Monthly Archives: September 2011

Susan’s Interview with Margaret George, author of The Memoirs of Cleopatra and The Autobiography of Henry VIII

We all know that any work of imagination has to go beyond the recorded facts.  I take that as a given.  But do you think that there is a point at which historical fiction can go too far?  If so, how would you describe the boundaries of what is acceptable and not? Or don’t you think there can be a hard and fast rule?  And if not, do you think “anything goes”?  What historical standards do you hold yourself to?  

Since my goal is to resurrect the person (as much as humanly possible, so they would be pleased and say, “hey, that’s just the way it was!”) that means I am a stickler for accuracy and don’t have much truck with the idea that ‘history is what you make it’—‘well, who can say what really happened’ etc.  I ran into a lot of that with Cleopatra, where people said that as long as there was one iota of ‘doubt’ (usually meaning their own doubt, not experts’ doubts) then the gate was wide open to claiming just about anything.  (“Well, how do we know she was a Ptolemy?”)  This can reach ridiculous lengths and come to ridiculous conclusions.  Then they hide behind, “Well, it’s fiction!”

I’ve always felt those people give a bad name to the rest of us.  It’s too bad that ‘historical fiction’ as a blanket term isn’t very defined or precise. It covers such a spectrum, all the way from the absolute accuracy crowd (which tends to be kind of boring) to the most outlandish things.  Some perpetrators shall go unnamed!
However, people often say, why not write a nonfiction if you are that picky? without realizing they are different art forms.  For one thing, nonfiction allows for (even demands) multiple interpretations, whereas a drama has to select one.  Also, a drama can create dialogue and set scenes and fill in missing pieces.  In short, it’s more fun and also can reveal truth in its own way.  Nonfiction does not have a monopoly on truth.
Can you tell us something about your inspiration for The Autobiography of Henry VIII?

When I was visiting Hampton Court in 1970 and heard the story of Catherine Howard and her shrieking ghost in the Haunted Gallery, I wondered why Anne Boleyn is so famous and Catherine Howard an unknown, when their stories were so similar.  They were cousins and even looked alike, and met the same end.  It struck me that maybe Henry was like Jimmy Stewart in “Vertigo”, where he was responsible for the death of his love, and then tried to re-create her in someone else and have it turn out differently, only it didn’t.  So from that idea I knew I was pursuing a ‘psycho-biography’ of Henry VIII.

Incidentally, the Catherine Howard section of “The Autobiography of Henry VIII” is still my favorite and the one I enjoyed writing the most.  No one else seems to choose it, though, when asked for their favorite part.
In an interview with me, Michael Hirst complained that while people were constantly criticizing “The Tudors” for its departures from historical record, “Wolf Hall” got nothing but praise for its almost entirely imaginative universe.  Care to comment on that?

 Well, I haven’t read “Wolf Hall” yet, but I did see “The Tudors.”  I doubt that Hilary Mantel twisted and trampled on history as wantonly as Michael Hirst did, who either didn’t know the facts or just didn’t care.  He made religious and strait-laced (in real life) women into promiscuous babes (like Edward Seymour’s wife), invented more promiscuous babes whenever it suited him, and let’s just say, you would learn as much about Tudor history from “The Tudors” as you would about prehistoric man from “The Flintstones.” (Not that they aren’t entertaining—but that isn’t the question here.)  From what I understand, “Wolf Hall” is more the psychological portrait of Thomas Cromwell and what it was like to serve Henry VIII.  In that sense it is an ‘imaginative universe.’  But an honest one.

Philippa Gregory, in various interviews and Q and A sessions, has claimed that everything she writes is based on “historical probability.” While she admits to “filling in the gaps”–which seems exactly appropriate for a fiction writer—many would argue that she does much more than this, that she ignores the historical record to create an alternative narrative, which she then passes off as grounded in history.  She seems to want to claim for herself both the status of historian and the prerogatives of a fiction writer.  Care to comment?  

Philippa Gregory is trained as a professional historian but I’ve noticed that people who have credentials as ‘real’ historians seem to enjoy the freedom of fiction after the strictures of nonfiction, for example, Carrolly Erickson and Alison Weir.  Maybe they feel it’s OK to let loose?  And have some fun? So perhaps their definition of fiction has more latitude than fuddy-duddies like me allow themselves.

I noticed that in the earliest novels, authors often had a section devoted to outlining for readers what was created and what is factual in their works.  We tend not to do that any more.  Why not?  And what do you think of such a practice?

I think it’s very important and I have that in all my books.  Originally I suggested it for “The Autobiography of Henry VIII” and was told that fiction didn’t have bibliographies or afterwords, but by the time the paperback came out the publisher changed its mind.  Readers seem to really want that—they need to know whether this or that scene really happened, or where certain information came from.  I think more and more writers are asking that it be included.

I love the titles of your work because in themselves they “announce” that they are works of fiction.  That is, we know that Henry VIII didn’t write an autobiography and Cleopatra didn’t leave any memoirs.  It seems to me that this firmly establishes that what you are doing is from a  fictional point of view.  Is this something that you deliberately want to make clear to readers?  In our “post-Oliver Stone, post-O.J. Trial” era, in which (it seems to me), viewers/readers no longer have much ability to distinguish between different kinds of narratives, do you think the fact/fiction issue has become more problematic?  

Well…I did once overhear someone saying, “This is just a lie!  Henry VIII never wrote an autobiography!”  But, aside from such readers, I think most people can figure it out.  My editor thought I should always have the name of the character in the title so it would be absolutely clear who the book was about.  That got harder and harder—after using up ‘memoirs’ and ‘autobiography’ I had to resort to just the names.  (Although I would have loved ‘The confessions of….’ but the publisher wouldn’t let me.)

