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G W Bernard – Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions

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Plausible, plausible, plausible, says the author who bases his book on a hunch.

Publisher: Yale University Press
Pages: 195
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-300-17089-4
First Published: 2010
Date Reviewed: 2nd July 2011
Rating: 2.5/5

Bernard believes that Anne Boleyn was guilty of the accusations of adultery made against her and despite the vast work done by other historians he is going to tell you why he believes he is right.

If my descriptions sound damning it is only because Bernard is absolutely self-righteous in his work. I was fully prepared to accept his opinions because, although I have read a lot of books that deal with the possibility of Anne being innocent, I recognise, as do others, that there is a chance she was not. However the way in which Bernard has written his book is intolerable.

Bernard mocks other historians a great deal, saying that they are wrong for such and such a reason, and at times not even properly referencing who he is discussing, which is very clever because it means he can escape vilification. He also repeats himself a lot at times by paraphrasing himself, and what makes this so glaringly obvious to the reader is that it comes one page after the first mention. There is very much the sense that he wants to ram his opinion down the reader’s throat.

The author, when it suits him, does not think of things in terms of human nature. For example, he says that Anne wouldn’t have hated Wolsey because of the gratitude she showed him in her letters. He doesn’t even ponder the idea that she could have been lying, which is preposterous because it is all too common for someone to pretend to a person they hate that in actual fact they like them. Anne Boleyn’s position, before Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, was unstable despite her elevation, and thus she would have had to be careful when dealing with Wolsey, whether or not Henry himself did not like the man. Of course Bernard may be correct, but he should be open to the possibilities whether they suit his story or not. Interestingly, as I will cover in more detail in a moment, he later makes the idea of lying crucial to his conviction.

The approach to the actual point of the book (which comes within 60 pages of it’s end, no less), suggests that the rest of it was pointless and that Bernard only wrote it all because it would be expected of him.

It will now be suggested that Anne and at least some of those accused with her were guilty.

That he wishes for fame via notoriety is clear.

And the source that is key to his argument is a poem – the sort of writing that is widely known to be creative and to take liberties in order to tell a good story. Bernard says that to say Anne’s proclaiming of herself as innocent meant she was innocent is a step too far – again he is discrediting the work of his peers. Surely what is actually a step too far is to accuse her of lying, especially when she was in the tower approaching her execution and crying her heart out. Again, yes, Bernard may be right, but he could have used a bit more tact and compassion. He could also do with a bit more common sense when he deals with Mark Smeaton’s confession and says that Smeaton wouldn’t have spoken of Anne’s adultery if there hadn’t been any truth in it – this despite the fact that the young man in question could have been faced with more torture the longer he proclaimed he knew nothing, and could quite possibly have been under the impression that to speak ill of others might have saved him.

Bernard ends by launching an outburst of scorn at people who make historic characters their role models. The inappropriateness and utter irrelevance of this scorn to his book is further highlighted when he adds that we shouldn’t look up to current celebrities either. And his last attempt to laugh at believers of Anne’s innocence is to mock a website devoted to Anne Boleyn – for which there is no reference in the chapter itself nor in the bibliography.

When I began this book I was sceptical because Bernard was challenging widely held beliefs of which my own opinion is a part – but I was happy to remain objective. However, if a historian is not going to be objective themselves and is instead going to make fun of what I and many others believe, and with little evidence to support it, then I am not going to welcome his opinion.

Bernard’s book has a few very interesting ideas that break with tradition and are worth considering further, but they are buried under a mass of hate and flimsy points of view. The author succeeds in doing the very thing he complains of others – basing opinion on scant information – and the fact that he ends by saying “it remains my own hunch…” is unacceptable.

I would not recommend this book to people unfamiliar with the well-known views of Anne Boleyn because Bernard simply does not provide a good enough case for his views to be listened to, and because the reader would come to the fray with only badly informed ideas. If, on the other hand, you are familiar with Anne Boleyn, then you might find it interesting if nothing else.

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August 19, 2011, 8:15 pm

I’m interested in Anne Boleyn but I don’t think I would want to read this book. Of course all historians will have their own ideas and theories about what happened, but they really should try to stay objective and respect other people’s opinions too. Sorry this book was so disappointing!


September 1, 2011, 5:38 pm

Ergh. I’m fascinated with the Tudors, absolutely love learning about them, but I’ll take a pass on this. I hate historians who make out Anne Boleyn and her daughter, Elizabeth, to be nothing more than a sillyheart, a flirt and a fool … but this sounds just as bad.



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