Susan Bordo: When Fictionalized Facts Matter

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Susan Bordo is a professor of humanities at the University of Kentucky. Her book The Creation of Anne Boleyn will be published early in 2013 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

There is a scene in the 1969 film version of Anne of the Thousand Days that has audiences cheering to this day. Henry VIII (Richard Burton) visits Anne Boleyn (Geneviève Bujold) as she awaits execution in the Tower of London and reflects on the "thousand days" of her marriage to the king. He has come to offer a bargain. If Anne will declare their marriage unlawful and their daughter Elizabeth illegitimate, freeing him to marry Jane Seymour, he will spare Anne's life. But Anne is having none of it. Her hair disheveled, eyes burning a path straight to his masculine pride, she rejects the offer and spits out a lie: "It is true. I was unfaithful to you with all of them. With half your court. With soldiers of your guard, with grooms, with stable hands. Look for the rest of your life at every man that ever knew me and wonder if I didn't find him a better man than you!" Rattled and enraged, Henry shouts, "You whore!" Anne has an even sharper arrow in her quiver:

"But Elizabeth is yours. Watch her as she grows; she's yours. She's a Tudor! Get yourself a son off of that sweet, pale girl if you can—and hope that he will live! But Elizabeth shall reign after you! Yes, Elizabeth—child of Anne the Whore and Henry the Blood-Stained Lecher—shall be Queen! And remember this: Elizabeth shall be a greater queen than any king of yours! She shall rule a greater England than you could ever have built! Yes—MY Elizabeth SHALL BE QUEEN! And my blood will have been well spent!"

The scene is without historical foundation. Henry never visited Anne in the tower, and Anne never delivered her speech; indeed, at that point, Anne would have known that the chances of Elizabeth becoming queen were slim. Two days before her execution, her marriage to Henry was declared void, and Elizabeth would soon be bastardized. In the movie (and before that, the 1948 Maxwell Anderson play on which it was based), she is given a choice that the real Anne never had.

Did the fact that the tower scene was invention matter to viewers? Not a bit. While critics at the time were not particularly enthusiastic (Vincent Canby was typical in praising Bujold but disparaging the movie as "unbearably classy" and "conventionally reverential"), not one complained of the historical inaccuracies. Even today, among audiences who have seen enough alternative versions of Anne's final days to wonder about the authenticity of any of them, the general consensus about the tower scene seems to be that if it didn't happen that way, it should have....

I love fiction, and believe it can put us in touch with truths that no history text can attain. But when the work of imagination is presented as something other than that—when a novel or film justifies highly inventive, provocative choices by invoking history—we've lost whatever compass we have left (and it's gotten pretty fragile) for sorting out fiction from fact. In her interview with me, Mantel astutely observed that "all historical fiction is really contemporary fiction; you write out of your own time." I couldn't agree more. Her morally ambiguous, watchful Cromwell is a man for our cynical season, and so is her greedy, narcissistic Anne. Let's not imagine, however, that just because they belong to literature rather than pop culture, they are more historically accurate than the Anne and Cromwell of Thousand Days or The Tudors.

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