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Extravagant Things

They captivate our imagination, and they cultivate our multi-media screens—and so for the year 2008 Steve Donoghue will encompass their comings and goings, their makings and unmakings. Open Letters presents the seventh installment of Steve Donoghue’s Year with the Tudors.

When confronting the teeming sub-genre of Tudor fiction, there’s a saying you must repeat to yourself, koan-like, at regular intervals: you can’t read it all.

This wasn’t always so. A century ago, and for two centuries before that, it was something an active reader could do. A small handful of hardcover novels would drop like blocks from the West’s various presses, and the work of few days would polish them off.

But all that changed with the advent of film, for movies traffic in money, and all publishers dream of making money (indeed, it happens so seldom to them that they might be said to dream of it more yearningly than less lapidary professionals). If a Tudor film is a box office success, even a minor one, it’s guaranteed to spawn whole shelves full of Tudor novels, some by authors who’ve brooded over their creations for years and are grateful for the sudden interest of the market – and many by authors who, how to put it? haven’t brooded at all, or at least not to a degree their doctors would find inadvisable.

The result is a flood, a tsunami, a great torrent of books. The 20th century saw a proliferation of Tudor fiction the like of which the world had never known before. Only the Tudors themselves would have found it fitting; everybody else is palely daunted. Everybody else must console themselves by repeating: you can’t read it all.

Consider me, for instance. I read roughly 120 pages an hour, and I devote roughly six hours a day to reading. That’s 700 pages a day. Discounting for the slightly disproportionate percentage of re-reading I do (I enjoy it a great deal), and allowing for the not-infrequent days when I devote seven, eight, or even ten hours to reading , we can round this tally off to about 500 books a year. That’s a fairly healthy – not to say inadvisable! – total, especially since most recent polls show the average American reads one, maybe two books a year. But it’s still the merest whisper, the faintest peck on the cheek, compared to the oncoming tide of books published in America and the UK every year, a considerable portion of which is Tudor fiction. Somewhere in the world, a new Tudor novel is being written every 1.3 minutes. I could read a thousand books a year and still not cover the ground. No one could. 500 books a year won’t even cover the 2008 Tudor novels written in the southwestern neighborhoods of Liverpool. On the latest laptop models, ‘milord’ is a separate key on the keyboard. You can’t read it all.

Still, it’s so damn alluring that you can’t resist trying! The fascinating glamour of the Tudor world has such an unbeatable fervor to it (hence this series, hence our journey!), and the wide reach of Tudor fiction can satisfy any particular taste. This isn’t to say other British dynasties don’t likewise inspire their own fictions, far from it. Henry II and his unruly family have been the subject of many novels, and Charles II, the irresistibly-nicknamed ‘Merry Monarch,’ has inspired even more with his outsized wigs and his various (and variously insatiable) mistresses. You wouldn’t think stolid old George III would inspire much in the way of fiction, but his absence from the throne sure did: there’s an entire sub-genre of novels set in the Regency period – by now dozens of thousands of novels, written by thousands of different voices, all ignoring historical fact with the same wild, happy abandon.

But none of them can match the Tudors, and again, one of the reasons is distressingly non-literary: no other dynasty has proven so cinematic. Bet you can’t tell me the last Stuart-era movie you saw (OK, gropingly you might take a stab at “Stage Beauty,” featuring a truly affecting performance by Billy Crudup; the last Tudor movie? They’re filming its sequel right now, at the end of your street. Chad Michael Murray’s already been fitted for his doublet and hose. The more the public sees something, the more it wants to read about that something – even if it doesn’t understand that something, and even if the writers writing about that something don’t understand that something.

In Tudor fiction as in all varieties of historical fiction, there are four philosophies of how to approach the task: do prodigious research and write a boring book, do slight research and write a corker, do slight research and write a boring book, and, rarest of all, do prodigious research and write a corker. That vast shrubbery of Regency novels I mentioned earlier? Not a single one of them is well-researched – but some of them are a great deal of fun to read. And then there are the Angevin novels of Sharon Kay Penman, who’s done a large amount of research and turned out books so wooden they call for carpenters, not readers.

Four philosophies, but even so, I’ve been reading Tudor fiction a long time, and I can honestly tell you: something about the dynasty seems to bring out the best in its novelists. There are still bad Tudor books, certainly – but there are more good ones per capita than any other period can lay claim to, and it bears a little investigation as to why that’s the case. What is it about the Tudors?