And I absolutely agree—people don’t seem to distinguish between fiction and reality anymore.  For one thing, the ‘reality’ TV shows aren’t real at all, but staged, yet people believe them.  And the Oliver Stone stuff…!  Apparently most people get most of their history from TV and movies now and have no idea what happened in real life.  For example, everyone is certain (if they’ve heard of her at all) that Livia poisoned lots of people in ancient Rome, because of “I, Claudius.”  But that was Robert Graves’ fiction and historians say that never happened.  But the script and the performance were so compelling they were utterly convincing.

Some defenders of Philippa Gregory have argued that “all history is interpretation anyway.”  This was said, for example, by Natalie Portman, who played Anne in “the Other Boleyn Girl.”  Neither she nor Scarlet Johansen nor Eric Bana did much research beyond reading PG’s novel, and seemed to think that getting the costuming and accents right was sufficient, because “all you got from historians was competing views, anyway.”  Care to comment?

I think they are all a bunch of ignoramuses (in spite of Natalie’s Harvard degree).  Lazy.  Un-intellectually curious.  (Now how’s that for a value judgment?)  As for hiding behind such a dumb and dismissive statement as ‘all you got from historians was competing views, anyway’, I wonder if they carry that philosophy over into their medical treatments?  (“What the heck, they can’t decide how many cigarettes it takes to cause lung cancer, so I’ll just ignore it all!”) Frankly, they all gave dismal performances in TOBG because they were all miscast (Eric Bana as Henry??) except for Scarlett, who acted somnolent through the whole thing even though from a distance she kind of looked like Mary Boleyn. And sorry, Natalie just isn’t a vixen—not convincing as someone who could topple a throne.  Maybe if they’d studied their history a little they could have done a better job.


Filed under Interviews with Michael Hirst, Natalie Dormer, and other modern personalities

Writing Journal, #4, The Jig is Up

I had just had a huge fight with my daughter, which ended in my physically wresting her iPad away (not easy; she is very, very strong), when I received a one line message from my editor: “You’d better get that book in if you want it on the fall list.” The jig is up.  Major panic. Heart thumping.  All my previous reflections on writing process seem like a farce at this moment. The ony reality right now: I had an October first deadline, and I can’t possibly make it. To make matters worse, my husband is going off to Paris on a research trip for five days starting thursday.  Can I write two chapters in two days?  No way. Although I know exactly what I want to say in them and all my research is done, I’ve never been that kind of writer. I have to pause and catch my breath at (ir)regular intervals.  I call my agent, and find myself in tears on the phone with him.  It’s embarrassing; at the beginning of the evening I was the mom, and now I have become the twelve-year-old who doesn’t have her assignment done. He is very understanding (he has three kids) and will call the press today and find out exactly how much lee-way I have.  But one way or another, I’m going to have to dedicate myself to this book with single-mindedness over the next few weeks.  So: I will now take out the garbage, make a second cup of half-caf, and disappear from the regular world.  I will keep you posted (in a minimalist way).  Wish me luck.  As one of our members, Cris Gomes says, “May Anne be with me”!

PS, After sending this to Natalie earlier in the day, my agent talked to the press today, and I have until the end of October if I want to get it published on schedule.  I’m pretty certain I can do this, so long as I stay focused and don’t get too unmeshed in my daughter’s adolescent angst.


Filed under Susan's Writer's Journal

Writing Journal, #3, “Attention Must Be Paid”

I’ve been having a hard time with my writing the past week, and I’ve been trying to figure out why.  Every morning I’ve woken up, ready to go, and all too aware that my time for spending most of my time at the computer is fast dwindling—and the deadline I told my editor fast approaching!  Yet every day I find something else to divert me.  There’s always a good “reason”—for example, I’m writing about the television show The Tudors so I decided I needed to “refresh” my memory by watching the entire first and second seasons again.  I did notice a couple of things that I had missed the first four times around…. But probably, I would have done much better to spend an hour or so thumbing through the book digests of the series.

Finally yesterday, I called my sister, who—lucky for me—happens to be both a writer and a therapist, to whine and perhaps get some advice.  We talked about a number of possibilities, including resistance to letting my book-baby go, but then, as has been happening almost all the time lately, our conversation swerved back (or more precisely, I drove it back) to my human baby—my daughter. I’ve been doing a lot of worrying about her lately.  I won’t go into detail (she, like every kid of her generation knows her way around a computer and the internet better than I do, and wouldn’t appreciate being discussed here) except to say that she’s twelve going on thirteen.  Perhaps that tells you enough!  In fact, things have been so rocky that I even bought several books—including My Teenage Werewolf by Lauren Kessler—to help me.  I am generally not a person to go the self-help or advice memoir route, but I’ve been getting desperate.  However, almost in the same way that I wake up every morning ready to write but find some reason not to, I’ve also found reasons not to actually read those books—for example, that I didn’t have time to read, since I needed to finish writing my own book!  Anyone notice a vicious circle here?

My brilliant sister did. “You are totally preoccupied with Cassie,” she pointed out (not for the first time) to me, noting that whenever she texted me from school, everything else stopped. I had been forcing my worries underground, in order to “concentrate on my book.”  Trouble is, although my conscious mind thought this was a great plan, my heart and soul could not follow.  The fact is that in my deepest being, my real child always trumps my book-children.  I had to accept that, honor it, and do justice to it. She gave me my marching orders for the day: “Do not even try to write.  Just read the Teenage Werewolf book.”  She and I had already found a few passages that we loved—incidents that sounded just like Cassie and me—and had the sense that, if nothing else, it would make me feel like I wasn’t alone.

Hey, the woman may be my younger sister, but she is also a therapist (and a brilliant one—both my sisters are), so I obeyed.  Before long, I was laughing in recognition, comforted by the fact that in her early adventures with her daughter’s teen-dom, this mom seemed to be just as clueless as me, and even having some new insights into my daughter’s behavior.  But here’s the really amazing thing:  I had been feeling physically lousy for days—headache-y, upset stomach, eyes tired, and really, really, weighed down in every fiber of my being.  I was beginning to think something was seriously wrong with me—maybe chronic fatigue?  Halfway through the book, I suddenly realized that my eyes had stopped watering, my head had cleared, and a general feeling of lightness had replaced the “unbearable weight” (inside joke) I had been carrying around.   The change was truly remarkable—so much so that I called Binnie (my sister) back and told her, along with many thanks for her brilliance, which she accepted without false modesty.  (The three of us sisters have an unspoken pact to allow ourselves this with each other.)

