark eyes, and even her enemies found her appearance bewitching.

As Queen, Anne used fashion to buttress her “cult of majesty.” She knew that part of being a queen was looking the part, just like her daughter did.

“It is clear that in dress sense and wardrobe Anne Boleyn anticipated Elizabeth I’s acute awareness of the politics of ostentation. Each had more than a love of mere finery, rather a recognition that in order to play the part one must dress the part. The mother also anticipated the daughter in another way: the exploitation of the cult of monarchy…between Anne and Elizabeth there was an uncanny similarity of attitude toward the projection of monarchy, and of themselves as chosen by God to rule.” (218)

I found it so poignant that mother and daughter had so much in common.

Hever Castle portrait of a young Anne Boleyn

She was a “self-made woman.” One of the common denigrations of Anne Boleyn is her stereotypical role of the “Other Woman” who stole Henry away from the long-suffering Katherine of Aragon with her sexual wiles. Ives parses the evidence at hand and comes to a very different conclusion, however. From the evidence it’s clear that Henry was anticipating a divorce from Katherine before he even met Anne.

Henry’s first wife was barren and Henry had long been looking elsewhere to obtain a male heir. When Anne caught his eye, it was his love for her which made Anne his unconventional choice for a wife, instead of a foreign princess who would cement international relationships. Anne, then, did not “steal” Henry away, but was Henry’s first choice because of love and not politics. Ives says “Henry’s first marriage was dead before Anne came on the scene,” and that her sexuality “challenged Henry.”

Anne was also the first person to become a peer of the realm in her own right, rather than by ancestry or marriage. She was made Marchioness of Pembroke in 1532, the highest rank a courtier can hold, and it was held by a woman for the first time.

She was really, really smart. Anne played the politics game as well as any King Henry or Thomas Cromwell. Instead of a submissive wife, Anne became one of Henry’s most trusted political advisors as well as his queen, something that was almost unheard of. It was actually this “meddling in state affairs” that contributed to her fall and eventual execution.

Anne Boleyn was not the “catalyst in the English Reformation; she was a key element in the equation…Anne was a strong supporter of religious reform, and she was the first to demonstrate the potential there was in the royal supremacy for that distinctive element in the English Reformation, the monarch’s freedom to take the initiative in religious change…Brief though Anne’s influence was, it was a thousand days of support for reform from the throne itself.” (260-61) Popular opinion has Anne bouncing Henry into breaking with the Church because she wanted to be queen, but the evidence shows that she truly believed in reform and in the supreme power of kings to head the church.

She did truly love Henry. At least, that’s what the evidence comes to. Popular stereotypes show Anne as a cold, ambitious woman using her sexuality as a weapon against Henry just to get what she wanted: power and a crown. However, evidence suggests that it was Henry who made the decision to stay chaste for six years while he and Anne prepared for marriage. He would not have risked a male child with Anne being born illegitimate.

Anne, for her part, found in Henry a dashing young king, powerful, smart, and loving. The evidence shows a passionate relationship with both parties exhibiting fierce tempers and a fiercer will. They were quite a pair. Indeed, until just two days before Anne’s arrest, Henry was calling her his “beloved wife” and fighting for her international acceptance as queen.

She was a genuine evangelical with enormous faith and a zeal for reform. Anne was a very religious person in faith and in action. She gave enormous amounts of money in alms to the poor and wanted to use dissolved monastic houses as places of education instead of appropriating their wealth to pay off the Crown’s debts. Anne kept a copy of the English Bible (translated by the “heretic” William Tyndale) on a stand in her rooms, encouraging all her servants and ladies to read it at will. She also kept strict standards of morality and comportment among her retinue.

Anne also “supported learned institutions, perhaps with annual subventions to Oxford and Cambridge” and worked hard to reform and buttress these places of scholarship. The reforms she instituted at Cambridge were so well received that she was “designated the new founder of the college.” (286)

She was innocent! Modern scholarship has now confirmed that not only was Anne’s adultery unlikely, it was very nearly impossible. Anne’s trial outlined the times and places of her alleged adulterous affairs and at nearly every circumstance, she and her alleged lover were either not at court together, she was pregnant, or had just given birth/had a miscarriage, making sex impossible for 16th century people who had strict rules on sexual cleanliness.

