Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions by G W Bernard – Two New Reviews

Posted By on March 30, 2011

I reviewed historian G W Bernard’s “Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions” when it first came out last year – click here to read my review – so I was interested to read two new reviews of it, one by my friend Gareth Russell over at his blog “Confessions of a Ci-Devant” and another by Susan Walters Schmid in “History Review”.

Gareth Russell’s Thoughts

You can read Gareth’s review for yourself in his post Fatal Delusions, but although Gareth does highlight the positives about this book, he criticises Bernard for

  • His “clumsy” attempt at arguing Anne Boleyn’s guilt.
  • The errors in his book – Anne’s execution date, Thomas Boleyn’s title, Charles V’s relationship to Catherine of Aragon), and the confusion between Anne Boleyn’s mother and her aunt.
  • His heavy reliance on the poem by Lancelot de Carles to prove Anne’s possible guilt.
  • His conclusion in which he likens today’s fascination with Anne Boleyn to people being obsessed with a celebrity.
  • The Anne Boleyn who emerges from Bernard’s book – Gareth writes “Despite the glib subtitle he or his editor chose for this biography, it is not clear that G.W. Bernard can understand that there was ever anything particularly attractive about Anne Boleyn. The Anne who emerges from Bernard’s narrative is a vapid, self-centred idiot, either too stupid or too reckless to have exerted any kind of political or religious influence. There is nothing special or remarkable about her beyond her physical beauty, certainly nothing to justify the fascination with her during her lifetime, much less in the five centuries since. And yet, it is this very fascination which poses the ultimate question of Bernard’s Boleyn: if she really was as unremarkable as he suggests, then what was all the fuss about?”
  • “Bernard’s attempts to make the facts fit his theory, rather than vice-versa, and to prove that his controversial theory concerning Anne’s downfall is worthy of the same academic consideration as those it is challenging.”

Susan Walters Schmid’s Thoughts

In “History Review” Issue 69 March 2011, Dr Susan Walters Schmid, an American independent scholar and freelance editor, has written a comprehensive review of G W Bernard’s book. It is an excellent article and is more than just a review, it is also a rundown of Anne Boleyn’s life, so try to get your hands on a copy.

Schmid’s main criticism is Bernard’s inability to take into account bias in sources, his “eclectic speculations and his apparent confusion” regarding the poem written by Lancelot de Carles and his heavy reliance on that poem, which is a summary of Anne Boleyn’s life and death. Schmid writes:-

“Early in Fatal Attractions Bernard refers to Carle as Anne’s ‘biographer’ and he often frames quotations from the poem in a way that lends authority to it, and to Carle himself, that arguably neither has.”

Schmid points out that Lancelot de Carles, secretary to the French ambassador to England, intended the poem only to be read by one person, the French ambassador, and:-

“he makes clear at the outset that he is repeating what he has heard from a variety of sources during the time he has been in England, but he does not name his sources, address the truth of his information, correct a number of factual errors he could have checked, or claimed to have witnessed any of the events he recounts. These circumstances combine to make it reasonable to question the reliability of the poem’s content, making it surely unwise to give this source too much credibility, especially without a greater understanding of the poem and its author.”

Schmid goes on to point out that although there are thirteen extant copies of the poem in existence, two printed ones and eleven manuscripts, “except for the two printed copies, which are identical to each other, none is identical to any of the others” and “there is no documentary evidence to suggest that any of them is Carle’s original”. Also, the published version did not appear until 1545 and we do not know that de Carles approved it. Bernard uses the version chosen by George Ascoli, the French literary scholar, in 1920 as the one he thought to be closest to the original but Schmid says that Bernard makes a mistake when he describes this version as an edited copy of the printed version and that it is actually “a verbatim transcript of the manuscript version in the Bibliothèque Nationale” and he does not address the fact that editing and translation can “affect the accuracy and usefulness of the poem as a source.”

Schmid concludes that those interested in Anne Boleyn should familiarise themselves with Bernard’s arguments “if only to understand their weak points” and that he “disappoints by not demonstrating a thorough knowledge of the context of the poem and thus sound reasons why we should believe it as evidence.” Bernard uses the poem to corroborate his theory that the Countess of Worcester was the woman who provided evidence of Anne Boleyn’s adultery, yet de Carles does not name the woman and, more importantly, “he is only repeating what he has heard from unnamed others.” In other words, the poem is just gossip which cannot be relied on as evidence.

Conclusion

I completely agree with Gareth and Schmid regarding Bernard’s reliance on the poem written by Lancelot de Carles. As Schmid points out in her article, “the historian of Anne Boleyn must draw from a complex body of information” and not rely on one source or have a narrow perspective. Bernard’s book is great in that it offers a fresh perspective but I find it frustrating in its narrow view of Anne Boleyn.

I’d also like to mention a few points that jumped out at me:-

  • Bernard’s use of labels – As I said in my review of the book, I, like Eric Ives, believe that it is far too early in the English Reformation to label English people as “Protestant”, “Lutheran” or “Evangelical”. G W Bernard seems to want to label and pigeon-hole Anne and just because she doesn’t clearly fit the label of “Lutheran”, he makes out that she was actually a conservative Catholic and that her religious position was based on “self-interest and ambition”, not a personal faith. No! Anne Boleyn clearly had reformed views, although still within the Catholic faith at this time, and, as Eric Ives points out, “It is, indeed, hard to deny Anne a personal faith. Apart from the Bible in which, significantly, we know she had an interest in Paul’s epistles, the works she read and collected are certainly redolent of a Christianity of commitment and not of routine observance.”
  • George Boleyn – Poor George! Although Bernard doesn’t portray him as a rapist, wife-beater or libertine, he concludes that George was “so committed a gamer and sportsman” that he would not have had time to translate the religious manuscripts that other historians believe he did for Anne and that “Rochford’s interests were more those of a courtier-nobleman than of a scholar”. I don’t really see why George couldn’t be a courtier and a scholar, other people managed it!
  • Bernard’s view that Anne was simply following Henry’s lead as far as religion was concerned – No, she was passionate about her faith and I believe that she was far more reformed in outlook than her husband whose Church of England was really to be the Catholic Church with him as its head, rather than the Pope, at that time anyway.
  • Bernard’s ‘dig’ at Anne Boleyn websites, the fascination we have with Anne and the women who see Anne Boleyn as a role model – I’m not quite sure why he felt the need to mention this at all and I can see no harm in being fascinated by an historical figure or admiring one. If nobody was interested in Anne then his book really wouldn’t sell!

Anyway, I do believe that G W Bernard’s book is worth a read and I would recommend it as I think it is important to take on board all views of Anne Boleyn, but I would say that the best book for those studying Anne Boleyn’s life and downfall is The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives as that covers all aspects of her life, her rise, her downfall and death.

Sources

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