Sunday, 4 September 2011

I never thought I'd be using my history degree to defend The Other Boleyn Girl

Slumping on my boyfriend's sofa in a Bank Holiday Monday food coma, University Challenge came on the telly. Everyone loves University Challenge, for that moment when you correctly answer one question and crown yourself Super Clever Queen of Ace Town. This was a particularly fruitful episode: I managed to get a full three answers (Super Clever Queen of Thrice Town?).

(a) From the Greek blah blah blah, what is the name given to a rapid heartbeat of above 70bpm? (TACHYCARDIA!); (b) Name this woman and the man she married after Henry VIII (KATHERINE PARR AND THOMAS SEYMOUR!); (c) Which is the only bone in the human body which is not articulated with any other bone? (HYOID!) I got these answers from (a) my medical history, (b) the works of Philippa Gregory, and (c) having watched five series of Bones in the last month. And they say Low Culture doesn't teach you anything.

So, Philippa Gregory! Are you going to lose all respect for me if I admit to a strange obsession with her Tudor series? That is a risk I will have to take, but before you denounce me to the proper authorities, I do have some sort of a defence.

Low Culture can actually be immensely informative, as demonstrated above. (Obviously it often takes some entertaining liberties with the facts, and I guess not everyone goes straight to Wikipedia to verify whether Anne Boleyn totally did it with her brother, so you do have to take lots of it with a fulsome pinch of salt.) But more importantly, it generates genuine enthusiasm for fairly arcane topics: I always thought the Tudors were kind of boring (my historical interests lie more in the twentieth century, which resulted in me coining a shorthand for human rights violations: HRVs! Fun!), but my Amazon wishlist is now chock full of Proper Scholarly Works on the period - and I'm waiting with baited breath for delivery of a book subtitled A Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII.

One of the trickiest things in studying history is really believing that people lived hundreds of years ago who loved and hoped and dreamed and shat just like you. You can learn the statistic that up to 95% of the indigenous population of the Americas died from European diseases brought by colonizers - but you can't understand what that means, what it was like to live through, until you bring it down to an individual human level. I know what it's like to lose a family member. From there, I can project how it might feel to lose everyone in my family. I can try to extend that to imagine losing every single person I've ever loved, liked, or even had a vague nodding acquaintance with, and begin to have a glimmer of the actual scale of the tragedy: of what "95%" actually means.

And fiction is perfectly placed to do this. Barbara Kingsolver observes that "a history book can educate you, but oddly, a novel is much more likely to move you to tears, because it creates empathy". The human brain just doesn't have the capacity to care deeply about millions of individuals, but through one 'case study', you can truly comprehend how it felt to one of those millions: "Fiction cultivates empathy for a theoretical stranger by putting you inside his head, allowing you to experience life from his point of view.  It can broaden your view of gender, ethnicity, place and time, power and vulnerability, things that influence social interaction".

So, the schoolbook story of Big Henry's Quest For A Son never struck me as particularly compelling, because it was always told from his perspective. What Gregory does is bring the women of the period to life. She imagines them as astute political actors, navigating a world where their power was extremely curtailed, and puts their experience at centre stage. By so grimly detailing how these women's only chance of improving their own situation was by making a good marriage, she makes you feel the patriarchal norms of late medieval court society, not just learn them.

She is kind of a sexist, though.

For a start, anyone who puts the phrase "beneath the good name, we (Boleyns) are all just bitches on heat" into the mouth of her protagonist has gained some major misogyny points. Then there's her rendering of major historical figures: Elizabeth I, for example; slutty and sex-crazed and manipulative and power-mad. Partly this is just for shock value - "aha! You all love Elizabeth, but maybe she was MEAN!" - but the specific framing is packed full of deeply misogynistic tropes. Anne Boleyn is painted in a similar light. I'm ambivalent about this character: presenting Boleyn as a calculating political figure, rather than a doll who sat around until Big Henry picked her as this year's incubator, is great - but it's shown as a bad thing, a pathological lust for power, rather than a perfectly reasonable ambition.

The Good Women protagonists, in contrast, always retreat to their proper sphere. They settle down with a good man and find enormous amounts of fulfilment in making bread and babies rather than laws.

It's no secret that these books aren't great art. They're repetitive, formulaic, and as cheesy as all hell: basically Hollyoaks with swords. And yet! I kind of love them. The lady-hating chafes more than a little, but the paradoxical centring of female experiences  brings them back from irredeemability, for me at least. I don't just want to know what happened in the days of yore, I want to know how it felt: warts, corsets, leaking ulcers and all.


  1. I'm addicted to these books too. My mom will buy them and I'll steal them from her when she's done. It's a good system :D

    I love reading historical fiction that's from a woman's point of view, because as you said, history is generally presented as revolving around what men wanted, did, felt, etc, and it's nice to get a change of pace. And great point about how we can't truly connect to the past via facts and statistics. Making the stories personal definitely made me more interested in the history!

  2. I'm so glad it's not just me!

    Apart from anything else, it's a big effort to read A Scholarly Text On [Historical Phenomenon], whereas picking up a novel doesn't feel like work at all. I mean, I like the academic stuff too, but everyone needs time off :)

    Thanks for stopping by!