Also, Anne swore on the Holy Eucharist the night before her death that she was innocent. Lying would have been tantamount, to someone with Anne’s strong faith, to rejecting salvation and pitching oneself directly into hell. She had nothing to gain by lying; she already knew she was going to die.

Political machinations took her life. Henry VIII’s political advisor Thomas Cromwell admitted to the “coup” he orchestrated to remove Anne and her supporters from power. Cromwell was acting in self-preservation: he and Anne disagreed on major political issues and she could have arranged his downfall if he didn’t act first. For good measure, Cromwell also managed the deaths of Henry Norris, groom of the stool (the highest place in court) and other supporters like William Brereton and Anne’s own brother, George Rochford. Her death was a tragedy and a serious miscarriage of justice.

Anne was a self-made woman who nevertheless was required to be dependent upon a husband, and not just any husband, a king with enormous pride and ego. She was a smart, capable woman who would have made an excellent queen had she lived. Rather than a monster or femme fatale, the image of Anne that emerges from the evidence is that of a smart, talented woman who fell in love with a king and was offered a crown. I would have accepted it, too.

Also excellent Anne Boleyn reads are The Creation of Anne Boleyn, which is a sociological study of Anne’s image, and for a touch of finely-wrought fiction, Jean Plaidy’s 1986 novel The Lady in the Tower. The next book I’ll read about Anne Boleyn is Sarah Morris’s In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn, a book which tracks all the places Anne went in her life and their importance. I bought it recently from Wordery.com. Check it out!

Disclosure: this post contains affiliate links.

Reads & Recs: History, Classics, and a Kiddy Book

What is everyone reading this weekend? Here’s my weekend literary list and some great recommendations for you guys!

Anne-Boleyn-Ives  HISTORY: Yesterday I took The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn off my shelf for a long overdue re-read. The book, written by the late (but still great) historian and scholar Eric Ives, is the closest thing we’ll get to a definitive account of Anne Boleyn’s life and the circumstances that led to her untimely death. You may not know this but my blog is actually named for Anne Boleyn. I’ve been fascinated by her since I bought a children’s book about her when I was 10. She’s a very interesting and always inspiring historical figure, often maligned and almost always misunderstood. Eric Ives’s biography attempts to set the record straight about who she really was, and I think he succeeds.

Another good Anne Boleyn book I read recently was The Creation of Anne Boleyn. I wrote a review of it for this blog a while back, which takes a look at Anne Boleyn and how she’s considered a contemporary feminist icon. The review was also recently featured on  the author’s (Susan Bordo) press pages! Check it out here, and definitely read those books if you want to learn more about the real Anne Boleyn.

Les-Mis-PenguinCLASSICS: This weekend I’m going to set aside some time to write about the book I recently finished, Victor Hugo’s brilliant tour-de-force, Les Miserables. Ugh, I can’t even talk about it. I saw the film when it was released and just recently saw the musical revival on Broadway, so I knew the story. But at the end of reading the novel, I felt like I was a part of the story. Some books change you, some books are unforgettable, and some pull you in like a black hole and don’t ever let go. This was one of those books. It’s about the goodness of the human heart and about redemption, but most importantly, it’s about charity for your fellow man, regardless of their flaws and vices. It’s also extremely political and taught me a lot about France’s political turmoil from 1789 to the 1860s, far more than you’ll ever get from any European history textbook. Also–Gavroche! You gotta read it.

Also: the Penguin Classics clothbound edition sucks. Every time I picked up the book, the pretty printed design came off on my hands and now the cover looks so faded and worn. For such an expensive edition, it should at least be readable, not just attractive. I should have bought a secondhand one instead!

