Friday, March 30, 2012

Tudor plagues

What's the collective noun for the Tudors? A chalice of Tudors? A gauntlet?

A plague?

There are, at last count, 27,491* historical novels based in the courts of the Tudor kings and queens. It's not hard to see why. They were a fascinating lot. Sex maniac Henry. His six wives and their sisters. His children: irrational and frigid or possibly sex maniac Elizabeth, psychopathic Mary, frail little Edward and his cousin the bewildered Lady Jane Grey. There are captains with sparkling eyes like Burt Lancaster in The Crimson Pirate. Priests in hair shirts. Head chopping. Rabid Scots. An Armada. There is even Geoffrey Rush. That's what they were like, right? Ask anybody.

It's time to enforce a moratorium.

From now on, nobody is allowed to publish any new books on the Tudors without proving to a committee (composed entirely of me) that they:

  • Undertake not to completely distort the historical record and their readers' sense of history without reasonable cause
  • Have something new to say on the topic.

We get the some thing over and over. That's right.  Elizabeth never married. I don't understand how that comes as a surprise to anybody. Mary, Queen of Scots was executed. So was Anne Boleyn. Henry had six wives. Amazing. Who knew?

But what you would never learn from many of the recent fictional portrayals is that these were among the best educated, most intelligent, influential people in Europe. That some of the most significant political and religious initiatives of all time took place under their reigns (alongside some disasters). That the Tudor queens dramatically altered the understanding of monarchy and leadership. That some of the alliances the Tudors forged and enemies they created resonate to this day.

Instead you can read about an Elizabeth who clings to her lover Dudley's manly chest while he makes the decisions, like Fabio on a Mills & Boon cover - or was that Essex - or perhaps Walter Raleigh?; about a fey Jane Grey or poor wee sickly Edward; about Mary who lived only to burn people and stalk the hallways like Mrs Rochester; and about a Henry who jumps from bed to bed without ever pausing to ponder economics or military matters or foreign affairs.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm very happy to see new interpretations that cast light on some of these people and those around them. I even think Jonathan Rhys Meyers never ageing as Henry is hilarious - although I can't quite bring myself to keep watching The Tudors. I don't mind the odd mash up (such as - a slightly different example - Sofia Coppola's stylish take on Marie Antoinette, another historical object of mass obsession).

What I hate is the same drivel over and over, poorly written books that only sell because they are about the Tudors, or work that utterly distorts readers' historical understanding for no good reason. So much of it is little more than fan fiction and bad fan fiction at that. They make me shout and scoff and snort, and that's not what you want from a reading experience. I refuse to read another one unless a jury of my peers assures me it's readable.

And as a result, we now have an entire generation of readers who think that one of the great dynasties of British history is just that: Dynasty without Joan Collins (and even she once played Bess Throckmorton).

Those readers now have a historical framework which includes the belief that Elizabeth had Mary of Guise either poisoned or killed by Walsingham's own hand (she died of dropsy), or that she had Bishop Gardiner murdered for opposing her (he died of natural causes well before she took the throne). Minor examples, but symbolic distortions. And why?

Sometimes historical fiction needs to bend the laws of time or truth and the responsible novelist will make sure readers understand this in an appropriate note at the end. Film-makers do the same. Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots never met, but who could forget Vanessa Redgrave as Mary, Queen of Scots sparring with Glenda Jackson's Elizabeth? Katherine Hepburn as Mary also met Florence Eldridge as Elizabeth in 1936. Barbara Flynn as Mary and Helen Mirren's inevitable Elizabeth locked horns just a few years ago.



It's a gorgeous idea, if only for the casting - but always promoted as such. It's a 'what if?' fiction. That's different to swapping historical figures in and out of time or place or even marriages apparently at random.

But I fail to understand why, in your bog standard Tudor narrative, with real historical figures so wondrous, so entertaining, operating in a complex and sophisticated world, almost everybody feels they have to make anything up or add extra intrigue.

We also now have an entire Tudors industry, devoted to churning out trade paperbacks with sumptuous covers of women or girls in gowns but with no heads - which is, in a way, appropriate. (Hmm. Now I think about it, maybe all those headless historical fiction covers are subliminal nods to Anne Boleyn?)

Like Marie Antoinette and Napoleon, the Tudors are fascinating. They have what is known in LA as timeless appeal. You don't have to do much with them, because the historical figures do a lot of the heavy narrative lifting themselves. And there are so many popular history books written about them, too, you don't even have to do any really hard research. Easy.

That's how so many of these books feel.

It's not enough.

I'm doing my PhD at present, and to be awarded a PhD you have to make "a unique contribution to human knowledge and understanding". That seems to me to be a very good guide for any book. Each novel, each short story, should be a unique contribution to human knowledge and understanding. It may not be major, earth-shattering, but it should at least be unique.

There have been revelations of new historical material and new perspectives on the Tudor years in the recent past. Most of this has appeared in the work of historians, archaeologists or other writers of non-fiction, but some has and will come from fiction; from novelists shining a torch into the dusty corners of the past. Mantel's Wolf Hall is a brilliant example.

Find a legitimate way in. Focus on a character previously neglected. Shed light on a particular moment. Make a unique contribution. I know someone who is writing a novel about Dudley's wife, Amy Robsart, and I feel sure it will offer unique insights, a different perspective and is impeccably researched. It will pass the committee appraisal with flying colours and satisfy both criteria.

To such authors I say, go forth and bring us as many fabulous new Tudor tales as you can imagine. More power to your arm.

Everyone else, step away from the keyboard.


*That's a historical distortion - in other words, I made it up.

2 comments:

Allister Hardiman said...

I stand next to no man, woman, or confection mixed thereof in my admiration of Elizabeth the First and have read great biographies and am a diminished minor of an expert by affection, by proclivity and delight, but I have to agree with you. Tudorophila has turned in upon itself and like bacteria that breed upon a host until it is devoured and then turn upon themselves, so too has the affection for all things Tudor, turned cannibal and now feasts upon its own carcass. Pity. Once I saw Jackson do her Elizabeth there could be no other. Let us move on, for history is populated in full measure of fascinations that would serve storytellers as an infinite well. The collective noun for Tudorphemera? "An armada of Tudoriana" - for it sends itself to destroy itself and upon itself shall be destroyed.

Kelly Gardiner said...

An armada! Why didn't I think of that?
Thank you. And my sentiments exactly, although you manage a few much more lurid and excellent metaphors.