Their extraordinary personalities are probably a key ingredient. The Tudors were the only family of monarchs in British history who just naturally assumed that the eyes of all the world – and all future worlds – would be upon them, and they reacted accordingly. They each reacted in different ways, of course, but with certain things in common: none of them suffered fools gladly, all of them were ferociously intelligent and ferociously vain, and they all had the dubious gift of thunderous command. Such traits are catnip to the sniffing noses of fiction writers, so it’s little surprise they’d be drawn to Henry, Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth (and all the various almost-Tudors, such as tragic little Lady Jane Grey, or Anne Boleyn and her family).

The times are more problematic, or should be. Complex upheavals in the religious and social fabric of an era ought to make for universally turgid prose, and yet when it comes to the Tudors writers are undaunted by such things – largely, it must be said, because they simply ignore those upheavals, or else treat them slightingly. Indeed, a great many Tudor novels are positively dripping with period-learning, not that this is always a strength in them, and it’s somewhat astonishing how much expository recounting these books can support without collapsing under the weight of it. One of the more salubrious qualities of Tudor fiction is how much you’ll learn by reading it, although always it’s important to keep the salt handy for pinches.

Or perhaps it’s the simplicity of the time, at least as it appears on the surface: men were men, women were women, and all that. Half the Tudor novels I’ve read for this piece call their main female characters sluts and slatterns openly by those terms, as though in approbation. “Narrated by the wench herself!” promises the cover copy of R. T. Lawrence’s 1963 roman-a-bedsheets novel The Journal of Kitty Adair, and most other novels of the period are little better (indeed, this tendency slips over plentifully into actual biographies – in one 1940s hardcover edition of Francis Hackett’s great biography of Henry, the cover jacket’s description of Anne Boleyn is “the pert flapper who drew the eye of the king,” and no irony was intended). The image of Charles Laughton playing Henry VIII, ogling the court ladies and tossing half-eaten chicken legs over his shoulder, indelibly stamped the 20th century, it seems, and provided Tudor fiction with its cynosure: as long as there is the loutish monster Henry at the center of things, there will always be the courtiers he wronged, the friends he raised high and brought low, and more than anything the ladies – wives, mistresses, concubines and the like. In this respect Elizabeth is the same: courtiers and gentlemen aplenty, but like Henry always with a faint air of unreality, a lingering sense that no one suitor ever reached their heart (and so the reader just might).

Another draw of the period is its physical palpability. Henry VII may not have been the most dramatic monarch (courtiers said he indulged in no personal pleasures), but he was in the running for the most careful, and he instituted a record-keeping bureaucracy more thorough than anything England had seem since Domesday Book. The result, for all those who’ve looked back at the time (be they historians, novelists, or playwrights), is an embarrassment of riches: ledgers, accounts, depositions, transcripts, court papers, position papers, diplomatic correspondence, secret memoranda, and even, in the case of studious little Edward, an actual personal journal, perhaps the first one ever written in English. Historians and biographers, confronted with this treasure house of heaped documentation, have been known to write books of intemperate length as a result; all too many novelists react to it by closing their eyes and wishing themselves to a far more romantic version of the era than the one in those documents, to the merrie olde kingdom of bluff King Hal.

But all this is perhaps secondary to the one common Tudor trait guaranteed to ignite the imaginations of impressionable writers: the entire family were fighters. There’s an undeniable romanticism in that. Henry VIII fought against the Church in an epic contest that literally changed the world; Edward VI fought against that same Church and its corruptions (and then fought against death, however briefly); Mary I fought against Henry and Edward’s new faith, fought an ultimately doomed battle to restore Catholicism to England; and Elizabeth I fought against the greatest opponents of all, custom and time (she won against the first, ruling unwed, and who’s to say she hasn’t won against the second, since we obsess about her still?). Market-minded novelists know that conflict sells, and therein might well lie the ultimate source of the Tudor appeal.