Westing-GameKIDDY BOOKS: I just got another job tutoring a sixth grader who is reading The Westing Game in class. Since I have to read it with her, I picked up a copy of the book I read when I was about 11 or 12, and let me tell you, it is kicking my ass. It’s simple to read but there’s so much action and so many characters, and coming from a long novel with more commentary than action, it’s a lot more difficult than it should be! I keep having to go back and reread what I just read, certain I missed something. It’s also a murder mystery, so attention to detail is of the utmost importance.

Still, this book reminds me what it was like to fall in love with reading when I was young, and it reminds me why I became the voracious reader I am today. I love YA and still read the books I bought when I was young. They never get old, in my opinion.

London Travel Diaries, Historical Places

I wanted to share with you guys some pictures of my trip to London a couple years ago. I was there for a month taking a class during college, and I got to experience some amazing adventures. My favorite historical places I visited were Hampton Court Palace, The Tower of London, and Hever Castle. Here are some pictures of my time there.

Hampton Court Palace

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The Tower of London

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Hever Castle

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My favorite places were steeped in history and although the exhibits can be kind of kitschy and cheesy (like the skit between actors playing Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn), you can still feel the echoes of what had happened when you walked through these beautiful old places. It was eerie and sort of comforting. Places like these tie you to the past.

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A New Elizabeth I, courtesy of Margaret George

I suppose it was only a matter of time before pseudo-biographer and talented historical fiction author Margaret George took on the enormous task of Elizabeth I. She’s a historical figure so exhaustively portrayed in literature and film yet so little truly understood (which is, perhaps, her appeal). I’ve avoided novels about Elizabeth since I read Jean Plaidy’s Queen of This Realm when I was in high school and the last biopic I saw was the one starring Helen Mirren (which I enjoyed). Because of all the tropes and cliches and crap people believe about her, it’s much more interesting to me to read history and historical debate to hear the story. However, since I’ve read George before without disgust, I though this one was worth a shot. 

elizabeth1-reviewJust like her novel about Helen of Troy, Elizabeth I was interesting and enjoyable, but not extraordinary and sometimes bordering on too sentimental. Elizabeth I was devilishly interesting because of her complicated personality and her all-too-obvious human weaknesses; coupled with her larger-than-life persona, it’s no wonder flocks of people in the past five hundred years have been enchanted with her. George dulls her down, to the extreme. The first problem is with the period she chose. Gloriana is older, and all the important and interesting stuff is over. The Armada is defeated, Leicester is dead, Elizabeth absolutely detests his widow Lettice, Essex isn’t es-sexy (which in my mind, he always was, probably because of Hugh Dancy’s swoon-inducing portrayal in the aforementioned Mirren biopic), and Shakespeare figures in such a way that borders on literary blasphemy (I’m Catholic: I know what I’m talking about).

So, in short, not a great read. The writing is sort of juvenile, and like the Helen novel, I finished reading with no more real insight into the psychology and personality of Elizabeth I, which is what good historical fiction should do. It’s deemed problematic by some, but good historical fiction should make the reader believe that this version, if not true, is at least believable. George fails at that, sadly. Much better is Jean Plaidy’s Queen of This Realm. I haven’t touched it since I was fourteen but I still remember the striking characterization of Elizabeth and how her narration perfectly explicated her complex personality. The narrator-Elizabeth would split her personality into Rational and Emotional, and she knew herself so well that I was convinced I knew the real Elizabeth. That’s what good historical fiction ought to be capable of. The novel also canvasses the whole of Elizabeth’s life accurately, succinctly, and without rush: no mean feat. Really, I should read that book again. #TeamPlaidy

The one scene I loved most in the novel was ridiculous and purely sentimental; however, I loved it because I am a fan of Anne Boleyn (not “The Tudors” kind, although I do love Natalie Dormer for her historical knowledge and savvy portrayal in the second season). The scene is when Elizabeth visits Hever Castle and becomes very emotional at the place where her mother was born and grew up. Having visited Hever Castle, I can imagine Elizabeth wanting to go there to be close to Anne, even if she never got the chance (she probably couldn’t show emotional support for her mother during her lifetime; evidence shows E. was not chatty about her mother, though a ring she had cast features a hidden portrait of Anne inside, showing how much Elizabeth must have cherished the memory of her mother).

