Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Medieval Princesses Are Wimps????

There was an interesting article in the Daily Mail t'other day in which Hilary Mantel explains the popularity of the Tudor era.

Speaking of earlier periods she says: 'It's because women -apart from a very few outstanding individuals - make no mark on it.' (History, that is.)
'They are passive princesses, to be married or given in marriage. We know little about their personalities and it's hard to imagine their feelings.
'Then with the age of Henry VIII everything changes. Women come to the fore as never before, and indeed as rarely since - no longer just love or lust objects, they become power players.'

Really? Well, I'll see your six wives of Henry the Butcher and raise you Margaret of Anjou, Elizabeth Woodville, Cecily Neville, Margaret Beaufort, Margaret of York, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Yolande of Aragon, Isabelle the Fair (Edward II's wife), Empress Matilda, Queen Maud (King Stephen's wife) and Katherine Swynford. These women all (in their own ways) made a significant mark on history, and we know at least as much about their personalities and feelings as we do of those of (say) Katherine Howard, about whom we know virtually nothing.

Among the lower ranks? There were plenty of formidable matrons running businesses in 15th century London for a start. We've Margery Kempe the visionary. My personal nomination would be Margaret Paston. A woman who could defend her home from a small army with the same casual aplomb she applied to ordering herrings for Lent.

You may say these only add up to 'outstanding individuals' as charged. My answer is that this is true in any age, and by the way it covers men too. For every Field Marshal Montgomery there are an awful lot of Tommy Atkins focused on beer, fags, women and football and leaving very little mark at all, except in the hearts of their families.

I think we shall have to find another reason for the popularity of the Tudors. I must admit, it baffles me, but I'm rather pleased too as I'd hate to see what TV would do to the York family!

Hilary Mantel has published a new novel Wolf Hall set in Henry VIII's reign - natch. I've had a glance at it and it looks interesting if you're into that era. One thing I particularly noticed was that it follows the modern trend of placing direct speech in the present tense. So you get this sort of effect:

'It is a very strange way of writing,' says Alianore.
The Duke of Gloucester says, 'If it was our normal writer, I would think he was taking the piss to some tune.'
'Aye, my lord,' Alianore says, 'but this appears to be serious historical fiction.'
'No doubt it is a new fashion, like short doublets that reveal the top of one's hose,' says the duke.

I notice that Philippa Gregory has done the same thing in The White Queen. I think it's meant to give a feeling of immediacy or something, and it might be appropriate in a contemporary story, but immediacy is not really the thing for historical fiction. In my opinion, anyway, but obviously my opinion is not shared in some high editorial places.

I can only say that if I ever write HF in this style (other than in parody) you may call me 'Muller'.


  1. I'll raise you Aethelflaed Lady of the Mercians, Hild of Whitby and Raedwald's unnamed queen, all of whom wielded power and influence. We don't know much if anything about their thoughts and feelings, though that's equally true of the men at the time.

    It seems a curious statement to make even about Tudor times. I can't see Katherine Howard as a power player, poor kid. And Anne Boleyn's power came about because of the King's love (lust?) interest in her; once that turned against her, Anne had no power base of her own to call on. I wonder if the Daily Mail edited Hilary Mantel's comments.

    I rather think the current popularity of the Tudor period is at least in part attributable to a circular process of celebrity; it's well-known so it gets used as a subject for TV and film (I daresay the low-cut frocks don't hurt, either) so it gets more popular, and so on.

    Is the whole book in present tense, or just the dialogue? I think you're right that present tense is supposed to give a feeling of immediacy, but for me it does the exact opposite. It feels like reading a screenplay. I hope it's a passing fad.

  2. Perhaps Hilary should add 'piece' to make such a wonderful double-barrelled name.

    And how appropriate.

  3. There is just one lady you left out - Elizabeth of York.

    The medieval Diana and how!

  4. Ultimately I wonder if we can ever really know how anyone truly feels, except ourselves. Generally we have to judge on what they *say* they feel, or our interpretations of their actions.

    I think this present tense is a literary fashion at the moment. I can't actually recall whether all of Mantel's book is in present tense, but PG certainly uses it for more than dialogue. First person is also much more fashionable than it was a few years ago, when many publishers wouldn't touch it.

    Personally I find it a bit off-putting to have (say) Elizabeth Woodville describing events as if she's talking into a camera as they happen. But I suppose it is a matter of taste. Fashion does play a big part in writing though, and writers are often at the mercy of what their publishers demand, which in turn is based on what they think readers want.

  5. I read a few pages last night and all of that was in the present tense. I'll keep an open mind but I don't care for it much myself.

  6. The Tudor mania is getting on the ridiculous side right now. Ten years ago I admittedly thought of this period in British history as my favorite. Right now, I am pretty much sick of it. And despite Wolf Hall getting the Booker Prize I can't help but htink that the author went with the flow of what's selling now.