That was yesterday.  Today is a new day, and once again I will sit down after Cassie is off to school, confronting that icon on my desktop that contains my current chapter.  Will I click?  I hope so.  I think so.  But one thing I know: It doesn’t work for me to “not pay attention” to something that’s troubling me, hoping that I can bury myself in my work.  The effort to do so is exhausting, draining, and—for me, at least—doesn’t get me anywhere except back on the couch, compulsively watching mindless reality TV or endless MSNBC commentators (for some, those choices would be contradictory; for me, no.)

I ended my first journal with a quote from Shakespeare: “Ripeness is all.” I end this one with a quote from Arthur Miller:  “Attention must be paid.”  Yesterday, with my sister’s wise guidance, I stopped obsessing about my writing and paid attention to something that was more important.  And if it doesn’t loosen my fingers, at least it cleared my head and lightened my being.

Oh yes, and I recommend the book highly!!!


Filed under Susan's Writer's Journal

Susan’s Interview with Nell Gavin, author of THREADS: THE REINCARNATION OF ANNE BOLEYN

For The Creation of Anne Boleyn, I interviewed a number of well-known authors, historians, and scriptwriters on the tension between fact and fiction and how they dealt with it in their own work and evaluated it in the work of others.  Over the next months, I’ll be posting portions of these interviews on this website.

Today, I’m thrilled to present a Q and A with Nell Gavin, author of THREADS: THE REINCARNATION OF ANNE BOLEYN (2003), a William Faulkner finalist for Best Novel and an bestseller with legions of devoted fans.

If you want to learn more about Nell, her research for Threads, and her most recent book, Hang On (2011), see her website:

SB: We all know that any work of imagination has to go beyond the recorded facts. I take that as a given. But do you think that there is a point at which historical fiction can go too far? If so, how would you describe the boundaries of what is acceptable and not? Or don’t you think there can be a hard and fast rule? And if not, do you think “anything goes”? What historical standards do you hold yourself to?

NG: I would never say, “anything goes.” I don’t know what the boundaries would be, precisely, but you can write a story around known truths, bend them a little, and inform your audience when you’re taking liberties. I did that in my Foreword, as well as in a list of known historical discrepancies I put at the back of Threads: The Reincarnation of Anne Boleyn.

The difficulty with the Anne Boleyn story is: What is the truth? The more you know about the Tudors, the less certain you are about anything. If you’re adamant about a Tudor fact, you perhaps haven’t read far enough, in my opinion. If you’ve read everything, you have probably formed your own opinions – but you could still be wrong.

Historians agree on some things – or perhaps two agree and the rest have their own wildly differing opinions. Always lean toward scholarship, and less toward speculation, or perpetuating things that the majority dismiss as implausible. However, you can latch onto an implausible item occasionally, if you need it for plot. I did that with Anne’s “sixth finger” – I needed it. I was careful to explain that it was “a growth more than a true finger.” Then I stated in the back of the book that it “probably” wasn’t true because it probably wasn’t – but nobody knows with absolute certainty.

You have to own it, whatever you decide to put into your story. I pored over biographies of Anne Boleyn, and decided at least ONE historian had to earnestly believe it was fact, or it did not go into the book. Since there were very few instances when I could find two or more historians to earnestly believe anything at the same time, it was the best I could do. They agreed when she was executed. That was perhaps the extent of their cumulative certainty. The rest of the time, I cherry picked the facts – all earnestly presented by at least one biographer – based on what I required for the plot.

If I had had an easier subject than Anne Boleyn, I might not have had to do that at all.

SB: Philippa Gregory, in various interviews and Q and A sessions, has claimed that everything she writes is based on “historical probability.” While she admits to “filling in the gaps”–which seems exactly appropriate for a fiction writer—many would argue that she does much more than this, that she ignores the historical record to create an alternative narrative, which she then passes off as grounded in history. She seems to want to claim for herself both the status of historian and the prerogatives of a fiction writer. Care to comment?

NG: There may be Spell Check and Grammar Check, but unfortunately there is NO “History Check,” aside from long, grueling and painful hours of combing through reference books, and proofreading what you wrote a hundred times. On my website, I wrote an essay in which I described my own techniques for deciding on which “facts” to believe, and which to discard:

I study the methods that a researcher, biographer or writer seemed to be using to draw a conclusion, and consider his or her approach. Are the methods objective? Do they weigh all the facts? Do they rely heavily on unproven supposition and speculation? Do they quote a clearly prejudiced or uninformed source? Do they interpret the evidence in a manner that contradicts the obvious? (For example, one biographer asks us to agree that the handwriting in the example I provide on my website of Anne Boleyn’s handwriting in 1514 is “obviously juvenile” when it clearly is not!)

So, for example: I believe that Anne Boleyn was born between 1499 and 1502 because I don’t trust the sources who claim she was younger. These sources were either born after she died, or didn’t know her personally. The people who knew her said she was older. People who support a later birth year rely exclusively on speculation. That was an easy conclusion for me to reach.

As to The Other Boleyn Girl, I have not read Philippa Gregory because I heard that she relied mainly on Retha Warnicke as her historical source, and was not as confident in the Warnicke conclusions as I was about the conclusions of several of the other Boleyn biographers.

SB: Your Anne, in Threads, exists across centuries and cultures, and clearly is a work of creative imagination.  Yet to my mind, there are deep truths about the historical Anne in the novel, far deeper than some novels that stick more closely to recorded dialogue, specific dates, etc.  Can you describe a little how you accomplished this impressive “dance” between the historical Anne and the Anne that is reincarnated again and again in your novel?

