|Actress Scarlett Johansson as Mary Boleyn in the motion picture The Other Boleyn Girl.|
The late feminist activist Andrea Dworkin once remarked that for a woman to be "good" in our history books, she has to conform to the same criteria set in our fairy tales. She has to be like Sleeping Beauty - quiet and quiescent to the point of unconsciousness. She has to be the passive object of events, not their agent or initiator. Shortly after the release of her successful novel The Other Boleyn Girl, the British author Philippa Gregory was asked by BBC History Magazine to write an article on her personal historical heroine. She chose Anne Boleyn's elder sister, Mary, and in doing so, I was reminded of Andrea Dworkin's theory.
Why on earth should Mary Boleyn qualify as anyone's historical heroine, out of all the hundreds of magnificent women who have peopled the pages of history? One need not look too far in Mary Boleyn's own gene pool to find women who actually did something with their lives. In contrast, the historical Mary Boleyn did absolutely nothing remarkable, either by the standards of her own generation or ours. Even Mary's decision to marry for love to a man beneath her in the class system is not unique, despite her fan's insistence that it was - her near-contemporaries such as Katherine Willoughby, Dowager Duchess of Suffolk; Jane Grey's mother, Frances; Queen Katherine Parr; Anne Seymour, Dowager Duchess of Somerset; Cecily of York; and Anne, Baroness Bourchier, all did the same thing. Yes, marrying for love and in defiance of social convention is emotionally admirable, but surely to God, it doesn't automatically make the bride as heroic?
Even in The Other Boleyn Girl, which is actually one of several modern novels in which Mary takes centre-stage but by far the most commercially successful, Mary Boleyn comes across as an almighty drip of a human being. All she seems to do in the course of the novel's 529 pages and fifteen-year time-span is cry, whine, have sex and pop out a couple of babies. If that's the standard of heroism these days, then half the characters in Eastenders deserve some kind of statue. Yes, novels based on the lives of women who were not history's "great players" are worthwhile exercises in fiction. Indeed, as Chantal Thomas's Farewell, My Queen showed, the idea can work brilliantly. History, as told through the eyes of observers, rather than power players, is potentially fascinating. After all, that's how most of us experience it and Mary Boleyn's bird's-eye view of her sister's rise to power and the incipient beginnings of the English Reformation could make a story told from her point-of-view compulsively good reading. Coupled with this is the fact that for at least half her life, Mary Boleyn disappears from the firm documentary record, which is a gift to any intelligent historical novelist - they can use such gaps to create a compelling fictional narrative. However, simply because a historical personality makes for a good novel does not automatically mean that they become important. I love historical fiction, but I despair at some people's ability to understand the latter word. (Equally annoying, of course, is people at the opposite extreme who seem to think a historical novel should basically read like a textbook.) Anyway, since the release of The Other Boleyn Girl, Mary Boleyn is all too often spoken of in the same breath as her famous sister and questions about Mary's life, and the "what if" element of her story, seem to have created the erroneous impression that she was, or could have been, just as important as Anne.
The idea that Mary Boleyn-Carey-Stafford "mattered" in the same way as her younger sister did is an idea so breathtakingly idiotic as to be on par with the belief that Saint Brendan mattered more to the future history of the Americas than Christopher Columbus. Mary Boleyn left only a few letters, only one of which is interesting; we don't know where she was buried; none of her children became particularly powerful; unlike most of her family, we know absolutely nothing about her political or religious beliefs; she was never referenced by the great power-players of the era as important, and at absolutely no point did Mary's life or personality radically impact the direction of sixteenth-century history. The only reason why she is even interesting today is because of who she was associated with, not because of any virtues in her own personality. Which, to be blunt, we know nothing about. We don't even know what she looked like. The late, great Eric Ives said it best when he remarked that what we know about Mary Boleyn could fit on to a postcard - with room to spare. So why has there been all the fuss about her?
Part of it, of course, is that Mary Boleyn found herself the subject of a very successful novel that also became a BBC television drama and a Hollywood movie. All three promoted the idea that Mary was the mother of two of Henry VIII's illegitimate children and for a time there was a chance that she might have been his next wife, rather than her vicious sister, Anne. Leaving aside The Other Bolen Girl's jaw-dropping characterisation of Anne Boleyn, the idea that Mary could have become Henry's queen after also being his long-term mistress is ridiculous. And the belief that theirs was a great love affair is laughable. If Henry VIII and Mary Boleyn did sleep together, it must have been a couple of quick fumbles under the cover of darkness, because within a few years, there were people in the court who openly doubted that the affair had ever happened. By the nineteenth century, several historians - like J.A. Froude and Paul Friedmann - were dismissing the whole idea as Catholic propaganda.