Whatever accounts for this torrent of fictional treatment, the books, movies, and plays keep coming. You can’t read it all, but you can predict a good deal of it, because the writer of Tudor fiction faces the same problems the writer of any historical period does, and those problems really boil down to one central problem: what do you do with the other-ness of your characters? For instance, you have a heap of expository material to convey to your readers (you can’t presume they’ve done the research you’ve done, even if you’ve done precious little), but you’re writing fiction, which, pace Melville, isn’t a natural vessel for exposition. Characters with complex shared histories don’t need to recount those histories to each other, complete with dates and surnames. But readers need dates and surnames to keep everything straight. So what do you do with it all? Most writers of Tudor fiction, alas, take the easy way out and resort to plopping it all right into their narratives, often by the simplest of pretexts, as in this scene from Margaret Irwin’s virtually indigestible 1945 novel Young Bess, featuring a small group of royal children discussing our old friend the Earl of Surrey:

“What is the day of the month?” Bess asked suddenly.
“The 27th,” they [Prince Edward and Lady Jane Grey] told her, and knew why she had asked. If the King lived till tomorrow morning, the Duke of Norfolk would die. His execution had been fixed for dawn on Friday, January 28th. But if the King died tonight, then Norfolk would live. His son, Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, had been beheaded nine days ago, after a speech of furious defiance when like a stag at bay he had stood and gored the King and Council with his words.
None of the children spoke of him, for they had worshipped him from afar as a scornful god who had scarcely noticed their presence; they had yelled with shrill delight as they watched him at tennis, winning game after game, or in the tilt-yard, charging down on his horse White Cherry, as he wrote himself, on:
The gravel-ground, with sleeves tied on the helm,
On foaming horse, with swords and friendly hearts’;
they had sung his songs, all in the modern Italian manner which made all other verse seem so tame and old-fashioned; and envied the Irish girl, Fair Geraldine, to whom he had written them.

You can see the evil trade-off being made here: in order to provide her readers with a sweetly domestic scene uniting these children, Irwin has needed to give us an Elizabeth who doesn’t know what date of the month it is. Irwin likewise lapses into one of the besetting evils of exposition – she’ll often let it wander at will throughout her books, unmoored by any source within the story itself, as in this scene, also from Young Bess:

The light burned all night in Lambeth Palace, where Archbishop Cranmer sat, writing the new English Prayer Book that was to make a new land of saints from this old sinful England.
He wrote in his window, never seeing the soft spring night outside, but only the balancing phrases that took shape on the paper beneath his fingers, phrases that responded to each other, built themselves up like the rungs of a ladder up to heaven, into the most perfect prose ever yet written in English.

All that might be true – the original English Prayer Book is indeed that beautiful – but who’s saying it?

And there’s another aspect of other-ness, equally problematic for the writer of historical fiction: historical diction. The past is a different country, we’re famously informed. Debatable (lovers still cheat on each other; cruel people still kick their dogs; true friends still grapple to each other with hoops of steel), but one thing is certain: people talked differently. In the case of fiction set in, say, ancient Greece or Rome, this problem disappears – all the dialogue will perforce be inaccurate, being spoken in languages other than ancient Greek or Latin. But in the case of Tudor fiction, the writer confronts the awkward fact that it’s a version of English these characters are speaking. Call it the ‘prithee’ paradox: if you preserve the 16th century diction, you risk puzzling your audience into a confused slumber; but if you modernize it, you run the risk of making the Tudors sound like a slightly more corseted version of the Sopranos. Many Tudor fiction authors – especially those writing in the latter half of the 20th century, choose to strike a compromise-tone, something vaguely formal but scoured clean of archaisms. Philippa Gregory, whose Tudor novels continue to enjoy astounding success with the reading public, owes her success renown in no small part to her mastery of such compromised prose, as in this little peroration from the Duke of Norfolk, in a scene from The Boleyn Inheritance in which he’s excoriating none other than that infamous bawd, Lady Rochfort:

You knew, you liar. You never took the stand to save him [Thomas Boleyn, her husband]. You took the stand to save your title and your fortune; you called it your inheritance, the Boleyn inheritance. You knew that if you turned evidence against your own husband, then the king would leave you with your title and your lands. That’s all you wanted in the end. That’s all you cared for. You sent that young man and that beauty, his sister, to the gallows so that you could save your own yellow skin and your paltry title. You sent them to their deaths, a savage death, for being beautiful and merry and happy in each other’s company and for excluding you. You are a byword for malice, jealousy, and twisted lust.

The alternative to this easy readability is on full display in H. F.M. Prescott’s massive – and massively learned – novel The Man on a Donkey, a strong and fast-paced book that can, nevertheless, heave up hocks of prose like the following, in which Henry VIII is, I think, reprimanding the Duke of Norfolk for how he dealt with the Pilgrimage of Grace:

“Cousin, we have called to our remembrance the whole discourse and progress of this matter, with your advertisements made in the time of the same; which we find so repugnant and contrarious, the one and the other, that we cannot forbear frankly to make a recapitulation of the same; to the only intent, that you shall perceive that you have not therein observed that gravity and circumspection that in your person towards Us was requisite.”

