There's an obvious downside to pursuing a project about representations of a single person: the story always ends the same way. Eventually, you hope against hope that Anne Boleyn might keep her head, just this once--not out of any particular sympathy for her position, but because you begin to yearn for a little variety in the plotline.* In any event, about fifteen novels in, the potential directions for the final article have begun to crystallize. We have representations of Anne, and then we have the questions those representations raise.
One issue involves method. Theoretical approaches to historical fiction abound; discussions of actual research methodologies are remarkably scarce. How, for example, does one pursue the relationship between historical fiction and contemporary historiography? When thinking about historical fiction in relationship to historiography, which historical works are actually important? My religious novelists, for example, are usually not au courant; their choice of historical sources tends to depend on their allegiance to evangelism, a particular denomination, and so forth, with certain authors acting as shibboleths. One does not expect to find Grace Stebbing citing John Lingard--nor, for that matter, Lady Georgiana Fullerton citing J. H. Merle D'Aubigne. In other words, contemporary historiography may make itself felt only on the margins on a historical novel, as when evangelical novelists try to reassert "traditional" narratives of the Reformation against the revisionist incursions of Catholic or Anglo-Catholic historians.
But it's also important to remember that while some historical novelists clearly see themselves as doing full-fledged historical research (e.g., Mary Renault), many are simply trying to do enough research. Enter Anne Boleyn. When last I wrote, I noted that the links between these novels--mostly historical romances--and the actual scholarship on Anne were sometimes difficult to locate. It's now become even clearer that the Anne of the historical romances has become a self-perpetuating entity. We have a "received" Anne, who is given to hysteria, often sexually frigid (albeit flirtatious for reasons of policy), and improperly ambitious, but nevertheless innocent of the charges against her. (Only Philippa Gregory's Anne is actually guilty on all counts.) The occasional deviations from this Anne--either Annes who behave relatively sensibly or Annes who have sex lives apart from Henry VIII--cannot be explained by reference to historical scholarship; they're products of narrative necessity. Similarly, the explanations for Anne's post-Elizabeth fall from favor, aside from those offered in Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl, don't track those of the historians. E. Barrington's Anne Boleyn, for example, accuses Anne's French nurse, Simonette, of partly masterminding Anne's downfall (it's a pretty anti-Gallican novel), and turns the usually hapless Mark Smeaton into a goat-like, demonic figure. Moreover, when authors provide bibliographies, they often show reliance on antiquated material (Agnes Strickland, for example) or ignore "obvious" sources. I've yet to see anyone cite Paul Friedmann, and yet his 1884 biography of Anne Boleyn was the standard book on the subject until Eric W. Ives came along. At one level, then, this article will be something of a cautionary tale: the contexts for historical fiction may not be what you think they are.
And then there are problems relating both to narrative structure and to popular ideas of historical agency. We're in the world of historical romances, after all, and historical romances usually involve, er, romance--specifically, the quest for full-blooded, whole-hearted, and monogamous romance. True Love (or Twu Wuv?) must rule. Obviously, this sort of generic imperative poses certain obstacles for a novel about Anne Boleyn, given such inconveniences as political machinations, Catherine of Aragon, Henry's notoriously wandering eye, Jane Seymour, and the minor problem of Anne winding up rather reduced in height. So far, all of the novels have imposed some very twentieth-century notions about marriage for love, public vs. private behavior, and domestic space as an ideally depoliticized "private sphere" on sixteenth-century maneuverings that firmly resist any such scripts. I'm not an early modernist, but I cannot see how Henry VIII's married life can be rewritten as a "private" affair; all of his machinations in that area make hash of our own public/private distinctions. If anything, "the personal is the political" take on new meaning when applied to his relationship with Anne. Some romance novels, like The Other Boleyn Girl, Blaze Wyndham, and The Dark Rose, resolve this generic difficulty by representing Anne's story as overtly anti-romance: Anne goes down the road to ruin, but the real heroine finds true love.
If we're thinking about the historical romance as one mode of popular historical imagination, then, how does romance qua genre reconfigure "what's at stake" in Anne's story? For example, all of these novels, even the earliest and/or most religious, are effectively "post-Christian": none of them represents a world in which Catholicism might be both omnipresent and taken for granted. Characters tend to be either saints (literally and figuratively) or the equivalent of Thomas Huxley (somewhat early in the historical record, to be sure); moreover, aside from Catherine, the holy characters play an extremely small role. We see little of either Thomas More or John Fisher. With just two or three exceptions, Anne is always represented as being a skeptic with a purely opportunistic interest in Lutheranism; Henry VIII, however, is usually diagnosed with a bad case of Bulstrodism.** In other words, the novels represent the "secret matter" as a problem of desire and a problem of politics, but run aground when they try to get at its importance as a problem of religion--even though the religion can hardly be separated from the politics. (Incidentally, all of the novels so far have been at least moderately pro-Protestant; even the ones which don't subscribe to broad-brush denunciations of pre-Reformation Catholicism still associate "authentic" religiosity with the Reformers and their followers.***)
At the same time, the novelists are acutely conscious of the divorce's momentous importance for English national history. They thus have to balance hindsight with the characters' own cluelessness--or, alternatively, they grant the major players some awareness of the importance of their decisions. A number of authors, from Francis Hackett on, try to write in a sort of secular prophetic mode: characters either inadvertently predict their own downfall (but Elizabeth I's success) or consciously imagine future responses to their behavior. I'm wondering to what extent this strategy is meant to somehow mitigate the narrative's tragic effect.
And so, onward. Still looking to finish up the novels before the beginning of fall.
*--Actually, there is a novella in which Anne stays alive: Nancy Kress' "And Wild for to Hold."
**--"There may be coarse hypocrites, who consciously affect beliefs and emotions for the sake of gulling the world, but Bulstrode was not one of them. He was simply a man whose desires had been stronger than his theoretic beliefs, and who had gradually explained the gratification of his desires into satisfactory agreement with those beliefs." (Middlemarch, ch. LXI).
***--There are a couple of evangelical Anne Boleyn novels out there, but they're further down on the reading list.