I am currently in a Tudor fiction phase. Ok, let’s be honest… I am always in a Tudor fiction phase, only I don’t have enough Tudor fiction to fuel it. So when I do it’s like a head rush.
The one that got me started was The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir. It deals with Elizabeth I’s life before she became queen, starting I think when her half-sister Mary (later to be Queen Mary, or Bloody Mary) comes to break the news to her of her mother Anne Boleyn’s death.
Weir is a historian and this is a preliminary stab at non-fiction. So it is not as la-di-da as some would like. But that is what I like about Weir’s style. There is enough drama there to make it novelistic (the actual facts are dramatic enough) but she doesn’t over-embroider. In the notes at the end she makes quite clear which details were fictional. She wrote the book to air a possibility that never would have made it into a history book.
The book left me fascinated with Elizabeth, who I realised was much more outstanding than even the powerhouse that history textbooks make her out to be. I also love the two Shekhar Kapoor movies on Elizabeth, which don’t seem to have gone down well with most people.
Weir’s other book Innocent Traitor, is about another amazing young woman from the Tudor period, Lady Jane Grey. Jane became famous as the Nine Days Queen because that was how long she ruled England before being imprisoned and executed. So the story is essentially tragic, which is why it is not one of my favourites. I do love me a happy ending, or at least a somewhat happy ending. Despite this, the book is a great read because of Jane herself, a brilliant young woman who as a teenager was corresponding with some of the best minds in Europe and who handled all the crap that life threw at her with dignity and grace.
I loved these two so much that I tried reading Weir’s non-fiction. Alas, non-fiction is not for me, at least for leisure reading but I did almost get through a very huge biography of Elizabeth, which I had borrowed in the hope that it was fiction.
Then I watched The Other Boleyn Girl, which I enjoyed though a bit of googling told me the facts are pretty much skewed. Nevertheless, this prompted me to try Philippa Gregory and I have to say I have mixed reactions to her novels. It is a little too la-di-da – when history itself provides so much drama and intrigue, I don’t understand the need to embroider the facts quite so much. I know I read The Other Boleyn Girl and liked it, not sure what else of her I read and didn’t, but she is my reserve Tudor author. Whenever I cannot bear the craving, I cave and look up one of her books which are everywhere.
I also read Amenable Women by Mavis Cheek which started me on my fascination with Anne of Cleves. This is not strictly a historical novel because it oscillates between a modern woman who feels an affinity with Anne and the queen herself. I thought it was okay but not fabulous. What I took away from it was the need to know about Anne of Cleves, and a sympathy for her, and I’m sure I read a novel based on her life but I can’t remember which. Gah!
A great book from this period is Hilary Mantel’s Booker prizewinning Wolf Hall. It’s about Thomas Cromwell, another figure I was not familiar with and who I had confused with Oliver Cromwell (who is sort of distantly related to him). Not sure how to describe the style (literary?) but it’s different from the other historical fiction I am used to. You can almost hear music in the background. Mantel humanizes Cromwell and so I am left with a sympathetic image of him that is apparently not what history generally portrays him as.
Recently, what kickstarted my craving again, was Vanora Bennett’s Portrait of An Unknown Woman. The central character is Margaret Giggs, the adopted daughter of Thomas More, and thus we get an insight into the More household. Again, More has gone down in history as a good guy but my first impression of him was from Wolf Hall so I tend to be cynical about him. Bennett gives a more balanced picture of More. And the book is a chance to discover a peripheral Tudor character but an interesting one nonetheless – Meg Giggs who is something of a doctor before her time. Moreover, there is an interesting historical theory to air here too… about Meg’s husband John Clement.
Finally, as the title of the book suggests, the frame of the entire story is a painting – Hans Holbein’s portrait of the More family. I never really been a fan of that style of Renaissance painting, the commissioned portraits of wealthy families. But the book brought alive for me the artistic qualities of even paintings that pandered to wealthy patrons, not just the skill in which figures are executed but the placing of individuals and individual objects and the use of lines and perspectives. Now I want to see more of Holbein. I love it when that happens – when I discover a new art genre.