It’s hard to find the real “Anne Boleyn” in the midst of lies. What we know about her is that her history was written by her enemies, and is therefore largely untrue or extremely distorted. Henry VIII made it a crime to speak well of her after her death, so her enemies had a field day with her. They said whatever they wanted, without any restraints. What they said is all we know about Anne Boleyn, and what many people declare is “fact.” Others disagree. As I recall, Philippa Gregory relied heavily on these “facts” in her fiction, probably because they were so sensational and damning. They make for a good story, but don’t really have much substance, if you dig a little.

However, every lie perhaps contains a grain of truth, so I began there. This woman, who spent a fortune on the poor, and who sewed – and forced her ladies to sew – garments for them, was not a bad person. When the royal court was on progress, she sent someone ahead to every town to find out what they needed so she could provide it. I asked myself, “What kind of person could she have been, to anger and alienate so many people, while still being well-intentioned?” The answer was: “nervous, insecure and emotionally flippy.” You probably would be that way too, married to Henry VIII.

Henry VIII drove her nuts, in my opinion. Did she love him? I’m sure she really did because a woman who is only in it for the crown does not try to scratch out the eyes of her successor, as Anne did to poor Jane Seymour. She is controlled and cunning and manipulative to ensure she keeps what she has, whereas Anne was frantic over losing her husband, and she acted like a frightened and jealous wife. So I presumed Anne was in love with Henry, simply based on her behavior when she was losing him. I could be totally wrong because I wasn’t there and wasn’t her, but I “filled in the gaps” with “historical probability” based on what I know of human nature. I didn’t use someone else’s description of what Anne “must have felt,” or “probably felt” to define her. I saw someone who was clearly (to me) losing the man she loved. So, that was my “Anne.”

I also saw evidence that she had a very dark sense of humor. I have a dark sense of humor as well, so I can appreciate jokes that fall flat or make people wince because you’ve pushed it just a hair beyond the pale. She was probably always misinterpreted or taken literally, or quoted out of context when she was merely trying to be funny. She was still cracking wise while she was waiting for her execution, calling herself “Queen Lackhead,” and laughing. This is NOT someone everyone is going to understand and approve of. It also means she gave her enemies ample ammunition. But that does not make her an evil person, which is how she has been frequently depicted.

As to the reincarnation theme in Threads, I should start by saying that I do believe in reincarnation, just as I believe in Physics. We know from physics that energy cannot be destroyed, and it seems odd to me that human energy would or could be subject to laws that are significantly different from the laws that govern the rest of the universe. I am going to require scientific proof that it does NOT exist, and a description of the physical laws that prevent reincarnation, before I would ever change my mind. Religion pro or con has no bearing on my opinion of it.[1]

I had actually been studying reincarnation and mulling it over for a number of years before I began writing. I obtained a pretty good grasp of karma, and so forth. Our objective, in this lifetime, is to learn and evolve. In order to do this, we encounter lessons that teach us what we need to know, based on our past mistakes and our own personal goals.

Clearly some folks are more evolved than others, and clearly we don’t go from being cavemen to being Gandhi in one lifetime because learning is painful and takes time – it takes more than one lifetime. Ultimately, we all are on our own individual paths, at different stages in our development. Old souls intermingle with new souls because they’re here to teach and set an example. New souls test old souls (and everyone else), and give them an opportunity for growth. So it’s actually a very effective setup for evolving.

In Threads, I took what I knew of Anne’s history, and I took what I know about karma and reincarnation, and built a story around it. I tried to make it as easy as possible for someone to understand the cause and effect by linking Anne’s past life behaviors to her current problems and current neuroses.

In Anne Boleyn’s case, she was hated by women. There was even an incident where women invaded the place where she was staying, and frightened her into leaving the back way out of fear for her life. She was accused of being a whore when there really was little evidence of this. Why? I built a story that had her, in one lifetime, being harsh and cruel toward women, and judgmental toward the ones who were accused of sexual misconduct. The key point in the story was that she once had the power to send a woman to her death, and followed through. Why? I made the source of it self-loathing. Why? Because most hatred is based on self-loathing. Then I wrote about a situation that would make her repeatedly judgmental, with the source of this an earlier lifetime that made her ashamed. She might have evaded extreme punishment by learning tolerance and compassion through her subsequent lifetimes, but she did not. Consequently, she met her fate at the block as Anne Boleyn, after enduring the kind of torment she once dished out.

There were two timelines in Threads. One moved forward in time; this was her lifetime as Anne Boleyn. The other moved backward in time; this was her experience in the afterlife, where she examined her past lives. Each time we visit a past life, Anne is seeing it because it relates to a situation she’s reviewing in her lifetime as Anne Boleyn. The past life shows her the lesson she was supposed to have learned, and perhaps missed. They go further and further back, until she finally hits the source of her problems, in ancient Egypt. As she goes further back, she spiritually regresses so you can see the progress she’s made over these lifetimes. You see that in her earliest lifetime she had very little self-awareness, and was cruel. In her subsequent lifetimes, her primary focus was in helping other people. She carries fears with her to each next lifetime, without knowing what the source of this fear is. We can see how it impacts her decisions, even though she does not know the reason herself – at least not in her conscious state.

What I was trying to demonstrate is that Anne is just one of us – any one of us. I wanted to apply the laws of karma to a story that most of us are familiar with in order to examine it. Why? Because most people think they’re going to “heaven” no matter what they do, and others think there is no afterlife. I’m suggesting that we reap what we sow, what goes around comes around, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If we really thought about it, it would make us nicer.

SB: In our “post-Oliver Stone, post-O.J. Trial” era, in which (it seems to me), viewers/readers no longer have much ability to distinguish between different kinds of narratives, do you think the fact/fiction issue has become more problematic?

