'Anne Boleyn was no soap seductress,' says US academic Susan Bordo

American historian urges a rethink on David Starkey and Hilary Mantel portrayals

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The Independent Culture

Move over Hilary Mantel, there's a new Tudor queen in town. Susan Bordo, a US academic, has produced a controversial new study of Anne Boleyn, which accuses David Starkey of "sexism" and takes Mantel to task for recycling "old stereotypes" in her award-winning books.

Professor Bordo has provoked a Facebook backlash following the US publication of The Creation of Anne Boleyn, a re-examination of Henry VIII's doomed second wife, which takes a swipe at English historical writers, including Philippa Gregory, author of The Other Boleyn Girl, for turning, as she puts it, Anne into a shrill caricature.

Dr Bordo, professor of English and women's studies at the University of Kentucky, is on a mission to rescue Anne from the popular portrayal of a "scheming seductress" who plotted the downfall of Henry's first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

She concludes that the BBC drama The Tudors, in which Natalie Dormer played Anne, is a more accurate portrayal of the queen than all the books and television shows produced by Dr Starkey, whom she describes as "an all-purpose media tart". Debunking misconceptions, such as the belief that Anne had six fingers, (she had a small vestigial fingernail), Professor Bordo, who admits she is "in love" with her subject, portrays Anne as a free-thinking, reformist intellectual who struggled with the subservience required of a Tudor queen.

Blaming Anne's enemies for first spreading negative propaganda about her, Professor Bordo's book hits out at British historians who, she believes, still perpetuate this view. "It's very interesting... how much has been built out of so little historically verifiable detail," she said. "Anne was not the ambitious, scheming slut she is often portrayed as in 20th-century popular culture."

Dr Starkey, author of numerous Henry VIII biographies, is a prime offender, she says. "As an Anne scholar and a feminist, I bristle most when she is dragged though the sexist muck, but devotees of David Starkey are oblivious to his stereotyping," she writes. She says that Dr Starkey is "a master dramatist" and "makes entering a library look like an episode from an Indiana Jones movie".

Professor Bordo told The Independent on Sunday: "His approach is sexist. He takes female historians to task for their focus on love affairs and not military history, but his work is just as soap opera-ish." A spokesman for Dr Starkey said: "David doesn't comment on books he hasn't read or about authors he has never heard of."

Professor Bordo also takes to task Mantel's Man Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall, which charts the rise of Thomas Cromwell. "Even Wolf Hall follows the old stereotype in its portrayal of Anne as a scheming predator," she writes. "She doesn't let history get in the way of other narrative choices."

The Other Boleyn Girl, Gregory's novel about Anne's sister, Mary, fares even worse. "Twenty sources, for someone writing history, would barely make a dent in the 'complexity' she says she achieved," Professor Bordo says of Gregory's research.