Earlier this week, Erin Lyndal Martin interviewed Susan for a piece that appeared in the online magazine “Bitch.” While only a few of the questions were used, we knew that many would be curious about the full interview. Enjoy!
What did you not get to include in your book that you wanted to?
There are lots of interesting books and movies that I didn’t discuss, but my goal was to focus on the cultural “highlights.” After six years of touring the historical, literary and media-depictions of Anne, I think I had a pretty good sense of what I wanted to include and what needed to be put to the side in the interests of the narrative. I could have written much more, for example (and now that I think about it, at one point I did!) on representations of “the bitch” in contemporary culture. But it started to feel like a whole other book, so with some sadness but no regret I cut it out.
I was struck by your use of the terms “erasure” and “revision” to describe the period after Anne’s execution and before Jane Seymour’s arrival. Those terms highlight the way Anne is a narrative (or a set of narratives) in addition to being a historical figure. How did you choose those terms?
That’s a great observation, and really gets at one of the main ideas of the book, which is that Anne Boleyn is, in many ways, less a historical figure than a set of (ever-changing) cultural images and narratives. Of course, she actually existed, she actually gave birth to Elizabeth, she actually was beheaded. But we know so little about her personality and character that hasn’t been filtered through the tongues and pens of enemies (and some friends), have virtually nothing in her own words (I think I will sooner forgive Henry for beheading her than for destroying her letters) (JK), and the myths, stereotypes, and encrusted narratives have virtually swamped the little that can be justified through the historical record. She is, in many ways, a missing person—but one about whom we think we know so, so much. In the end, what we think we know winds up revealing more about “us” than about Anne herself.
Do you believe the theory about Henry and Mary being involved? If so, why didn’t Henry marry Mary?
I do believe that they were involved. But whether or not he was involved with Mary, we know that no other mistresses before Anne were considered as a prospective wife (including Elizabeth Blount, with whom he had a male child.) The tantalizing question, actually, is not so much “why not them?” but “why Anne?” I devout a whole chapter to speculating (because that’s all that we can do) about that.
What fictionalized depiction do you like best?
Hands down, my favorite fictional Anne is the Boleyn of “Anne of the Thousand Days”, if for no other reason than for her speech to Henry in the Tower as she is awaiting execution. It never happened, of course—it’s total invention—but it should have! As far as historical fiction goes, I don’t have one favorite; I love the way Anne changes in them through the centuries. A few of the authors I have special affection for: Margaret Barnes, Mary Hastings Bradley, Jean Plaidy, Robin Maxwell, Nell Gavin, Norah Lofts.
What is your favorite thing about Boleyn?
I’ve always been attracted to women who seem to have been misunderstood in their own times, but come to “speak” to later generations. Anne was surely one of those women!! But if I had to name one quality that is most appealing to me, it would have to be what seems to have been an ironic, somewhat “dark,” and highly attuned sense of how political her world was. We only have fragments that suggest this—her sharp, skeptical reactions to Constable Kingston’s mealy-mouthed reassurances in the tower, and her amazing trial speech, in which she confessed only to not having had “perfect humility” with Henry—but these tiny bits speak volumes to me about what set her off from other women at court. She wasn’t a great beauty (the media to the contrary) but she seems to have been so conscious, and (by her own admission) so unwilling to remain silent about what she felt and thought. And from her trial speech, it appears that she knew that was one of the main reasons for her fall.
You talk briefly of Henry being the “spare heir.” How do you think that influenced his reign?
Henry was raised in a highly protective atmosphere—and mostly by his mother (unlike Arthur, who was reared to be king from the get-go). It was a stifling upbringing in many ways—for everyone was highly aware that should Arthur die, Henry would have to step forward, and they weren’t about to subject Henry to any of life’s dangers that could be avoided. It was also a much more “feminized” upbringing than Arthur got. That is, more emphasis on literature, poetry, the traditions of courtly love, much more time devoted to reading, thinking. So you had this very interesting combination of qualities come to the fore when he ultimately became king. His suppressed “masculine” energy burst forth full force—he was tremendously athletic, impulsive, risk-taking. But at the same time, he cultivated the friendship of More, Erasmus, and other humanist intellectuals, wrote music, loved learning, and had a highly romantic streak. It was a pretty winning combination—for a while!!!
You also mention Henry being more egalitarian than his contemporaries (if such a word can be used). In what other ways was Henry different than other men of his time?
I don’t actually use that word, for I don’t think he was egalitarian according to any modern understanding of that word. What I do suggest is that he may have had fewer of the standard misogynist ideas about the inferior intellectual nature of women, and less knee-jerk aversion to women’s advice, guidance, etc. And I suggest that this may have been the result of being raised by a very strong woman (who operated almost as a single parent with him.) The fact that he was so attracted to a woman like Anne, whom many other men at court saw as an interfering harpy, suggests that at least at this stage in his life he didn’t have as limited an idea of a woman’s “place.” As far as other differences from men of his time, that would require much more room than I have here, as so many aspects of his life made him “different”: the fact of being king, for one, and then too (as I argue in the book), he had a very black and white view of things, especially as he got older. Perhaps it developed as a result of being constantly deferred to, perhaps it was simply his personality type, perhaps (as Kyra Kramer suggests in “Blood Will Tell”) he suffered from a genetic disorder that radically affected his moods. Whatever the source, in Henry’s world, you were either for him or against him. No in-between. When he loved you, the sun beamed down on you. But cross him even a little bit, and very threatening clouds would form. And the weather could change in an instant!
Is the feminist appropriation of Anne Boleyn dangerous in any way?
I’m not sure what that would mean. “Danger” seems a bit strong a term to me. I do think that idealizing anyone to the point of enshrining them, whether for feminist reasons or otherwise, is ultimately to do them a disservice. For eventually, there’s going to be backlash against what others will see as an ideological bias—and then human complexity will yield to a battle between the “fors” and the “againsts.” Indeed, that’s largely what has happened with Anne. Her catholic enemies demonized her. Then her protestant “rehabilitators” turned her into a martyr. Early historians, wanting to de-sanctify her, went too far in to the other direction and—relying largely on highly biased documents from Anne’s time–turned her into a scheming, ambitious temptress. Which naturally has provoked the ire of feminists. And on and on it goes.
How much influence do you think Anne or her politics had on Elizabeth?
I’m not qualified to answer this question, as my knowledge of Elizabeth is limited. But without even knowing anything about Elizabeth, one can safely say that Anne had an enormous influence on Elizabeth’s life simply by playing such a pivotal role in the Protestant Reformation. Beyond that, I would refer interested readers to Tracy Borman’s book “Elizabeth’s Women,” which has a chapter on Anne.
You get into the age-old question of Henry and Anne’s sex life, like which of them said no and held out the longest. Do you think that matters in a larger sense?
We will never know, and to the extent that the same waiting game would have been played out no matter who “held out,” it really doesn’t make a difference—to history. Where it does make a difference is in our perception of Anne. The standard narrative has her withholding her favors in order to manipulate Henry into marriage. Obviously, if it was Henry who wanted to wait, that scenario goes out the window. My own view is that they both were invested in waiting until they were close to marriage, so their children would unquestionably be legitimate. In his letters, Henry was quite amorous—but it was in the tradition of courtly wooing to be quite seductive with words without necessarily urging any action. We don’t have Anne’s letters, but there’s no evidence beyond Henry’s unfulfilled ardor (which doesn’t prove anything) that she was behaving in a “tempting” fashion. That’s all part of the mythology, much of which can be laid at the feet of the “anti-Anne” faction at court (and later.)