The point, however, is that Philippa Gregory created such a dramatic story-line and then she herself stuck so tenaciously to the assertion that it was, by and large, accurate, that many of her fans naturally reached the conclusion that the Mary of The Other Boleyn Girl was not only very close to the Mary Boleyn of history, but also that this Mary Boleyn had mattered. In a nutshell, part of the reason why people are all of a sudden so interested in Mary Boleyn is because of the proverbial problem some people have in differentiating between fiction and reality. (A difficulty that author's notes, sadly, seem to be perpetuating rather than dispelling at the moment.) It's not quite the same degree of psychosis as people who punch actors in the street because they don't like the character they play on television, but it's certainly ball-park. I love Gone with the Wind, but that doesn't necessarily mean I accept Margaret Mitchell's vision of the halcyon days of the Old South in which everybody was happy and no-one but malcontents were disgruntled.
Yet another, deeper, point in the Mary Boleyn craze may be what it tells us about our attitudes to history and to femininity. I read The Other Boleyn Girl and found Mary Boleyn to be fifty shades of annoying, but I realise that not everyone shares that particular interpretation. Mary's rise to cyber-prominence is part of a trend that not only refuses to believe that history was about great people and big events, but also because of a lingering third wave of feminism that seems to be reacting against strong women, like Anne Boleyn, and in favour of weak ones, like Mary. In the novel, Anne pays a heavy price for her ambitions and its her ambitiousness which makes her so monumentally unlikable. She is sexually immoral, even border-line perverted; she is cruel, vicious, foul-mouthed, egotistical, unhinged and possibly murderous. Anne is the ultimate morality tale against the career girl. Because she chose to pursue her ambitions, she loses her feminine softness; she becomes monstrous and unhappy in the process. When she dies, no one feels sorry for her. Certainly not the reader. She is not so much Margo Channing as she is Stephen King's Carrie; this Anne Boleyn is an utterly repulsive figure who would have been much happier if she'd just stayed at home and taken an interest in the strawberry crop, like her sister does. Anne Boleyn emerges from the pages of The Other Boleyn Girl as the supreme anti-feminist parable. Mary Boleyn, in contrast, is sweet, docile, ruled by heart and devoted to the men in her life. (As far as her jelly-like spine makes her capable of being.) She's the one who gets the "happily ever after." Dozens of websites herald this as proof of Mary's brilliance - because she survived, when half of her family perished. Does no one remember Churchill's quip about enemies proving you're doing something worthwhile? Maybe the reason no one came after Mary was because she hadn't actually done anything with her life?
Recently the novelist Hilary Mantel said that her own portrayal of Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies would be damned because she hadn't made Anne into a victim. Women are not supposed to be victims nowadays, it's considered somehow demeaning, but when one looks at the extraordinary misogyny of the sixteenth century and the crushing physical, emotional, biological and social burdens these women were subjected to on a daily basis then, I'm sorry, but they were victims. Particularly a queen who was shredded apart and then murdered by a government that deliberately played to the most deep-rooted prejudices about female sexuality. There is still a pervasive - I would say, disgusting - view that Anne Boleyn was somehow "asking for it." That she somehow deserved her grisly end. A bit like today when victims of sexual assault and rape are often accused of "asking for it."
It is not an overreaction to draw the comparison. Both attitudes are inextricably linked, not to our beliefs about the past, but to our cultural attitudes towards humanity, to victimhood, sexuality, minorities, women and sex-based crimes. As long as the belief persists that women who are strong and determined cannot also be victims of social pressures, then a poisonous mentality of justification will flow beneath the surface and ruin countless lives in the process. Women, like the Mary Boleyn of popular imagination, are still expected to shut up and not complain, and perhaps the most horrifying thing of all is the number of women who actively participate in demanding their sisters' silence. The torrent of cyber-abuse describing Anne Boleyn as a "bitch," "a slut," "a home-wrecker," "a whore," is overwhelmingly coming from women.
Since we know almost nothing about Mary's ambitions, we can easily project our own fantasies of womanhood onto her. We can make her the perfect wife, mistress and mother, because there is no evidence out there to contradict us. (There's none to support such a view, either, by the burden of proof nowadays seems to rather bizarrely be on disproving things in history, rather than on proving them.) Mary Boleyn - warm, fecund and romantic - can step into our historical imagination as a symbol for the womanhood we think we lost thanks to the liberation movement. She can symbolise our yearning for a time when women cared only about domesticity. Such a time, of course, never actually existed and it was largely created by the Victorians and cemented by the 1950s. The women of the early modern period were often tough, gutsy and even the most aristocratic of them had to work hard at their lives. They were born victims and there is no shame in saying that; it reminds us of how much we have improved and how much we should be grateful for. As well as how much we still have to do. The measure of a person is how they rise to the challenges they face in life and for that reason, and for many others, we should not be so quick to believe the worst of the great women of the past, nor to replace them in the pantheon of heroism with cryptic Sleeping Beauties.