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a photo from my visit to Hever Castle

So, that’s it. One scene in this novel had me cheering, but I think this novel has proven my skepticism toward faux biographies about behemoth historical figures. Next: The Memoirs of Cleopatra!

another one because pretty

another one because pretty

really, this place is gorgeous

really, this place is gorgeous

My Ideal Bookshelf

I recently read this great blog post and decided to compile ten of my favorite books of all time. The original post didn’t give a limit but I liked the idea of a “Top 10 Favorite Books” category and the exercise really made me stop and think about the books I’d read both recently and in the past that have influenced me and changed my life. In no particular order:

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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the book I read again and again: This novel is my favorite of JK Rowling’s magical oeuvre, and I read it so often that my copy is well-worn by now. It still reminds me of being eleven years old and making my mother drive me to Waldenbooks first thing in the morning so I could pick up the book on the release date. It also conjures memories of growing up with Harry Potter and how the novels instilled in me not just a love of reading, but also the desire to become a writer.

Pride and Prejudice, the one I love the most: This one is a no-brainer. I love everything about it, from the sarcastic way Lizzy’s father treats the women in his family, to the absolutely abhorrent Mr Collins and how much I love laughing at him, to the perfect story arcs of Elizabeth and Darcy. So many people adore the love story but this book is about so much more. Not only does Austen indict the social strata that make Elizabeth and Darcy’s ultimate union difficult, but she also weaves into the narrative arguments about the tension between conservative and liberal politics and allows the reader to form an opinion without even realizing they’ve done it. Austen takes a normal subject—love—and manipulates the story in such many layered ways that there is something new to learn each time.

Wuthering Heights, my favorite book: This book gets me every time. Love the characters or hate the characters, no one can deny the charisma of Heathcliff, the beauty of the moors, the overwhelming atmosphere of mystery and danger, the way you kind of want to shake Catherine and tell her to stop screaming but you root for her anyway, and the way you kind of hate the Lintons for no reason. The love of Catherine and Heathcliff forms the basis of every obsessive love story ever told and ever hated, but this love isn’t supposed to be healthy: it’s supposed to consume, overpower, even poison you. Wuthering Heights is the ultimate catharsis and it’s always a pleasure.

Angel, the book that changed my life: This novel is a forgotten little gem by the less famous Elizabeth Taylor. It tells the story of a young romance writer in the early 1900s, Angel Deverell, whose arrogance and dissociation from reality result in her ruin and isolation. The character of Angel is meant to be an allegory for those authors of Taylor’s time whose florid prose and shallow plotlines made instant bestsellers but whose books were vacuous and insipid. Angel thinks she’s the best writer to have ever lived and is completely blind to criticism, insisting all others are jealous of her wit and brilliance. Taylor is fierce and unapologetic in her harsh treatment of Angel, and the book reads like a sharp and insightful social commentary. I’d say Elizabeth Taylor read a lot of Austen and took good notes.

The Crimson Petal and the White, the best book I’ve ever read: I’ve mentioned before how much I love this book. I love Faber’s direct address to the reader, his bold and brave descriptions of prostitutes and dirt and death, his four-dimensional depiction of late Victorian London, and most of all, his unbelievable, believable characters. Sugar, a fiercely intelligent young prostitute with a reputation for granting any wish or desire, is one of the most indomitable characters I’ve ever met, and one of the most emotionally complex. William Rackham, an easily cowed man with unearned pride, is at times both pitiful and fearsome. Agnes, Rackham’s wife, will make you want to go back in time and give every Victorian woman some feminist literature. There are so many more characters who make this book live and breathe every time I crack open the cover.

