In England, Hilary Mantel’s award-winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are now on stage, and with the productions comes a revival of “lethal Anne” (The Daily Mail,) described in various reviews as a “sharp-toothed vixen” (The Guardian)”vile and manipulative” (The Telegraph) and so “spitefully ambitious” that “one feels any king would be justified in beheading” her (The Morning Star.) She’s a bit player in Mantel’s fictional world, which stars Thomas Cromwell, but a familiar one. From the letters of Anne’s earliest political enemies to Philippa Gregory’s sister from hell in The Other Boleyn Girl, the lethal, calculating social climber has been our default Anne Boleyn, who—like Freddy Kruger in the Halloween thrillers—just won’t die.
Does history bear this portrayal out? Hardly. The only “evidence” that Anne was a ruthless schemer comes from the poison pen of her political enemies—most notably, Eustace Chapuys, ambassador to Spain and a fierce defender of both Katherine and the Catholic Church. Mantel’s fictional portrayal of Anne—“as seen through the eyes of Cromwell”—is just that: a novelistic invention, not born out by the facts. Cromwell, by all accounts, saw Anne as a confederate in the reformist cause until long after the time period of Wolf Hall. Yet there she is in Wolf Hall, a “calculating being” with “a cold slick brain at work behind her hungry black eyes.”
Just what is so enduringly appealing about malicious Anne? The “femme fatale” is a long-standing archetype in many cultures, of course, and Anne is only one of many: Eve, Delilah, Salome, Jezebel, the sirens, Medea, Cleopatra, Morgan le Fay, Vampira, the Dragon Lady, and all their various incarnations and evil sisters in mythology, novels, fin-de-siècle painting, film noir, and television soaps. Camille Paglia, in Sexual Personae, follows Freud and Nietzsche and argues that she is “one of the most mesmerizing of sexual personae,” who will always have a cultural presence. And there is no denying that there is something delicious about characters that act out the mean girl (or, for men, the imagined girlfriend from hell) in all of us. Like Scarlett O’Hara, lethal Anne discharges parts of the self that most of us are afraid to put into public scrutiny.
What seems most striking today is not so much that lethal Anne Boleyn still exists in popular culture, but that we no longer see her as a suspect sexist stereotype whose reality lies in the cultural unconscious rather than the facts of history. If a bug-eyed black rapist appeared in a contemporary novel or play, at least some commentators would squirm over the reproduction of dangerous and ill-founded racist mythology. Nowadays, it’s ho-hum over equally cartoonish sexual “personae.”
Actually, it’s worse than ho-hum. To call out sexual stereotyping is derided as “politically correct,” old-fashioned, and chip-on-the-shoulder feminism. When I remarked (to a writer who will remain un-named) how cartoonishly fatale Mantel’s Anne seemed, she chastised me for “expecting Cromwell to behave like a twentieth century feminist.” No, it’s rather that I expected as talented a writer as Mantel—and one who says she operated as the “history police” as her novels were adapted into plays—to press her imagination into the service of the historical Cromwell’s relationship with Anne rather than sprucing up the same-old mean girl and putting her in Cromwell’s mind.
Does this mean that I view “the real” Anne Boleyn as a helpless innocent with no ambitions or nasty thoughts? That description would apply to no one over the age of one. And actually, we know very little about what Anne’s character or motivations were really like, for Henry, who loved to re-write history along his choice of wife, destroyed her letters, portraits, and just about everything he could lay his hands on that testified to Anne’s existence. What remains is a patched together narrative that variously reflects the biases of staunch enemies or idealizing rehabilitators of her image. The fact is, however, that she would not have to be so constantly defended if we didn’t keep returning to the default vixen. Surely the choice between “victim” and “villainess,” while it has dominated the history of representations of Anne, is a silly one that it is time to resist.