Saturday, 14 June 2014

'Pride of Place': Author Marie Louise Bruce

Before Alison Weir, David Starkey, and Eric Ives, there was Marie Louise Bruce.

Author Marie Louise Bruce at Hever Castle.

I am forever grateful to Ms. Bruce for her biography Anne Boleyn (Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1972). It was this one particular book, checked out from my High School library, which first introduced me to the fascinating world of Tudor history.

Uh... what's Anne of Cleves doing here?!

 With Anne Boleyn's renaissance as a feminist icon, grrl power role model, and pop culture  heroine/rock star, it may be hard to believe that there was very little written about her by the early 1970's. Prior to the publication of Bruce's book, the most 'recent' offering was Philip W. Sargeant's Anne Boleyn from 1923!

 That said, a new study on Anne Boleyn was begging to be written. The timing seemed right, the Tudors were popular again thanks to cinema and television: A Man For All Season (1966), Anne of the Thousand Days (1969), The Six of Wives of Henry VIII (1970), Elizabeth R (1971), and Mary Queen of Scots (1971). 1 As well, the feminist movement of the time had scholars revaluating the role of women in history and the parts they played in shaping events. What better subject than Anne Boleyn, the most famous of Henry VIII's six wives, whose love affair changed England forever.

 Anne Boleyn, though not an academic work (for that we would have to wait till Eric Ive's brilliant study in 1986), was well researched. Perhaps owing to the paucity of books about Anne Boleyn's life at the time, Bruce went digging for source material - 'a rich store', as she called it. Unlike subsequent historians writing about Anne who would simply rely on easily available secondary sources, accurate or not, Bruce consulted primary accounts. Case in point, it was generally accepted that Anne Boleyn, at her arrest in May 1536, had gone into the Tower of London via Traitor's Gate. However, Bruce correctly re-identified the entrance as the Court Gate (that is the Byward Tower) by referencing Charles Wriothesley's contemporary chronicle. As well, it had always assumed that Anne was confined in the Lieutenant's Lodgings (the present day Queen's House). But Bruce, making good use of William Kingston (Anne's jailer)'s letters, rightly placed the Queen in the royal apartments. Surprisingly, even years after Bruce's book was written, some historians still had their Anne weeping by Traitor's Gate and counting her 'thousand days' in the Queen's House. 2

 Marie Louise Bruce's attention to accuracy, coupled with a novelistic style of writing, made Anne Boleyn an informative and entertaining read. As she described Anne's infancy:

 The new baby was remarkable for three things; the opaqueness of her eyes that could never become anything but darkest brown, a large black mole on her neck and a small deformity on the right hand, where a tiny second nail grew out of one of her fingers. Later when she had grown into a woman, it was to be magnified into a sixth finger by enemies anxious to depict her physically as well as spiritually a monster. But as she lay swaddled in her solid oak cradle besides a curtained and canopied bed in a room heavy with the odours of confinement and the scent of sweet herbs, Anne Boleyn's prospects were as good as gold. 3 

 Ok, it was like something out of Jean Plaidy, but Bruce was writing for the  'popular history' market, and she was very good at it.

 What might put off some readers - especially Anne's legion of admirers of today, was Bruce's often expressed aversion for her subject. At the time Anne Boleyn was written, there was still a prevalent notion of the Queen as a bad tempered, gold digging, home wrecking shrew whose path you wouldn't want to cross! Actress Charlotte Rampling who played Anne in the film Henry VIII and His Six Wives (1972) voiced the common view. "Anne wasn't a very nice girl, I'm afraid, and had dangerous qualities of spitefulness and arrogance," Rampling opined, "but she's a fascinating character to play - the nastier types of lady so often are." 4 Marie Louise Bruce was equally critical. A biographer doesn't necessarily have to like her subject, and Bruce didn't pull any punches. Her Anne was often violent, hysterical, and naïve. She was "a completely disastrous choice for Henry VIII from every point of view," Bruce stated. 5 Still, she did recognize the Queen's more positive qualities. Whatever her faults, Anne was also courageous, accomplished, and highly intelligent. She was also innocent, Bruce believed, of the crimes she was charged with.

Not a nice girl: Charlotte Rampling as Anne Boleyn (disguised as 'the Ethiop Queen')
from the film Henry VIII and His Six Wives (1972).

 Unfortunately, by the time Bruce's book came out, popular interest in the Tudors began to dwindle. The heyday of Tudor themed film and tv dramas was having its twilight with Henry VIII and His Six Wives (1972), the last in a series of such works.6  With this decline, Anne Boleyn, to my knowledge, saw only one edition. Though Hester W. Chapman did release her own take on the subject in 1974 (Anne Boleyn, Jonathan Cape), it was not until the end of the decade that interest in Anne was rekindled, at least in the publishing world when several books about her were written. 7 However, the Tudors were not to be pop culture personalities until the end of the 1990's, when filmmaker Shekhar Kapur got the ball rolling by giving them a makeover with Elizabeth (1998).

Elizabeth (1998): Revitalizing and reinventing the Tudors.

It's a shame that Bruce's book is no longer in print. But for those who do manage to track down a copy of Anne Boleyn, it is well worth the effort. The late Eric Ives, the authority of everything Anne, highly praised the author. Of Anne's most recent biographers, he wrote, 'Pride of place must go to M.L. Bruce... though broadly traditional in her assessment, she did offer an imaginative interpretation of Anne which was none the less well informed." 8 I'm sure you'll agree.


1 Though less known, there was also Elizabeth the Queen (1968) and The Shadow of the Tower (1972).

2 For example, Anne Boleyn, by Hester W. Chapman, Jonathan Cape, London, 1974, page 202; Anne Boleyn, by Joanna Denny, Portrait, London, 2004, page 274; The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn, by Retha M. Warnicke, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989, page 225, has Anne housed in the Beauchamp Tower.

3 Excerpt from Anne Boleyn, by Marie Louise Bruce, Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc., New York, 1972, page 9.

4 Pressbook for the film Henry VIII and His Six Wives, Anglo EMI Film Distributors, 1972.

5 Interview with Marie Louise Bruce: 'The story of a king's lust that changed history', The Gazette, Montreal, Canada, May 25, 1981, pages 1 and 5. 

6 Other than a televised version of William Shakespeare's Henry VIII in 1979, there was to be no major Tudor themed screen production until the film Lady Jane in 1986.

7 Anne Boleyn by Norah Lofts, Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, New York, 1979; Mistress Anne by Carolly Erickson, Summit Books, New York, 1984; Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1986, and The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn, by Retha M. Warnicke, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989.

Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1986, viii.

1 comment:

  1. June 6, 2017 7:50 p.m. PDT. Author Marie Louise Bruce's fascinating novelized biography of Ann Boleyn is an imaginative and colorful, detailed interpretive account of the life of the woman who no doubt was the first real British feminist who emancipated England from the Roman Catholic Church's canonical grips.
    Ms. Bruce's skillful storytelling and beautiful, fluent British English make this a stand-out read as well as being immensely informative.
    From Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.


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