NG: Historical fiction is a very emotional genre, and it’s fraught with pitfalls for the writer, and covered with landmines because its readers have expectations we may or may not meet, despite our best efforts.Readers are just as likely to interpret what they read as writers are likely to interpret history when they write about it. Nobody reads the same book because nobody knows the same “truths” in historically ambiguous situations. Lots of times people believe whoever is the most persuasive, or simply whoever gets to them first (this was once verified in a scientific study). Very few fiction fans are going to do their own research, to sift through the facts. They just want a story. They fall into the story, and it’s as true as it needs to be, for them.  After that, they may feel they “own” the characters, and they are highly possessive of them (I am as well!) They tend to believe whatever book they read first. If the second book has a different interpretation, it’s “wrong.” Perhaps its readers describe its “wrong-ness” in very adamant statements, but they may or may not really be knowledgeable.

Once, at a book signing, I had a woman very proudly tell me that she knew “everything” about Anne Boleyn. She recited a list of virtually all the things that have been disproved or dismissed, or deemed highly improbable by historians, and stated them as fact. I couldn’t correct her and educate her in that timeframe. She knows what she knows, and to her it’s the truth.

Once, a reader actually did find a mistake in Threads, and I gratefully corrected it. However, a blanket “historically inaccurate” statement in a review is unhelpful to both the author and other potential readers. We don’t know what the reader knows, or thinks he or she knows, and how it differs from what the writer wrote. You see these reviews on every piece of historical fiction, and you should approach them with suspicion and skepticism. Look for reviews that contain actual examples of these “inaccuracies” so you can decide if you think the book is worth reading.

SB: Some defenders of Philippa Gregory have argued that “all history is interpretation anyway.” This was said, for example, by Natalie Portman, who played Anne in “the Other Boleyn Girl.” Neither she nor Scarlet Johansen nor Eric Bana did much research beyond readed PG’s novel, and seemed to think that getting the costuming and accents right was sufficient, because “all you got from historians was competing views, anyway.” Care to comment?

NG: Certainly it’s true that all historical fiction is interpretation. But interpretation has to be based on something more substantial than a costume and an accent. It may be true that the views are all “competing,” but you don’t need to be lazy, and you shouldn’t be.

As to The Other Boleyn Girl, I didn’t see that movie. And, as I mentioned before, I didn’t read that book.  But based on what I’ve heard, I’m sure Philippa Gregory wouldn’t care for my interpretation of Anne Boleyn, and I’m certain from what I’ve seen that I would not agree with hers.

For those that are interested, I document my thoughts on the subject at

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Filed under Interviews with Michael Hirst, Natalie Dormer, and other modern personalities

Writing Entry #2

One of the members of our Facebook page wrote me a private email yesterday, in which she raised some hard-hitting and very relevant points. “Most people,” she wrote, “DO NOT HAVE the luxury of a lifestyle that allows free days to sit and think and accept that nothing got done or even to sit all day and write.  People, including those that love writing, need to eat. How do you get to the point where you can sit all day and think/write/not work at a job you hate and still have a house and food and heat in winter?”

I wish I could answer that last question, but I can’t, because although I am very, very privileged among academics, in that I have a reduced teaching schedule and have been given more time off to write than most, I still have my “day job” as an academic—I can’t afford to give it up, even though I’m a couple of months away from the age when people used to retire—and envy those writers who make enough money at their writing (or have inherited family fortunes) so that they can actually write full-time. Envy? No, that’s too weak a word.  I seethe with resentment, fury, self-pity!  I say ugly things about those writers to my husband in the mornings, when my emotions are usually least repressed. Some days, I just break down and cry because after so many years, I’m still struggling to “fit” my writing into my life. This semester, I’ve pushed my courses until the spring, so I can actually finish this book that I’ve been working on for years in between preparing classes, grading papers, graduate student defenses, departmental meetings.  And even so, in this relatively unencumbered time, I feel the hot breath of other obligations—to my grad students, to my newly formed department, to my colleagues—on my neck.

So: Despite what I wrote about in my last journal “ripeness” is NOT “all.”  For most of us, including me, finding the time and energy to write is a huge, practical problem. Unfortunately, it’s not one that I have solved for myself, let alone feel I can advise anyone else on.  You struggle with whatever your situation is.  If you are lucky, as I have been, it gets better as you get older.  But as privileged as I am in my present position, I’m not a full-time writer. I rail against it, I resent it, and I fantasize (I’m sure unrealistically) about the wonderful lives the full-time writers lead. (Beach houses figure prominently.) If hundreds of thousands of people buy my Anne Boleyn book, maybe I’ll be able to be one of them.  Buy my book!  Send this aging child to camp!

I want to say something else in this entry.  I’m very grateful to the person who wrote that email.  If she hadn’t, I might not have thought to clarify my own situation, leaving many of you hating me the way I hate the actual full-time writers! JK aside, the practical issues she raises are very real, and although I can’t solve them, we can still discuss them here, and share our struggles with each other.  I may have some life-experience that can help, and so might others.

She also asked how much I welcome challenges to what I write in this blog.  The answer to that is: VERY MUCH.  Please challenge me!  I don’t like writing or speaking in a vacuum; I like conversation.  It’s the way all my books have gotten written, the way I conduct all my classes, the way I live my life.  I grew up in a house in which no one got away with anything without someone else raising an objection or an argument.  And, as a fairly iconoclastic thinker (in the context of academia, anyway), I’ve gotten much more than my fair share of both helpful criticisms and stinging attacks, published and verbal.  Sometimes, they have initially hurt or inflamed me; but always—whether they were accurate or not—they gave me the opportunity to clarify and improve my ideas.

We often forget that every form of communication, whether written or spoken, is selection.  For everything we say or write there are thousands of other things we don’t say.  It seems so obviously true as to not be worth belaboring here. But the fact is that it’s the one thing that critics most often forget (“Hey, you didn’t write the article I wanted you to write! You wrote the one you wanted to! How dare you!”), and it’s the one thing that we have to learn—I mean really learn, not just lip service learn—about our own work. It will always be radically incomplete.  It will always be misunderstood. It will never say what everyone else wants it to say, what they think is important.  It will never say everything that you wanted it to say.  Sometimes, you will even neglect to say the most important thing you want to say.