East, the book that made me who I am: East isn’t your typical YA novel. Based on the story East of the Sun and West of the Moon, East also borrows from Beauty and the Beast: it tells the story of a Norwegian girl whose faith in her family fails after she learns her superstitious mother has lied to her all her life about her “birth direction.” Birth direction is a spiritual belief that the direction in which one is facing at birth determines his or her fate. Furious with her family, Rose takes the opportunity to leave when an enchanted bear offers her family riches in return for kidnapping Rose. The character of Rose and the northern setting instilled in me a love of the North that has not abated since my early teen years. It has also inspired me to learn about Norse mythology, which has indelibly affected my writing and my interests.

Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke: Rilke is my favorite poet, save perhaps for Tennyson. This collection houses all of his major works, from The Duino Elegies to selections from his novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. This book has so many tabs sticking out of it from my years of reading and marking my favorite passages and lines that nearly every page is marked by now, and as an added bonus, this is the best translation of his work I’ve ever read.

I Capture the Castle, the book that makes me cry every time: Dodie Smith also must have read Austen. The plot mirrors Pride and Prejudice in subtle ways but with deliberate differences: two sisters meet two brothers (whereas P&P features close friends) and the ensuing love triangles and unrequited loves form the backdrop of a larger narrative of one girl’s coming-of-age. Cassandra Mortmain, the protagonist, is the younger sister of a close-knit, eccentric British family living in an old castle in the late 1940s. Cassandra is a charming and naïve narrator, yet she shows a strength and courage that are inspiring. During the novel, she grows in ways that are familiar to any woman who has experienced the joy and despair of falling in love for the first time.

The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn: The nearly definitive Anne Boleyn Bible. Eric Ives is a meticulous biographer and holds no [discernible] bias for or against Anne, but lets the facts speak for themselves. From his book, not only do I have an in-depth account of Anne’s major life events and a rough sketch of her complicated personality, but I also know exactly how much she spent on clothing, what the toddler Elizabeth I wore, and what her wardrobe expenditures would have totalled had she reigned for a lifetime rather than for her three short years. This book is a testament to the strong, intellectual force Anne truly was and does the best job in dispelling the “femme fatale” persona that Anne Boleyn has fallen victim to repeatedly.

A Room With A View, my favorite book: My favorite books seem to be populated with strong female characters, albeit the character of Lucy was not always so in my favorite Forster novel. Really, this book is a romp. The British Lucy Honeychurch and her stodgy old chaperone visit Italy intending to enjoy a prim, proper, tour-guided vacation and instead stumble upon a thoroughly uncouth George Emerson and his absolutely appalling father. George falls in love with Lucy and kisses her most inappropriately; Lucy, upon her return to England, finds it impossible to forget the dashing yet shy George Emerson and finds that Emerson has kindled desire within her. Just thinking about this book is enough to make me sound like the author of a comedy of manners, but that’s what this book is. It’s a book about stodgy old England and how Italy makes us lustful. And it’s a novel about defying societal expectations and following your heart.

Runners-up: Ella Enchantedwhich I read when I was nine years old; Inkheart, also a YA I read as a teen with a great protagonist and a lot of bookpornThe Virgin Suicides, which still haunts me every day; and Lolita, enough said.

So what’s your ideal bookshelf? Give it a try, and you can post a link to your own ideal bookshelf below.

"The Creation of Anne Boleyn" and Third-Wave Feminism: Susan Bordo’s New Look

Hever Castle portrait of a young Anne Boleyn

Hever Castle portrait of a young Anne Boleyn

I am something of an Anne Boleyn aficionado. Ever since I was eleven years old and my mother bought me a gold-edged book about Elizabeth I, I’ve been fascinated by her raven-haired, ill-fated mother. Who isn’t nowadays? With the introduction of Natalie Dormer’s blue-eyed Anne in The Tudors and Philippa Gregory’s controversial portrayal, it seems like everyone and their mothers are jumping on the Anne bandwagon. This is both a blessing (to learn about history and influential historical figures) and a curse (those who do not care to research take badly presented television and film characters as historical truth). That is why I was so hesitant to read Susan Bordo’s new sociological study on the many manifestations of Anne Boleyn that have surfaced for the past 500 years: I was afraid of another Anne portrayed a la The Other Boleyn Girl: inherently evil, incestuous, ruthless, and altogether fabricated.

