We’re a nation in thrall to the Tudors. For, five centuries later, this isle is yet intrigued by their larger-than-life characters, domestic dramas, and sensational rise-and-falls. Quite apart from the dodgy doublets and leg-of-mutton sleeves that feature on many of their covers, they’ve left us another, literary fashion: historical fiction. These books thrive on getting under the skin of the immortal Tudor dynasty. This crowns three of 2012’s reigning writers.
The Tudors lived in an age riveted by religion, politics, and personal obsession. But their history is being rewritten. This popular genre – which it unabashedly is – is a publisher’s dream. Historical fiction sells. Philippa Gregory, a writer who lives in Yorkshire and often visits this city, authors ‘historical fiction at its best.’ Snapped up in their hundreds of thousands, her books fly off the shelves. Now a household name, thanks in part to a star-cast film and further TV adaptations, Gregory made her Tudor debut in 2001. The Other Boleyn Girl became an out-and-out bestseller. From an age uneasy with female rule, she and others have taken women as their subjects; women frequently blotted from the pages of the past. Intrigued by Henry VIII’s launching of a ship named Mary Boleyn, the author cast this other, more obscure sister at the heart of a full-blooded narrative of scheming, sisterhood, and being mistress to the King of England. A further five page-turners followed hot on its heels in the Tudor Court series.
The UK’s biggest-selling female historian for over a decade – and a so-called ‘popular historian’ at that – was tempted into writing fiction in 2006. ‘With a style that casts even Philippa Gregory’s stately gavottes in a dashing new light’ according to the Independent, Alison Weir pens books about the private lives of kings and queens. In her second novel, The Lady Elizabeth, a toddler with red-tresses steadily tells her father ‘I am going to be King when I grow up.’ At first under the spell of the court, glitteringly told in Weir’s textured language, this ‘headstrong little girl’ must also come to recognise its poison. The writing is homespun and vivid; the words are pearly.
‘We have virtually no evidence for her feelings about her mother, and no means of knowing if she believed Anne Boleyn to be innocent or guilty’, the author notes. Told of her mother’s execution before her third birthday, Elizabeth must unravel the stories of her mother’s black arts and ‘the tragedy that had overtaken her.’ Her surviving childhood is gambled on loyalty above all trickery and treason, to beat her path to the throne. All of Weir’s books have become bestsellers. The latest, released this June, knits together the narratives of four of those locked up in Tower of London. One captive Katherine – a potential successor to her distant relative’s throne – reads the records of another Katherine – the illegitimate daughter of Richard III – to unstitch the age-old secret of the princes in the tower in A Dangerous Inheritance.
For author Sarah Gristwood writing in the Telegraph, this is ‘the latest literary guilty pleasure.’ For the New Yorker’s James Wood, however, it’s ‘a somewhat gimcrack genre, not exactly jammed with greatness.’ Sprawlingly defined, and with a backlist too great to deal with here, histfic is a strange beast – and one that has come in for a bit of a bashing. Even the term itself ‘is beginning to look like an accusation, a stick to beat writers with’ argued one novelist in the Guardian 3 years ago. ‘By and large historical novels are just pulp fiction with a historical setting’ and the genre itself ‘largely populated with vintage clichés and sell-out epics’ Guy Stagg blogged just three months ago. Dismissed for an age as ‘bodice-rippers with a bibliography’, the latest modern Tudor fictions are often recommended for their readability. Much modern historical fiction raises certain expectations of a tapestry of royal tangles, jeopardy, and frocketry.
‘I’ve seen it transformed from being something which was regarded as the provenance of rather stupid women writers and readers to becoming much more mainstream’ Philippa Gregory reasons. A not inconsiderable £25,000 is at stake for competitors of the Walter Scott award, which judges historical fiction. Just two years old, the prize has begun to create a buzz around such books. One thing is certain: historical fiction is provoking debate. Putting flesh back on the bones of five-hundred-year-old characters, novelists become resurrectionists. Realms more writers now have ever-more readers hooked on their bestselling books in a renaissance of reading. For them, long may it reign.
‘As a writer you reach a hand into the universe and say, right, let’s stop there, and have another look’ reveals this next author. Strapping in size, Hilary Mantel Wolf Hall is a stunning, cerebral novel. Published back in 2009, the Man Booker winner’s subject is the rise of Thomas Cromwell – from nothing and nowhere. ‘In biography his essential self is missing, because his private life is almost entirely off the record’ she has explained. This is a white-knuckle read. Mantel’s writing creeps like treacle through the cracks of a monarchy navigating the unpredictable waters of C16th ambition and violence. The narration itself is nuanced; the language lustrous. When Henry VIII dresses, ‘the sable lining creeps down over his hands, as if he were a monster king, growing his own fur.’
The first recipient of the Walter Scott award, Wolf Hall carries a real historical weightiness on its shoulders. ‘I have my suspicions that Hilary Mantel actually is Thomas Cromwell’ wrote one reviewer. Bring up the Bodies, the second instalment in this Tudor trilogy, is, too, one hell of a historical novel. Now, the House of Tudor begins to turn against the man who has done so much for it. Cromwell is left teetering on the brink of his own destruction. Long-listed once again for the Booker, will this, like its predecessor, take the crown? Mantel is making history at the heart of this genre’s own, unstoppable rise. She writes:
‘It’s the living that turn and chase the dead. The long bones and skulls are tumbled from their shrouds, and words like stones thrust into their rattling mouths; we edit their writings, we rewrite their lives.’
… The rest is history.
Historical novelist Alison Weir is at York Explore Library on the evening of Wednesday 22nd August to discuss the facts behind the fiction and innocent blood imperilled by its closeness to the throne.