Needless to say, even given the vast differences between Tudor diction and our own, no Tudor ever actually talked like that. Prescott’s industry as a researcher has temporarily blinded him to the obvious fact that the document whose contents he’s making into Henry’s dialogue was written to be a document, not to be verbatim record of the king telling Norfolk how ticked off he is.

In fairness, I should mention that the scene in which that ill-advised chunk of court record so unconvincingly masquerades as dialogue is in all other respects a rivetingly-written confrontation between England’s most powerful subject and his even more powerful sovereign. One of the most fascinating aspects of Tudor fiction is the very different views the disparate authors take of the same characters. In Prescott’s book, Norfolk and the King are from the first deadly enemies vying for advantage over each other. Based, presumably, on much the same research, Norah Lofts in her 1963 novel The Concubine, paints a completely different picture, that of trusted old advisor and a somewhat unsure young king, here discussing Henry’s matrimonial travails:

“So that leaves me where I was, tied to a woman I no longer love.” [Henry said]
“That’s not so uncommon. I should say that nine out of ten men hate their wives – after a year. But they use them, as God meant women to be used.”
Henry said, with an almost touching simplicity, “I have tried.”
With matching simplicity, Norfolk said, “Try again, sire. I’ll be blunt. What this country needs is a prince, not another long drawn-out wrangle about who is married to whom, or if not why not.”

The simple, almost commonplace tone of this exchange is even further simplified in Ian Thorne’s stage play Jane Seymour, in which the audience is given language so clean and straightforward that all barriers of time and diction seem to melt away entirely, as in this scene in which Henry recovers after losing his temper with the play’s titular and sweet-natured queen:

Henry: Don’t make me doubt, Jane. Don’t. I’m frightened then. It is as if I am possessed. I don’t know what I’m saying – except that I have to strike, and I’ll use anything at hand. Where can I hide myself?
Jane: Ssh.
(And now it is she comforting and holding him for he is like a boy).
Henry: Jane (And this is his secret terror.) – am I ill, perhaps, in my mind? Am I?
Jane: No, you are only tired and need to rest.
Henry: Rest, yes. If I could. I feel so old. And first we must put down these rebels. Oh, if only we had met before. For I doubt now we will have any children.

This is the main strength of well-done historical fiction: it allows us, through the author’s careful research and artistic leaps, to peak into scenes that almost certainly happened (in some variation or other) but that are mostly unrecorded in the annals of fact, at least until our own inquisitive age.

So fierce and iconic are the Tudors that intimate scenes like the one above carry an extra charge; they’re a salient reminder of something many Tudor historians forget – that there were human beings under the ceremonial dress and the speeches to Parliament. Jan Wescott’s 1959 Kathryn Parr novel The Queen’s Grace shows us a little family crisis at the supper table that (except for the weird attempt at a West Country patois) might well have taken place:

Suddenly Kathryn glanced over at Edward. He was having a queasy spell, she could tell by one look. In a moment, his dinner would come up.
She jumped up, and at that moment Edward uttered a loud cry of despair, for he had been trying to ignore the warnings from his stomach. Henry tried to move quickly and succeeded in bumping his leg against the table, whereupon he shouted an oath that made the room rumble. Edward was quickly sick. Kathryn scooped him up in her arms and ran from the room, leaving Henry swaying on one foot, grasping the table for support. His leg felt like a running fire of agony. His red eye fell on Elizabeth. “I’m not only cursed with this leg,” he muttered, “but with sickly children!”
Elizabeth looked up at her huge father. “I’m not sick,” she pointed out.
“No,” Henry growled. “Not you, you’re like to your mother, thin and sinewy and much too quick wi’ your tongue!”

And more touchingly (and, all in all, more plausibly), there’s Margaret Campbell Barnes, describing in her 1946 novel My Lady of Cleves a quiet moment between Henry VIII and his quickly-discarded wife Anne of Cleves. The two are in a room alone, and Henry has just absent-mindedly played on the virginals a love song he wrote years ago, when he was besotted with Anne Boleyn:

It was drawing towards supper time but neither of them noticed it. Henry’s spirit, young and untrammeled, was back among the lavender and hollyhocks in Nan Bullen’s garden at Hever. And Anne, looking at him across the quiet room as he sat dreaming before the virginals, was suddenly aware that she had found that “other facet” of which Cranmer had spoken. The side of him that Charles [Brandon, the King’s friend] still loved.
“It cost me so much to get her,” he was saying, almost as if he had forgotten Anne’s presence. “Months of humiliating waiting, a Papal quarrel that set all Europe by the ears, the goodwill of my people. And then the putting away of a fond wife for conscience’s sake.”

