This week, in my search for Anne Boleyn-themed viewing material that I had not yet seen, I ended up borrowing (from our amazing local library) a BBC production of Philippa Gregory‘s The Other Boleyn Girl. (Which is also available on YouTube here.) Many of you are doubtless familiar with the Hollywood adaptation of this story, featuring Natalie Portman. (I watched this again recently too, and to my surprise found that the theatrical release doesn’t actually make a whole lot of sense if you aren’t already familiar with the novel; this must be due to bad editing and too many deleted scenes, as the plotline–which was fine in the book–just does not hang together well.) I have to admit, although I love Philippa Gregory, especially her books about the queens involved in the Wars of the Roses (aka “the Cousins’ War”), I am not a fan of The Other Boleyn Girl. Gregory does seem to have a distinctly pro-Catholic bias in her novels, and when writing about the Reformation, that bias translates into an anti-Anne bias. In The Other Boleyn Girl, Mary is the good girl who compromises her purity for the sake of her family’s ambition, then ends up falling in love with the king despite herself, only to be foisted from his bed by the heartless Anne, who coldly connives her way to the throne and stops just short of committing incest with her own brother in a last-ditch effort to conceive the male child that would have saved her life. (Gregory’s treatment of Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth the great Protestant Queen, in later books is not terribly flattering either.) In historical reality, on the other hand, Mary was more of a good-time girl than a “good” girl (the King of France, one of her many conquests prior to Henry, referred to her as his “English mare,”) and Anne was very likely a virgin at the time of her marriage, although on the topic of whether or not she actually loved Henry there are as many opinions as there are writers to offer them. (The Lady herself says that she did, and does, which makes her story all the more tragic.)
However, my point for this post was not to debate the historical merits of Gregory’s novel, but rather to call attention to the casting of Anne in the BBC’s adaptation of it. Mary Boleyn, known to contemporaries as “the beautiful daughter” in the family, is played in the BBC film by a lovely yet real-looking English actress; in other words, no one in the same league as Scarlett Johannson. Along the same lines, Anne is cast as a completely ordinary-looking girl with a pleasant voice, flirtatious manner, and fatally tempestuous personality.
I’m sure the BBC received some criticism for it at the time the production aired, however their casting was perfectly spot-on as far as I’m concerned. The real-life Anne was certainly no Natalie Dormer, nor even a Natalie Portman; according to contemporaries she was, in fact, fairly ordinary-looking: short and slight of build, with her best features being her graceful, famously “little” neck, long dark hair, and flashing, dark, expressive eyes. Her irresistible attraction to men, and the power she was able to wield over Henry VIII for nearly ten years, came from something within her quite apart from her appearance. What was this special quality of hers? Like her love life, this was a topic hotly debated by her contemporaries and is still a lively topic of discussion among historians today.
If you are a godspouse (or the significant other of a god), chances are good that you’ve been accused at some point by others of considering yourself to be a “speshul snowflake.” Perhaps this has even been a question you’ve tormented yourself with: “Why me? What makes me so special? Who the hell do I think I am?” Anne seems to have been born knowing exactly who she was. She was not actually a nobody, even though by Tudor standards she wasn’t anyone special. Like all of Henry’s other wives, she was descended from Edward III; her father was a lowly country squire (who advanced in royal service quickly due to his own efforts, quite apart from any benefits later derived from being the Queen’s father), but her mother was a member of the powerful Howard clan, heroes of Henry VII’s wars against the Scotts. Thanks to her family connections, in childhood, Anne was educated alongside the cream of Europe’s nobility (including the future Holy Roman Emperor Charles V). In her teens, she was sent to France to serve as a maid of honor to the French queen, and during her years there French culture, style and manners became so deeply ingrained in her that people later described her as more a Frenchwoman than an Englishwoman. Like any highborn lady of her time, she trained in dance, voice and in the lute, but she had a natural aptitude for these arts and, to Henry’s chagrin, was far more talented musically than her royal husband. To round out her education, she became an expert horsewoman and markswoman (on the bow, of course), was skilled in needlepoint and sewing, and was thoroughly conversant not only in the liberal and poetic arts, especially the courtly love tradition of Romance literature, but also the theological arguments that were a particular favorite of her Oxford-educated brother George.
Yet despite all of these considerable assets, from the point of view of someone like her rival Catherine of Aragon (with her long and ancient lineage), Anne certainly was an upstart, a cheeky nobody who should never have been able to steal her own husband–and crown!–right out from under her royal nose. Anne was no great beauty, she came from no extraordinary family or lineage, yet somehow she was extraordinary, and many people of her own time–from Henry VIII to King Francis of France, from the poet Thomas Wyatt, to the beleaguered Queen Catherine herself–recognized it, even though few could define the reason for it. She looked like an ordinary girl, she should have been an ordinary girl who lived out an ordinary life in the Kentish countryside–yet somehow she was anything but ordinary; somehow this slender raven-haired girl who was not even particularly beautiful went from maid of honor to queen and left behind her–in place of the son Henry lusted after–a girl-child who became one of the greatest monarchs in English history.
Why does Anne still exert such a powerful fascination for us even today? She was fiercely reviled in her own time for being a nobody who dared to capture the heart of the King of England. Today she is loved even more fiercely…for being a nobody who dared to capture the heart of the King of England. Anne has not changed; we have. While the people of her own time were outraged that an ordinary girl, the daughter of a mere knight, managed to step beyond her “allotted station” in life to become someone extraordinary, we are captivated by her for precisely the same reasons; we adore stories of the underdog making good, of Cinderella finding and winning her prince. And although Anne’s story does have a tragic ending, at its heart it is a Cinderella story of sorts, except that in Anne’s case all of the magic came from within her own self; she knew who she was and where she was going, and she worked her own transformation, no fairy godmother needed.
And this brings me back to what we, as the spouses and beloveds of our various gods, can take away from Anne’s story. Few of us come from wealthy or privileged families, most of us are not descended from royalty in any immediate or traceable way, only a handful have advanced degrees or high-powered careers, and although many of us are attractive or even beautiful (especially to our divine partners), I have yet to see any supermodel or movie star godspouses; the vast majority of us are fairly ordinary-looking–pretty like the real-life Mary Boleyn, perhaps, but not like Scarlett Johannson. Fortunately for us though, this is all besides the point, because each of us has our own special magic, our own “something” that we were born with, or endowed with by our gods, or otherwise chosen to carry forth into the world. Anne’s lesson is that anyone can think themselves ordinary and rise up to become someone extraordinary; anyone can defy the expectations of the world around them and win the heart of a king–or a god. But as Anne herself discovered, in order to reach our fullest potential, we can’t rely on the judgments of others, can’t rely on our mundane acquaintances or co-religionists to weigh our relative merits and dictate our path. We each carry our own special magic, but in order for that to really work for us we have to heed it, and heed the Word of our Beloved gods, rather than allowing ourselves to become distracted by the chorus of voices (including our own) that are always ready and waiting to put us back in our place.
Who the hell do we think we are? Like Anne, each of us needs to be ready with an answer to that question. And it had better be a cheeky, upstart sort of answer, because when you have the love of a king–or a god–the reply that seems to come too readily to so many of us (“nobody special”) is at best a cop-out, and at worst a blasphemy.