Does the economic downturn, the green shoots of recovery having withered in the coldest spring for fifty years, mean that more people are reading historical fiction and watching historical drama on television to escape from the grim reality of the day? Or are the books simply better written and better presented?
Last week was Independent Bookshop Week – go out to a shop and buy an historical novel or two. Sit down, turn off the television and read.
I saw that an astonishing two million people watched the second episode of The White Queen, currently on BBC One on Sunday evening. I can understand two million people watching the first episode, but the second? It is my view that the BBC has done no favours to historical fiction by dramatizing this romance.
I don’t really have any quarrel with people reading Philippa Gregory, her novels are bodice-ripping page turners, but they remain in the realm of historical romance no more, so to use her text for a drama about English history, and an important turning point at that, seems to me to be a mistake.
Compare this to the incomparable Helen Castor The She-Wolves of England, also broadcast by the BBC and you will see where I am going. The difficulty about visual realisation (ie. drama) is that it often becomes the story: take any film or any TV series and think about the difference between this and reading the same story.
In the present series, the Max Irons and Rebecca Ferguson are too clean, too beautifully manicured and stride about too manfully to have lived in the 1450s, this is also true of The Tudors, the ITV series, equally misleading since the lead character looked and behaved very differently from anything that we think we know about Henry VIII, who stank among other things. Will the present actor, (is he related to the utterly gorgeous Jeremy?) playing Edward IV grow fatter, grow so grossly fat that he cannot even mount a horse to go into battle? That is what happened, and also why he died at 41, flinging the country into chaos again and leading, almost inevitably, to the Tudor supremacy.
It doesn’t seem to me to be enough to say “they believed in magic at the time” and therefore to create a super-magical story around what amounted to a seduction by a desperate and sexy woman of a known philanderer with interesting and dangerous consequences for the country.
So why is reading about this preferable? Because in good historical fiction the people smell, have bad teeth (and breath), wade about in dirty streets or on dirty rushes; the nobles are not gloriously handsome with white teeth, though some of them are possibly. Probably both Henry VIII and Edward IV were glorious in their youth, but by the time they in their forties one was already dead and the other grossly corpulent; it is sad therefore that more people don’t spend Sunday evening reading.
For Sharon Penman, who has written a brilliant series about the struggles of the English monarchy from the time of Stephen and Mathilda, When Christ and his Saints Slept, right up to The Sunne in Splendour which deals with the War of the Roses is definitely worth trying; then there are the others: Hilary Mantel, C J Sansom both bring the times of Henry VIII to full-bodied, full-blooded life in prose, or H M F Prescott who wrote about the dissolution of the monasteries so vividly in A Man on a Donkey, one of my favourite books. Rory Clements does for Elizabeth I, with his John Shakespeare series, what C J Sansom does with Matthew Shardlake and Henry VIII. Sharon Penman and Edith Pargeter both bring to life the story of the Welsh Princes of Gwynedd (and writing as Ellis Peters) Cadfael does for Welsh life, what Shakespeare and Shardlake do, bring life to fiction.
Alison Weir also deals with the English monarchy, especially Edward II, and while her books are not historical fiction, they read as if they were. Not forgetting, the extraordinary output of David Starkey who brings his forensic knowledge of history to both screen and page.