Indeed, it’s a facet of this hunger for intimacy with these marvelous beings from a different age that has perpetually drawn writers from all ages and all ranks of talent. Mark Twain took time out of a very busy work-calendar to write The Prince and the Pauper in 1882, not for market reasons but because his authorial wisdom had directed him at last to write a Tudor novel. Ford Maddox Ford long harbored a dream of diverting his creative energies into the then-unprofitable arena of Tudor fiction, and he did so with The Fifth Queen despite his publisher’s deep reservations. Virginia Woolf wrote her recondite masterpiece Orlando in part to put a toe in Tudor waters, and British author Jean Plaidy made a career out of the dynasty, writing dozens of novels on all things Tudor. C. J. Sansom and Laurien Gardner are currently writing successful and well-regarded ongoing series set in the era, and Tudor historian Alison Weir has recently tried her hand at the fictional side of her subjects. This isn’t to stint writers from the Tudor period itself, all of whom were alive to the dramatic possibilities of the dynasty under which they lived and worked. The 1590s saw both Edmund Spenser (Elizabeth’s brother Edward had died in his father’s arms) and Philip Sidney (he accompanied Elizabeth’s favorite the Earl of Essex on his famous expedition to Cadiz, along with the Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s erstwhile patron). Shakespeare himself, about whom we haven’t written in this series but who certainly lays claim to the greatest Tudor subject of them all, wrote the capstone drama of his career about Henry VIII, the debut performance of which burned down the Globe Theater in 1613 and thus gave rise to a legend.

Perhaps it’s George Garrett, author of three exuberant and immensely readable Tudor novels, who best described the potential rewards the Tudor era holds out for writers of fiction:

There were priceless moments, unearned and unanticipated, even if always hoped for, during the making of these stories. Moments of ineffable joy when (it seemed) the whisperings of ghostly voices became a kind of song in air. It was as if I had knelt by a spring and cupped my hands to drink something clean and cold, something like pure energy. And then the sky turned round and around overhead, leaves danced, light and dark; and voices sang and said extravagant things.

To these sentiments all the authors mentioned here – and their uncountable colleagues passed over in silence (you can’t read it all) – would in one measure or another agree, and it’s that magnetism (“something like pure energy”) that will no doubt keep novelists coming back to the members of this remarkable family.

Or rather, all the members but one! Henry Tudor, King Henry VII, the founder of the dynasty, is universally absent from the pages of Tudor fiction. However else all these authors may disagree, there’s concord on that one point: the fun starts only after the old man has exited stage left. For this one man to be excluded from fictive immortality looks somewhat rude in retrospect, and for generations of novelists to agree on anything is nothing short of remarkable, so in our next chapter ‘A Year with the Tudors’ will devote its undivided attention to this neglected figure. If at all possible, his children won’t even be mentioned. It seems the least he deserves.

Actually, all these Tudor novels do have on thing in common other than ignoring the founder of their feast: none of them is funny (except in the not infrequent instances when the humor is unintentional). As far as I can tell, only one novel forms the exception to this rule, and so it merits a valedictory mention: No Bed for Bacon by Caryl Brahms and S. J. Simon, a 1941 little comic masterpiece in which the entire cast of Elizabethan notables is shaken together as in a salad – or more properly a potato salad, since that prince of legumes has hilarious pride of place in the book. Brahms and Simon everywhere display a virtually Wodehousian knack for both comic timing and the perfectly-chosen adjective:

“How do I look?” asked Elizabeth of England.Add New
Lady Meanwell looked at the bald head, the scraggy neck, the blackened teeth, the grim shoulderblades.
“Wonderful,” she said.

We’ll close our mini-tour of Tudor fiction, with all its issues of accuracy and authorial liberties, by quoting the notice Brahms and Simon place, Twain-style, at the beginning of their book:

WARNING TO SCHOLARS
This book is fundamentally unsound.

___
Steve Donoghue was the cofounder of the Sei Mogli Review with Norman Douglas in Florence in 1921, a journal dedicated to the fusion of Italian imagist poetry and revisionist historical scholarship. It had a brief life. Today he hosts the blog Stevereads, which is doggedly dedicated to much the same thing.

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