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.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

And then what happened was...

The day started with a workout, then after a much-needed and extremely strong recovery coffee I turned on my laptop to find messages of congratulations on email and Twitter, because the Barbara Jefferis Award shortlist was announced today and Act of Faith was highly commended.

It's such an honour and surprise because, apart from anything else, this is an Australian Society of Authors award for  'the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society'. That means a great deal to me. It is named in honour of the late Barbara Jefferis: novelist, founding member of the Australian Society of Authors and its first woman President.

And there are so many significant and terrific books this year that are eligible, I'm really quite delighted.

I mean, really - look at this shortlist:

  • Georgia Blain: Too Close to Home (Vintage)
  • Claire Corbett: When We Have Wings (Allen & Unwin)
  • Anna Funder: All That I Am (Penguin)
  • Gail Jones: Five Bells (Vintage)
  • Gillian Mears: Foal's Bread (Allen & Unwin)
  • Frank Moorhouse: Cold Light (Vintage).

Also highly commended were:

  • SJ Finn: This Too Shall Pass (Sleepers)
  • Meg Mundell: Black Glass (Scribe).

Chuffed. Me. Hell, yeah. And I don't care who knows it.

Hearty congratulations to all those commended and shortlisted. And happy IWD 2012.

You can read more about  the award on the ASA site.

Every day is women's day

Another International Women's Day.

First, let's celebrate all the astonishing change that has happened in the last few decades with a little Aretha.

I remember when that song came out. If you ever doubt that art can change the world, remember that song.

I remember the International Year of Women in 1975. I was in high school (yes, I'm rather old) and it had a huge effect on me, and on the world. I remember televised debates featuring Eve Mahlab. I remember the badges and t-shirts and rallies, and also the backlash.  I remember reading The Female Eunuch - God knows what I made of some of it, since I was 15 or so. I remember reading the poems of Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Judith Wright and Audre Lorde. I remember feeling like my life - the whole world - was shifting, and it was. I remember my great aunt Madge, a veteran of the women's peace movements in World War One, telling me: You're just like we were.

I remember so many IWD rallies of the 80s, remember speaking at one (it must have been 1983) in the pouring rain, and I remember our current Prime Minister in attendance. I remember being abused by bystanders as we walked down Swanston Street with our banners. I remember fighting with countless numbers of men in suits in boardrooms about childcare, about discrimination, about at least keeping their stupid bosom jokes to themselves.

And now look. So much has changed. Yet so much hasn't. So far.

(Here's Kirsten Tranter on Why Women Writers Get a Smaller Slice of Pie, for example.)

I feel like every day we need to focus on what more needs to be done, and that's just as it should be. But maybe we should keep this one day for celebrating and reflecting.

So today I'm remembering Madge and her sisters and my great-grandmother and her friend Vida Goldstein and that whole stroppy generation. I'm remembering the generations of strong women in my own family who  didn't want to make a fuss about it, but did change the world anyway - just by example. I'm remembering the women who marched beside me, then and always. I'm remembering the poets and the visionaries.

And I'm grateful.