Historical Fiction, Historical Memory

For me, the Tudors were characters before they were historical figures.

There was the young Elizabeth, a victim of her father’s neglect, haunted by the knowledge of her mother’s execution at the hands of her father, taunted by her sister’s cruel remarks about her mother, a victim of her sister’s paranoia and the Seymours’ ambition. There was older Elizabeth, torn between her love for her country and the pressure to marry, besieged by the Spanish, both betrayed by and cruel executioner of her cousin Mary Stuart.

There was Anne Boleyn, the victim of her family’s ambition, of Henry’s desire for a son, the ambitious woman who destroyed Catherine of Aragon’s life and marriage, who bullied a young Mary Tudor and stole away her father. There was Jane Grey, a lone intellectual, the victim of her parents’ ambition, thrust onto a throne she didn’t want, a throne she would die for. And there was Mary Stuart, queen of a throne she barely knew, victim of an education she never received, ambitious plotter for the throne of her cousin, and victim of Elizabeth’s paranoia.

As I grew up, I began to understand that these people were actual historical figures, not characters with whom you could choose a side. But still, there was always a part of me which “sided” with Elizabeth and Anne, because they were the first characters I met in this sub-genre of historical fiction, and the first characters I became attached to (perhaps as a result of a childish form of nascent feminism). I met their fictional constructions before I was old enough or knowledgeable enough to confront their historical realities, and even when I was old enough, it was hard to shake off my attachment to their fictional counterparts.

But now, looking back, the way I related to these “characters” was so similar to how I related to the characters in Harry Potter (I started reading HP and Tudor fiction at around the same age). However, Harry, Ron, Hermione et al, for all their depth, were (are) fictional. Elizabeth and the rest weren’t, aren’t. The Tudors were real, complex, multi-faceted people whose actions had consequences on others, and who had a real effect on the course of history. Elizabeth wasn’t an unlikely hero. She was a brilliant queen who defeated the Spanish, shed more blood than her sister, began the English colonization of North America, embraced a form of religious toleration, and possibly refused to marry as a result of sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of that “ambitious character” Thomas Seymour. And so forth down the line.

Now I must ask: is this dangerous? Is it dangerous to allow the persons of historical figures to be constructed through fiction? Is it dangerous to take a complex human being and construct them into the protagonist or antagonist of an ahistorical narrative? Is it dangerous to mold someone acting within a different moral/ethical context into our own conception of what constitutes right and wrong? Is it dangerous to construct a character with whom people are intended to sympathize or reject while ignoring, or glossing over the parts of their historical persona which do not fit into the fictional one?

As a person who has (and still does) read a LOT of historical fiction (and not just about the Tudors) in her day, who has thought quite seriously about writing historical fiction, and who appreciates the genre as a means by which to get people interested in history, these are uncomfortable questions for me to ask. But the truth of the matter is that historical fiction puts forth versions of historical figures to people who may never have reason to read a history book about that figure and their context. And that, whether I like it or not, is worthy of concern.

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