Monday, February 22, 2010

Hectic Times, Competition, and Cheering Crowds ...

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?

12 comments:

Janet said...

I absolutely loved The Other Boleyn Girl - the book. I am such a history buff and that book takes you to a past so interesting and intriguing I didn't want it to end. Did you know that she got the idea for the book when she saw an old photograph (speaking of photos over on JJ) with a boat named The Mary Boleyn when she was doing research about Anne? Amazing!

And I will say I was disappointed in the movie - not as a movie, because it was a fabulous movie, but in context with the book. The book was so much better. But - I will rewatch the movie over and over - I love that era (and The Tudors, what I've seen of it, is great).

Isn't it fun how as a writer everything you read influences you? Either in your actual writing, or in learning an aspect of writing, discovering what not to do, figuring out what you want to do. Reading has taken on a whole new meaning since I got serious about my writing.

Great post, Helena.

Joanne Brothwell said...

Helena, like I really need to add to my TBR list! This book sounds fascinating. I have never been a history buff but recently enjoyed the time-travel novel Outlander so much that I think I might actually start reading more of it.

As for being influenced by what I'm reading - yes very much so. Every novel gives me some fresh perspective, some new idea that usually snowballs. I agree with Janet, that reading has taken on a new meaning since I started writing. It's more like homework now, but fun homework.

Thanks for the post Helena,

Silver James said...

Henry VIII and the entire Tudor reign has always fascinated me. However, it's Elizabeth I who really piques my interest!

I always think the books are better than the movie...despite Viggo's depiction of Aragorn. Oh be still my heart!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Helena,
What I'm reading right now are books about the French Resistance. I'm reading them for research, to learn details about what was going on in France during WW2 and to emmerse myself in the feeling of that era. How did the French feel about being an occupied country? What did they do about it?

I haven't read The Other Boleyn Girl but as a history buff like Janet I certainly would love to. I'm in awe of the amount of research an author like Phillipa Gregory does. But it makes me realize that a writer can't scimp on knowledge and research, no matter what era she writes in. It's the details and ring of authenticity that makes a novel.

Jana

Helena said...

Hi, Janet. So glad you also liked the book. I used to read historical fiction all the time, and after this one, I believe I've re-hooked myself. I did not know the story about the photograph. I have to admit that when I first heard about it I wondered if Anne really had a sister, or if she made her up. I was pleased to know she really existed.

I'll be watching the movie as soon as I can get hold of it back home. And I'll let you know if I agree with you -- as a movie, and as a based-on story.

You're right about influences from my reading. I'm always thinking something about the craft, tho not at the expense of enjoying the reading. It's sort of as a reflection afterwards -- how did she do that? why couldn't I have thought of that? etc.

Thanks for your comments.

Helena said...

Thanks for stopping by, Joanne.

I loved Outlander, too. When my book club chose it a couple of years ago, I thought I'd gobble up the rest of her books, but the size of my TBR shoved them down the list for awhile. Then I re-read it before going to Surrey last fall, and got the same impulse. Don't know if I should mix them up with the Tudor books.

I think we all agree with the people who say to be a writer it is essential to be a reader ... who reads lots!

Karyn Good said...

Hi Helena. I'm with Janet, I loved The Other Boleyn Girl. It is very well written and very engaging. But I vote for Jonathon Rhys-Meyers portrayal of Henry VIII in the Tudors over Eric Bana's portrayal in TOBG.

Every time I read something like Outlander or The Other Boleyn Girl, etc. I'm astounded at the research that is required and vow never to attempt it. I'll settle for reading other people's wonderful accounts.

It's amazing what you can learn about technique, style and voice (among many other things) by being a reader and seeing how other authors do it. Although some days I wish I could just sit down and read the book already without analyzing it :)

Helena said...

Silver, as I mentioned, I am keen to read more from what is called Philippa Gregory's Tudor Library. Have you read any of her books?

If not, you may be particularly interested inThe Queen's Fool (rivalry between Mary I, known as Bloody Mary, and Elizabeth I), The Virgin's Lover (covers the early reign of Eliz I and her relationship with Robert Dudley), and The Other Queen (which is about the rivalry between Elizabeth I and her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots).

I think I agree that movies often don't do justice to the books (our imaginative eyes, minds and hearts are really superior, don't you think?) But I do enjoy the drama and spectacle that plays out in movies ... not to mention the hunk factor!

Glad you stopped by today!

Helena said...

Jana, you have reminded me that I am supposed to be deep into my research into the Fifties before I go on to the revision stage of the story I drafted during NaNoWriMo. I have a list! It is necessary even tho I was there, I know a lot escaped my attention at the time, or I need to be reminded again of 'the way we were.'

The month I've taken out of my writing life (all of Feb.) has meant I have lost a few of the strands ... need to get those GOALS out in front of my face again.

My book club read a memoir that came across like a novel about wartime France from the point of view of the French people. The manuscript was discovered among the author's papers ... help me out somebody, the title has escaped me and I don't have my book club list with me.

Maybe some day you'll have time to take on the Tudors ... for reading enjoyment, I mean.

Helena said...

Well, Karyn, I'll have to let you know later if the vote is unanimous for JR-M over Eric Bana. I suspect it will be, because I think he has done a fabulous job of the role.

I usually start a book with the idea that I am reading for pleasure, and if it is good, then I just go for it. If something isn't quite right about the story, then I will get distracted into analysis. Otherwise, the issues of craft generally emerge later, or while the book is sitting somewhere waiting for me to get back to it.

I wonder how many writers begin a novel set in a specific era or even a particular location, without realising what research will be necessary for that authentic feel that we all hope our stories will have.

Thanks for your comments!

connie said...

Hi Helena,
I just finished a medieval romance by Angie Ray. I was so frustrated by her historical errors that reading it became a search for more errors, not more story e.g. she claims Henry III signed the Magna Carta even though he was not born until the following year!
I hate that. If an author can't do some research, they should abandon the plot and write something that doesn't need research because otherwise, most readers will pitch the book after a few chapters in disgust.
At the water gate of the Tower of London, I stood in the spot where Anne made her plea for her life to Henry and I had a copy of the in an old London news book. Shivers! I felt sorry for her. She was a political sacrificial lamb.
As a 'by the way', her body was found in the chapel at the Tower of London recently, and identified because she had six fingers. I also saw Henry VIII's suit of armour with a cod piece 11" long - rampant as they say. Maybe he was a fiction writer too?
Mary Queen of Scots fascinates me but I haven't yet found a book about her that grabs my interest with good writing.
I can't remember anything much about dates (except Pete - he was...) I mean about historical dates but I remember trivia e.g. Mary Queen of Scots had her head shaved and wore a wig for the occasion of her demise. Hence, when the headsman held up the head by the hair, guess what rolled into the audience...
Everything I read seems to merit a note to myself with reference to a plot I am working on or have shelved.
I was aware of Anne but paid no attention. Now I have to add her to my pile of books to read. Talk about the tower of London! The pile is way out of hand. What if it falls over?
If you haven't read Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards, you are in for a treat plus some amazing asides that are very useful for historical fiction.
I liked your blog a lot and my grandson's team lost 3-2.
connie

Helena said...

Thanks, Connie.

Yes, you lose faith when you find even one error. After that, how do you know for sure, because I sure don't know all the facts, so you hope to be able to trust the author has done enough research to make the factual stuff right.

After the historical facts are correct, then it makes the emotional and motivational factors acceptable, or the fictional characters believable. The parts that Philippa Gregory calls the 'creative' part of the work.

The hockey games around here have hit both high and low, so a loss is par for the course now and then.

Glad you had time to stop by today.