Tuesday, December 22, 2015

j. Reads "The Daring Truth About Anne Boleyn: Cutting through the myth"

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Admittedly, this is a book I read a bit ago and never reviewed here. I had it brought to my attention again recently and figured I'd give it a shot. So, without further ado, here are my feelings about The Daring Truth About Anne Boleyn: Cutting through the myth:

I'm... really not sure where to start.

This book is presented as a serious scholarly endeavor, not as one person's idle musings. The author purports to "cut through the myth" and deliver the truth about the enigmatic Tudor queen, complete with new evidence she'd discovered buried in old sources.

When it comes to actually delivering, it folds like a cheap card table.

Now, holding up Anne Boleyn as a tragic heroine is pretty tired. I get that. I also get that the Tudors are one of the best-known and most written-about families in the British monarchy. Both of these things make it refreshing when scholars take up the task of refuting some of the "common knowledge" factoids about them. I'm not an apologist for Henry or the Boleyn family at all, so (when it comes to allocating blame) I don't have a horse in this race. I've seen plenty of things contending that Anne Boleyn was complicit in the machinations that eventually led to her demise, and the idea that she had agency and wasn't a doe-eyed lamb being led to the chopping block has its own appeal. That said, hoo boy let me tell you about The Daring Truth About Anne Boleyn.

First, it's a historian's job to support their claims with some kind of evidence. That shouldn't really be surprising. Extraordinary claims also require equally extraordinary evidence to back them up. This is where this book falls spectacularly short.

Author Sylwia S. Zupanec claims that Anne Boleyn was arrogant and obnoxious. While this may very well have been true, what part did it play in her execution? What did Zupanec manage to unearth that would transform Anne Boleyn from a tragic figure into a harridan who got her just desserts?

Well... Not much.

Most of Zupanec's claims are based on reinterpretations of the same sources used by other Tudor historians. Unfortunately, these reinterpretations seem to be less "re" and more "mis." Zupanec relies heavily on her own assumptions, building her arguments on logical fallacy after logical fallacy. What is the basis for the claim that Henry VIII would only have left Catharine of Aragon for someone "ravishingly beautiful?" What evidence does Zupanec have that Anne Boleyn herself attempted to obfuscate her family tree? There's also nothing to suggest that Eustace Chapuys was an objective observer. For that matter, it doesn't appear that Zupanec is terribly objective, either -- the entire book reads like she had already come to a conclusion before researching, then sloppily troweled on whatever tenuous evidence she could find.

Plus there's the fact that Zupanec literally cites Urban Dictionary (you know, the place anyone can contribute to and where you can learn that a "Boston pancake" isn't a regional breakfast treat?) as a source. That's neat.

As for the rest, this book needed an editor very, very badly. A lot of passages are repeated over and over, there are mistakes one would expect to see red penned in a fourth grader's essay ("In this chapter, I successfully proved[...]"), and Zupanec's writing is very poor. (In her defense, she appears to be writing in what is her second or third language.) This is particularly unfortunate in a work that leans heavily on the idea that pretty much every Tudor historian has grossly mistranslated and misinterpreted their sources, as it makes her come across as unreliable.

And then came the Amazon reviews.
It's never a good look when someone jumps into the reviews to defend their own product. Ever. Unless you're a Customer Service representative offering to help ship out a part or replace a defective order, don't respond to your reviews. It's never a good idea.

If you don't take this advice, at the very freaking least don't attempt to argue with your reviewers and get a posse together to mark all of the negative reviews as "Not Helpful" within the space of an hour or two. That's just embarrassing.

In short, this book writes a lot of checks that Zupanec's writing and research can't cash. There's nothing particularly daring or truthful here. If you do want to read some interesting conjecture about the Tudor family, pick up Blood Will Tell: A Medical Explanation of the Tyranny of Henry VIII by Kyra Cornelius Kramer instead. It has its flaws, but at least the theory it offers is halfway unique and compelling.