No, I'm not talking about the Olympics. Janet covered that scene for us last week. Yes, I am in the midst of hectic and exciting times with my grandchildren while their parents do some travelling (some of it upcoming as the Olympics come to a close next weekend), but I gave you a peek into my life with the children two weeks ago. The cheering crowds could refer to my grandsons' hockey games I have been attending. But, no ... I am talking about the turbulent era of the Tudors, and the lives of people who observed and were part of the court of King Henry VIII of England. And because I have just finished reading The Other Boleyn Girl, by Phillippa Gregory, I have so many thoughts running through my head as a result.
I had the book on my TBR list for months, and finally, when the movie based on it was about to be released, I pulled it from its spot in the pile. (I usually try to read the book before I see the movie.) I brought it with me to read this month while I stay with my grandchildren. This is the story of Mary Boleyn, whose life was every bit as dramatic as that of her older sister, Anne, though not nearly as well-known. I also watched the television series, The Tudors, which was broadcast on CBC, and the period has come alive for me through these dramatic and fictional treatments of the events of that era of history.
Anita posed a question in her post last Thursday concerning what we are currently reading and how the books we read may change or influence us. Philippa Gregory's intensive research into the the historical periods she writes about guarantees her readers an experience they will never forget. I have read two of her earlier books, Earthly Joys and Virgin Earth, which were about John Tradescant the Elder, and his son, John Tradescant the Younger, respectively. The Tradescants were seventeenth-century horticulturists, and to this day are honoured for their work in establishing some of the great English gardens that are still in existence. Their lives were intertwined with the political intrigue and civil unrest of their times, and both men travelled the world on British trading voyages, sent by royal edict to search for and return with plants to grace the gardens of the nobility and royalty. Reading those novels a few years ago in preparaton for a trip to England to tour famous gardens with a group of gardening enthusiasts was very enlightening, in terms of both political and horticultural history.
As for the Boleyns ... well, what a power-hungry family they were! Through the story of the Boleyn girls, who were sent away to France at an early age to learn how to become members of the royal court, we see how women were used in the pursuit of power and influence. In their early teens, they became ladies-in-waiting to Katherine, then Queen of England. When they caught the eye of the king, each in turn was ordered by the Boleyn uncle and father to submit to his fancies. When his interest in Mary waned and he turned his attention to Anne, Mary was ordered to support her sister regardless of the feelings that she had developed for young King Henry. Both girls were expected to marry men, chosen by the family, who would bring titles, land, and riches to all members of the family, and, of course, a greater influence at court. (Translation: Power)
The 'other Boleyn girl' was the younger sister Mary (although in the novel, Anne once referred to herself in those terms because Mary had become King Henry's mistress before he married Anne). That particular term was probably coined by the author, but Gregory did use an extensive list of twenty-one books in her research of the era, in particular, the politics surrounding the clergy and the Pope's attitude to Henry's attempt to annul his marriage to Katherine, the attitudes toward women, sexual matters, birthing customs, witchcraft, and also the family history of the Boleyns. In her acknowledgments and notes from an interview, she attests to the accuracy of the personage of Mary, but freely admits that the fictional part of the story is her attribution of motivations and feelings of the characters. I found it a fascinating study of the relationships between the sisters, the Boleyn family, and the other courtiers, not to mention King Henry himself.
From the perspective of a writer, I was intrigued that Gregory chose to write the story in first person from the point of view of Mary Boleyn. When asked about this, she explained: "I found Mary, rather than 'picked' her. I was delighted to come across a character who was in the spotlight, but mostly in the wings of one of the most intriguing periods of British history, and her relationship to Anne was something that I knew would be stimulating and provocative." She also expanded on why she thinks Mary's the best narrator for the story: "I think history is always more interesting when told by the 'losers' or those on the margins. This is because most conventional history is that of the 'winners,' so you get a different slant. But because she is badly treated by her family and by the king, it is possible to show her development from naive and trusting and very young girl, to a woman who is ready to turn her back on the court. The way she tells the story is also part of the story itself."
So, in part, my answer to Anita's query is to say that every novel I read, from whatever genre, gives me insight into how writers construct stories, how they approach perspective and character, and I become aware of the enormous importance of research, especially for an historical novel. Philippa Gregory followed this novel with several more about the Tudors. As you can imagine, my TBR pile just got larger!
What are you reading today? How do you, a writer, relate to the novels that you read, whether they are in the genre you write or not?