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.

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).


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

"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.


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