In theory, it seems self-evident.  But in practice, it’s something that comes only with the hard learning of sharing your ideas and having others respond. That’s one of the main reasons why putting pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, is scary; it puts you out there, where not only what you said but what you didn’t say will be there for all to see.  You never know how something “plays” until someone responds, and often you find out that what’s been heard is very different than you intended.   That, by the way, is a lesson for writing, too: learning to respond to criticism—all criticism: good, bad, wrong-headed or on the money—as a gift.  But that’s for another entry.


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Writer’s Journal, Entry 1: Turning the Switch On…

Hello everyone, and welcome to my writer’s journal!

This is a first for me, as I’ve never kept a journal of my writing process before; it’s so difficult on some days to do the writing itself, I’m usually too tired by the end of the day to write about it, and crave the soothing passivity of watching reality tv and eating bad carbs.  But I’ll keep this one light and fun—I hope for you as well as me—and perhaps it will be helpful as well.  As Ralph Keyes titles his wonderful book (highly recommended!) it takes courage to write.  And when would-be or beginning writers see only the finished products of experienced writers, looking polished and professional, all spiffed up with praising blurbs and enticing covers, they can easily get discouraged, feeling that they could never make it into to that exalted world themselves.  I hope that getting a peek at the not-so-glamorous reality of the daily life of this writer will help close that gap.  And, since I do teach writing, I will also have some practical tips on how to get the motor running, conquer your fears, and tolerate the inevitable struggle.

Today, for example, I couldn’t write.  I’m very near the completion of my book, I know exactly what I want to say in the last sections, and you’d think this, of all times, would be a piece of cake for me.  NOT.  Maybe I’m a bit burnt out, maybe I don’t want to let my baby out of my womb (it’s so warm and safe in there, and such good company!), maybe I’m just feeling lazy, or maybe—here’s something I bet you’ve never thought of—I’m actually too excited by the ideas, and am strangely afraid of turning the switch on.  Whatever the reason, I just can’t get myself back to that spot in my chapter where I left off.  I thought today was going to be a major writing day. I have arranged my schedule so I have no meetings or appointments, my husband has taken our daughter to her riding lesson.  I got a pretty good night’s sleep (for me.) The hard copy is sitting there, right next to my computer, my notes are on the desk to my right, the file is open on my desktop.  I’m perfectly positioned in the ergonomically superb set-up that I spent so much money on.  But it just won’t happen.

All writers have days like this.  At least, that’s what I tell myself, ignoring the pieces I’ve read about the rigorous schedules of this or that famous writer.  If they really work that way, I hate them and don’t want to hear about it! At any rate, I have days like this—many of them, so many you’d probably be shocked—and yet I have managed to write quite a few books.  How?  I think the key thing that I’ve learned is that writing is an organic process, with a mind of its own, and that “ripeness is all.” Ideas have to germinate, for one thing—and that can involve long periods of what feels like nothing but is actually something very important: becoming ready. Even when one is ready, the process of bringing what is “inside” to the “outside”—the page—is full of stops and starts.  If your project matters to you, then what you are doing is bringing forth and exposing parts of yourself—and that’s hard! There are periods of fear, bursts of energy, resistances and break-throughs, excitement and depression—all the things that mark any intimate, important relationship. And, as with any other relationship that matters, one has to be patient with process, forgiving of oneself when you’re “screwing up,” and sometimes, no matter how you “feel,” you just have to force yourself to painfully put one foot in front of the other (or one word after the other) until the flow comes back.

Tonight, I have to forgive myself for today.  I had hoped it would be different, but it wasn’t.  And I’m betting that today’s forgiveness will result in tomorrow’s productivity.  We’ll see.  Wish me luck.

Ripeness is all.




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Anne and Elizabeth: The Role of the Ladies Who Attended Anne

By Natalie Sweet

On August 19th, 1533, George Tayllour wrote to the Lady Lisle that,

“The King and Queen are in good health and merry. On Thursday next they will come by water from Windsor to Westminster, and on Tuesday following to Greenwich, where the Queen intends to take her chamber.” (Letters and Papers, Henry VIII)

The 19th being a Tuesday, Tayllour believed that Anne would begin her lying-in period on Tuesday, August 26th. The following weeks will be dedicated to the activities and decisions made concerning Elizabeth, but for now, let us consider the role that Anne’s ladies played, when after she “took her chamber,” the moment of Elizabeth’s birth arrived. For help in understanding a 16th century birth, I once again turn to Jacob Reuff’s (1500-1558) The Expert Midwife.

From The Expert Midwife

“…Midwives and other women which are present with pregnant and Laboring women, may mark and observe the true and proper pains, passions, and throngs of child birth, which indeed are no other thing, but the violence and strugglings of the Infant being come to perfection, with which he is driven, tossed and rolled hither and thither and cometh downward to the lower parts, that me might have passage to come forth into the light…

…let the Midwife know the time, and observe the true pains and dolours, also let her comfort and cheer up the laboring woman, and let her cheerfully exhort her to obey her Precepts and admonitions. Likewise let her give good exhortations to other women being present, especially to pour forth devout prayers to God, afterward to do their duties at once, as well as they are able…”

“the Midwife shall place one woman behind her back which may gently hold the laboring woman, taking her by both the arms, and if need be, the pains waxing grievous, and the woman laboring, may stroke and press down the womb, and may somewhat drive and depress the Infant downward. But let her place other two by her sides, which may both with good words encourage and comfort the laboring-woman, and also may be ready to help and put to their hand at any time…”

“Lastly, all these things thus prepared, let the Midwife instruct and encourage the party to her labor, to abide her pains with patience, and then gently apply her hand to the works as she ought…

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Anne and Elizabeth: Consulting the Stars for Elizabeth’s Birth

By: Natalie Sweet

As September 1533 approached, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn expected that a prince would soon be born. Announcements of a prince’s arrival were drawn up ahead of time, but an extra “s” had to be added to Elizabeth’s birth announcement to proclaim the birth of a princess. Henry’s confidence was based on no less than an astrologer’s prediction that Anne would, in fact, give birth to a male child. Would either Henry or Anne have had any reason to doubt such a prediction?