I didn’t like the end of the book but overall it is a great read and beautifully written, not quite Hilary Mantel but with the technique of building up atmosphere anyway.
The other day, I caught an episode of The Tudors. The first time I watched it, I loved it. The more recent episode, not so much. Maybe because I know more of the period now. I didn’t like how Cardinal Woseley was portrayed. I didn’t like how some of the facts were treated. Also I still have Eric Banna in mind when I think of Henry (in lieu of the horrid – and probably more true portrait – of Henry VIII by Holbein) and the Tudor’s guy, especially in a crew cut avatar, doesn’t suffice – though admittedly, he is more crazed looking. I definitely object to the woman playing Anne Boleyn; she is to roundfaced in a way that men of that time would find attractive while Anne was supposed to be the opposite of that… very thin, pointy-faced and French looking.
Anyway I’m starving again. In desperation, I have resorted borrowing a Philippa Gregory – The White Queen. I’m actually liking it. I have a tendency to google the facts when reading historical fiction and they don’t seem too way off here. Even the Melusina myth which Gregory uses as strain that runs through the novel. I feel that the way she places the passages from the myth could have been better – maybe one every section instead of randomly – but overall I think it’s successful. (This is not strictly a Tudor novel but it’s a good follow-on from Vanora Bennett’s because it deals with the princes in the tower, a mystery Bennett deals with).
Gregory’s writing is very feminine. It is very much a woman’s world – and I find that so especially in this novel, where she gives superstition and witchcraft its place. Moreover, there is always a love story, though even she can’t stretch the facts far enough to always have a rosy ending. Her writing is anachronistic in the sense that she has her heroines express themselves in feminisms that are much ahead of their time; I really wonder whether it was possible for women of that time to think like that, or rather if it is possible for every important female figure of that time to think in feminist terms as all Gregory’s heroines do. Nevertheless, instead of being too analytical, I’m letting myself go with this one and revel in the girliness and the
I borrowed Nora Loft’s The Concubine from the library but I found the style too staid. Now that I’m in the mood though I think I’ll go back to it.
Update: Finished The Concubine. It wasn’t bad but I think what carried me forward was the previous book. There were some interesting perspectives in this book – the idea that Anne did not love Henry at all but resigned herself to being queen as the next best thing after her affair with Harry Percy was thwarted. The entire affair is presented as the classic chase – with Henry, who was never denied anything, captivated by the one woman who said no. And then disenchanted when she gave in. Overall Henry comes across as a bastard, and it’s a good reminder, because the trend in fiction these days seems to be to humanise him… to make excuses, maybe Anne really was unfaithful, maybe he did what’s best for England in divorcing Katherine because she couldn’t provide an heir… whatever. The fact is he went through an extraordinary number of wives, and discarded them increasingly cruelly. So there can be no excuses for this. Apart from this, the bookk leaves me with no powerful impression and I realised this is because the perspective keeps changing from Anne, to her maid Emma, to Henry, to Cardinal Wosley to even Mark Smeaton. So one never really identifies with any one character and you come away feeling a bit distanced.
Update 2: Finished The Constant Princess. I was once more irritated by Gregory’s style. She somehow seems to over-emphasis the masala… like the old King Henry lusting after his daughter-in-law. Also, the whole Arthur and Katherine love story… very sweet but I think she pushed it too far with the deathbed promise. I guess these are liberties she is entitled to take as a fiction writer but I feel she should base her liberties on letters or written documents from the period. I liked how she dealt with the Moors in the book though, emphasising the Spanish-Moor connections and also her explanations of why Katherine was the queen that she was. Weird though, Katherine is described as a reddish-blonde in the book but is a brunette on the cover.
I’m now reaching the end of my Tudor enthusiasm but still Sunne in Splendour left to go.