I needn’t have worried. Bordo is an interesting mix of Internet Anne fan and educated, intellectual force; her background and education, along with her love of Anne, makes this book a tribute to a strong, intellectual woman many of us have come to adore. The first section of the book deals largely with Anne’s contemporaries and the Imperial ambassador Chapuys’ venomous portrayal of Anne that seeped into every  portrayal of her for the past five hundred years. This was the part of the book I wanted to skip; having read Weir, Ives, et cetera, I was more than familiar with the conflict of fact and fiction, interpretation and politicization of Anne’s image, and I was glad when the book morphed into a sociological history of Anne. This is where Bordo sparkles.

By giving examples of how Anne Boleyn has been portrayed for the past 500 years, Bordo comes close, closer than many a biographer or historian, to dissecting what it is that makes Anne Boleyn such a magnetic, seductive personality. Henry VIII divorced his wife of twenty-four years to be with Anne, and split apart the Catholic Church to marry her. In contemporary culture, the figure of Anne Boleyn is polarizing: there are those who hate her and subscribe to the notion that she was ruthless and venomous; and there are those who love her, enshrining her in the robe of early feminism and idolizing her. But Anne Boleyn and feminism are a troubling combination, as are all the moments when contemporary ideals are placed in the minds of historical figures. Anne Boleyn was not a feminist. Yet is there some strength to be gleaned from thinking she was? What do Anne Boleyn and “third-wave” feminism have in common?

Bordo admits in the book that “we always write from our own time.” (259) Thus, Anne has become a bit of a feminist role model for women today, as Bordo mentions in her book. In one chapter, she interviews a group of twenty-something women on their perception and opinion of Anne and finds their responses quite telling. One calls Anne “the original feminist”—with Bordo’s caveat that this particular brand of feminism is of the “’third-wave’ variety—a woman of contradictions who cannot be ‘lassoed’ or ‘pigeonholed,’ who skillfully walks the line between sexuality and sluttiness, playfulness and power. So if Anne were alive today, she’d be ‘provocative but not slutty.’ At Oktoberfest, ‘she would be flirtatious, magnetic.’ But then she’d leave the guys dumbfounded by going home alone,” Bordo writes. (250) A majority of the interviewees took the same stance, refusing to characterize Anne in simple terms, and echoing contemporary feminist ideals that Anne, in her life, did live by.

If for no other reason, this is why Bordo’s book deserves a read. As an Anne admirer, I find her story one that is both tragic and inspiring, complicated and arresting. No, Anne was not a feminist and to say so would be anachronistic, but one may learn about modern feminism by studying her, rejecting The Tudors (in part) and The Other Boleyn Girl, among dozens of others, and learning about her actions, motivations, and weaknesses. Anne Boleyn is an example of that long-abhorred virgin/whore dichotomy; she has been vilifed as a slut and homewrecker or else championed because of her self-proclaimed virtue. What she has rarely been considered, however, is a human, except by those who have studied her. One interviewee stated, “It’s far too simplistic to define her as either an ‘angel’ or a ‘devil.’ (251) She was an intelligent, educated, highly sophisticated woman, who certainly possessed many flaws, significant among them being considerable arrogance, but who was far too complex to be dismissed as simply a ‘bad’ or ‘good’ character…” (251-52) This is the pull Anne has for me as well, a woman of contradictions and flaws, who is nevertheless empowering without requiring a rejection of femininity. It seems I am simply one of the many who have commandeered Anne Boleyn as a role model for feminism, and anachronistic or not, five hundred years later, she’s relevant to today’s young feminists.

References

Bordo, S. (2013) The Creation of Anne Boleyn. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.