Then, as now, astrologers were proven wrong. Fast-forward to daughter Elizabeth’s reign, and we can see how predictions by Nostradamus failed. Although he is popularly featured on History Channel documentaries today, many of Nostradamus’s predictions concerning Elizabeth failed to come true. His predictions, however, served a purpose: as Catherine de Medici’s astrologer, it was his job to develop predictions that suggested the downfall of her Tudor rival. Obviously, none of the dire predictions came true, but an early modern astrologer was as much a propagandist as he was a predictor of the future. Oftentimes, propaganda was more useful than a correct prediction, as it inspired well-timed fear in the enemy and hope amongst allies. Of course, the more accurate one’s astrologer was at making predictions, the more useful the propaganda was, but the creation of fear was a tremendous boon on its own account.

This is not to say that monarchs did not take their astrologer’s predictions to heart. That would be a mistake, and one that is easy to make in a modern era where astrology is often viewed as trickery. Astrology was not a con, nor was it incompatible with religion in the 16th century. Indeed, it was considered to be a way to understand God’s divine plan, and was viewed to be as grounded in science as that of the study of the changing seasons. For Henry and Anne, the astrologer’s prediction of a male child was one they could look favorably on.

That the astrologer predicted a boy should not have surprised Henry, Anne, or us – beyond the fact that the royal couple hoped for this prediction, the months that Henry persisted in the belief that a boy would be born was enough to buy him time and leverage with those he dealt with. It gave his proceedings against Catherine of Aragon and his marriage to Anne justification – any male (and the majority of females, too) in the early modern era would tell you that it was better to have a boy than it was to have a girl. They understood the urgency that accompanied the Tudor dynasty’s need for a male heir- and it was an urgency that had been granted a favorable verdict to the male party for generations before Henry VIII hit the scene. Read Chapuy’s or any other enemy’s report of Elizabeth’s arrival and the relief seems to drip from the pages – Henry has had another girl. Sure, the kid is healthy and this could indicate future healthy children will follow, but for now, it should be back to business as usual. Predictions could be made, but immediate results needed to follow.

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Anne and Elizabeth: “Playing Too Much the Queen” in the Victorian Era

By: Natalie Sweet

On the Victorian stage, playwright W.G. Hole’s Elizabeth I voiced her fear that she “play[ed] too much the queen,” and demanded of her suitor,  “do you still hold me a woman?”[1]  Indeed, her question was one that many Victorians grappled with in the late nineteenth century.  While their fondness for bestowing Elizabeth with majesty and imperial power undoubtedly arose from British eagerness to trace the history of its empire, the celebration of Elizabeth as the Virgin Queen presented problems for the Victorians who celebrated Queen Victoria’s motherhood.  Victorians questioned how Elizabeth reconciled herself to virginity while the nation’s survival depended on an heir.  In contrast to this, but in a similar vein, Victorians were also preoccupied with Elizabeth’s sexuality and the masculine qualities of her suitors.  The emergence of a “masculine” British empire also created questions about Elizabeth’s role in creating that empire.  Although a woman presided over their own enterprises, Victorians acknowledged that Elizabeth ruled over a much more dangerous world than their own, and thus she needed masculine qualities to survive.  All of these factors led to a paradox in how Elizabeth was portrayed in British popular culture.  She sometimes “play[ed] too much the queen” in a masculine manner, but at other times she played too much the naughty woman, too. For at least one Victorian author, the source of this problematic contradiction was her mother, Anne Boleyn.

Victorian authors overwhelmingly indicated their belief “that a strong modern England was rendered possible mainly by the boldness, astuteness, and activity of Elizabeth at the critical turning-point of European history.”[2]  As some modern scholars have suggested, Victorians were willing to portray a stronger image of Elizabeth in the late nineteenth century in order to rehabilitate Queen Victoria’s image.  The creation of “a strong modern England” could not have been possible without strong leadership, and luckily for the British, Elizabeth seemed to posses a sufficient amount of strength.  The complication of explaining how this extraordinary strength came from within a female who also possessed remarkable skills in coquetry, however, would take some effort on the part of (admittedly prudish) Victorian writers.

For example, Victorian author Michael Creighton reasoned that Elizabeth’s character was connected to her heredity.  He noted that her more cautionary and discreet qualities must have come from her grandfather, Henry VII, who for so long exercised prudence and weariness of others in order to keep the English throne.  From Henry VIII, he believed that Elizabeth “inherited the royal imperiousness and personal charm which always secured his popularity.”[3]  Creighton did not criticize these strong inherited qualities, and indeed equated them with masculine character.  However, he stated that Elizabeth’s bad qualities, “[h]er vanity, her unscrupulousness, her relentless and over bearing temper,” came from her mother, Anne Boleyn.[4]  This “coarse, ambitious and self-seeking woman” passed on all of her undesirable feminine traits to her daughter, “in whom they were modified by finer qualities and were curbed by a sense of duty.”[5]  In other words, Elizabeth’s feminine foibles were kept in check by the masculine command she inherited from her father and grandfather.

It is interesting that Creighton equated the poor qualities of Elizabeth with women, especially when one considers that her father, Henry VIII, could be described in much the same manner. However, although Creighton asserted that “Elizabeth always remained more truly the daughter of Anne Boleyn than of Henry VIII,” thus tying her identity more closely to a female identity rather than to a masculine, kingly one, Creighton believed that Elizabeth could not have been as great of a ruler if she had not inherited the qualities of “a coarse, ambitious and self-seeking woman.”[6]  Indeed, he asserted that there were “times when anyone, save Anne Boleyn’s daughter, would have been tempted to make terms” with the powers that threatened England’s security.[7]   Creighton’s consideration of Elizabeth’s heredity appears to be unique, but it is not a surprising explanation when one considers the late nineteenth-century Victorian fascination with heredity and eugenics.[8]  Yet, his argument is also a paradox.  While Creighton argued that her feminine traits interfered with strong, masculine leadership, he also asserted that her feminine cunning and stubbornness was what helped England to survive the turbulent sixteenth century.

