It has always bemused me that there is so little formal – or, for that matter, informal – dialogue and collaboration between historians and literary scholars. Each are aware of the others’ work, certainly; but the intellectual, cultural and administrative inheritances that maintain the academic silos of schools and faculties surely seem increasingly outdated in a 21st-century, hyper-connected world.
But each discipline has much to learn from the other about the way our ancestors explained the world and their place in it to themselves, how they negotiated that place with one another, and more generally about how meaning is shaped and expressed over time through language, thought and action.
In particular, I would argue that only inter-disciplinary approaches can hope to recover the human experiences of the past, the texture of each now, the resonance of the senses for historical actors whose lives we tend otherwise reduce to mere thought.
I was thinking about this while rereading a couple of Shakespeare’s later plays recently, specifically Henry VIII and The Winter’s Tale. Both were among the plays Shakespeare’s company performed at its indoor theatre, itself created out of part of the Great Hall of the former Blackfriars priory.
Last year I reviewed Nancy Bilyeau’s excellent début Tudor thriller, The Crown which is set during the dissolution of the monasteries. Its sequel, The Chalice, is being published in the UK by Orion on February 28; and in North America by Simon & Schuster on March 5.
Nancy has kindly agreed to take part in an online discussion with me comparing the processes of writing historical fiction and non-fiction, trying both to identify common ground and to explore the different ways in which we approach problems such as narrative and character. There is a tendency to look down on historical fiction, but at its best it is trying to tell a kind of truth – more usually an emotional truth – about life in a particular period; and at its best, again, it can do that in a way that it is very hard for straight “history” to achieve.
Mathew: Hi Nancy. Many thanks for joining me here! I’m really looking forward to talking to you! I thought we might start by talking about research.
For me, the research process is the most purely enjoyable part of writing a work of non-fiction because – particularly when you start out – you don’t have to make too many decisions and you can read as widely as you like, following both sense and intuition to find possible sources. It’s a very open process because one of the things I am trying to find is the shape of the book, and that only emerges once you have absorbed a certain amount of information and started to map out a universe – which is the parameters of your area – and a rough sense of where your narrative will begin and end.
Anne Boleyn (there are no authenticated contemporary portraits of Anne)
It is impossible to know what Elizabeth I thought or felt about the fact that her father, Henry VIII, had executed her mother, Anne Boleyn, on charges of adultery with, among others, Elizabeth’s uncle and Anne’s brother. It is entirely possible, given that she was not yet three when her mother died, that she had no real memory of Anne at all. But it is hard to conceive that such a family history would not be the cause of at least a little emotional unquiet.
There would of course have been many around Elizabeth who could have attested to her infant relationship with Anne Boleyn and described to her many maternal intimacies and acts of tenderness and care that we might imagine, from our own experiences as parents and children, but which we cannot recreate from the evidence that now survives.
In fact, the only meaningful description of Anne Boleyn together with her daughter that we have comes from a letter written to Elizabeth I after her accession in 1559.
I was asked on Twitter the other day (by the estimable @rocio_carvajalc) how many illegitimate children Henry VIII had. It’s an interesting question and, for obvious reasons, it’s also one to which the answer isn’t altogether clear. However, I am going to write about three possible candidates. One was certainly Henry’s child; another more likely than not; and the third rumoured but, on balance, unlikely. If anyone has any other candidates, please do let me know!
The only bastard child acknowledged by Henry was the son named Henry Fitzroy – the given name being something of a clue – who was born to Henry’s then mistress, Elizabeth Blount in the summer of 1519. The newborn boy was, therefore, three years younger than Henry’s legitimate daughter, Mary, born in February 1516. Mary’s mother, Katherine of Aragon, had lost two baby sons by that time: one born on New Year’s Day 1511 and christened Henry, who died on February 22 the same year; and another stillborn in the closing weeks of 1514.
Ralegh waited until Elizabeth was long dead before he committed his thoughts on her father to paper. This brutal analysis of Henry VIII’s moral and political shortcomings comes from the Preface to Ralegh’s History of the World,written during his imprisonment in the Tower of London and published in 1614.
If all the pictures and patterns of a merciless prince were lost in the world, they might all again be painted to the life out of the story of this king. For how many servants did he advance in haste (but for what virtue no man could suspect), and with the change of his fancy ruined again; no man knowing for what offence! To how many others of more desert gave he abundant flowers from whence to gather honey, and in the end of harvest burnt them in the hive! How many wives did he cut off and cast off, as his fancy and affection changed! How many princes of the blood (whereof some of them for age could hardly crawl towards the block), with a world of others of all degrees (of whom our common chronicles have kept the account), did he execute! Yea, in his very deathbed, and when he was at the point to have given his account to God for the abundance of blood already spilt, he imprisoned the Duke of Norfolk the father, and executed the Earl of Surrey the son; the one, whose deservings he knew not how to value, having never omitted anything that concerned his own honour and the king’s service; the other, never having committed anything worthy of his least displeasure: the one exceeding valiant and advised; the other no less valiant than learned, and of excellent hope. But besides the sorrows which he heaped upon the fatherless and widows at home, and besides the vain enterprises abroad, wherein it is thought that he consumed more treasure than all our victorious kings did in their several conquests; what causeless and cruel wars did he make upon his own nephew King James the Fifth! What laws and wills did he devise, to establish this kingdom in his own issues! using his sharpest weapons to cut off and cut down those branches, which sprang from the same root that himself did. And in the end (notwithstanding these his so many irreligious provisions) it pleased God to take away all his own, without increase; though, for themselves in their several kinds, all princes of eminent virtue.
NOTE: If you are interested in my other posts on Ralegh, they are here, here, here, here, here, here and here.