[1] W.G. Hole, Queen Elizabeth: An Historical Drama in Four Acts (London: George Bell and Sons, 1904), 85.

[2] Hume, vi.

[3] Creighton, 4.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 197.

[8] For more on this topic, see the essays in Philippa Levine, ed., Gender and Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

The above is taken from a paper titled “Sex, Masculinity, and the Virgin Queen: Victorian Views of Elizabeth I,” written by Natalie Sweet in 2009.

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Anne and Elizabeth: 17th Century Views

By Natalie Sweet

Just as in the Elizabethan era, opinions on Anne Boleyn in the seventeenth century were still heavily influenced by England’s religious climate and by opinions of Elizabeth I. After Elizabeth’s death, Englishmen largely welcomed the new Stuart monarchy. Many had secretly whispered that the Queen was too old, her court was too emasculated, and that her foreign wars were too costly for the English people. Thus, when James I (of England, VI of Scotland) ascended the throne in 1603, he was generally accepted, despite his Scottish background. As the years passed, however, Englishmen gradually grew more wary of their Stuart monarchs and of the possibility of their connection to Catholicism. Elizabeth’s popularity began to slowly rise once again in the 1620s. The arrival of the English Civil War at the mid-century both diminished and increased interest in Elizabeth: some wished to avoid discussion of the monarchy altogether, while other Englishmen idealized Elizabeth’s reign, proclaiming it a golden age where Queen and Parliament were harmoniously in-sync. The return of the monarchy insured that Elizabeth’s popularity did not wane. Indeed, it is clear from surviving records such as the famous Samuel Pepys diary that the memory of Elizabeth lived on. It is understandable that a favorable opinion of Elizabeth would inspire tolerant, if not pleasing, accounts of the famed Queen’s mother. Additionally, a positive portrayal of Anne was also aided by growing anti-Catholic and anti-foreign sentiment.

Below, we have an excerpt from The Character of Elizabeth, by Edmund Bohun and published in 1692. At the time, the Glorious Revolution had just passed, and William and Mary sat upon the throne. Describing Elizabeth as “the Greatest Princess that ever swayed this or any other Scepter,” Bohun dedicated his book to William in Mary in the hopes that they might be instructed by “[t]he Great Things she did, and the Ways, Means and Instruments she employed under her to bring them into Act” (pg. A3-A4).

The Birth and Parentage of Queen Elizabeth (modernized spelling applied)

Elizabeth, Queen of England, was born at Greenwich the 7th of September 1533. Her Father was Henry the VIIIth, Her Mother was the Lady Anne Boleyn the Daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn, a Knight of great Estate and Esteem. After she came to wear the Royal Crown of England, She had a particular Affection for Greenwich, that Pleasant Seat upon the Thames, as for the place of Her Nativity: and upon that account, amongst many others, She preferred Her Palace there before all Her other Country Seats near London; as in truth it enjoys one of the Noblest, Prospects in the World, and an healthful, and a pleasing Air. From Her very Cradle She was exposed to the Hazards and Hardships of an unkind Fortune. Anne Boleyn, Her Mother, upon the Death of Queen Catherine, in the Year 1535, the 8th of January, was Arraigned for Treason; and in 1536, being Sentenced, was freed by Death from a bloody Marriage, the 19th of May. The Inveterate Malice of the Popish Clergy having ever since pursued this Match with the Reproaches as unlawful and void; because Queen Catherine his first Wife was then still living, and very much enraged at It, though to no purpose. Hereupon soon after a Parliament was summoned, which began the 8th of June; In which the Issue of both the King’s former Marriages was declared Illegitimate, and for ever excluded from claiming the Inheritance fo the Crown as the King’s Lawful Heirs by Lineal Descent; and the Attainder of Queen Anne, and her Complices, was Confirmed. So that by Authority of Parliament She stood wholly incapacitated as to the wearing the Crown of England. Her only Support in the mean time under all these Injuries and Afflictions was the Goodness of God.

As you can see, Anne is minimally noted, and at most she is titled with “Lady.” Yet, her downfall is tied to the “inveterate Malice of the Popish Clergy” and she “was freed by Death from a bloody Marriage.” The dates are terribly off, but the sentiment is positive: Anne is not a character to be reviled, but one to be treated with sympathy.

As Susan noted in a previous post, the same sentiments were true in other works produced during the time period. In 1682, John Bank’s “Vertue Betray’d” became one of the first popular plays to portray Anne as a tragic heroine: “In France at the time, a genre called “secret histories” was popular; one, by Madame D’aulnoy (who also wrote fairy tales) was the “secret history” of Elizabeth–which is actually mostly about Anne. Banks took several elements (such as the romance with Piercy) from Madame D’Aulnoy’s “secret history” to insure that the play had appeal to female audiences. Unlike D’Aulnoy’s novel, however, Banks’ play is clearly a salvo in the Protestant/Catholic culture wars. At the end of the play, Anne, hideously wronged, goes to her death in magnificent fashion, proclaiming to all the saints, cherubins and other martyrs in heaven that she is coming to them, and ending many long and lofty speeches with and an even loftier prediction of her daughter’s future–a seventeenth century version of the “Elizabeth Shall Be Queen” speech in “Anne of the Thousand Days”–and the death of Catholicism (the pope being the “holy tyrant” mentioned in the speech:

Thou, little child [meaning Elizabeth], shalt live to see thy mother’s wrongs o’re paid in many blessings on thy women’s state. From this dark calumny, in which I sit, as in a cloud; thou, like a star, shalt rise, and awe the Southern world: that holy tyrant, who grinds all Europe with the yoke of conscience, holding his feet upon the necks of kings; thou shalt destroy, and quite unloose his bonds, and lay the monster trembling at thy feet. When this shall come to pass, the world shall see they mother’s innocence revived in thee.”

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