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.

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4 Comments

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

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

  1. NGB48

    Wonderful interview!

  2. Elise Hansen

    I thought this was a very informative interview! I agree that I was confused after watching TOBG, the most confusing of that being Mary Boleyn having custody of Elizabeth after Anne’s execution. I didn’t learn that in World History!

  3. Elise Hansen

    I just couldn’t believe the historical inaccuracies in TOBG!!! I lack the college diploma, but I have always been obsessed with the Tudor period since high school. I do a lot of research on my own time & hope to be able to contribute to keeping interest in the tudor period for genrations to com!

  4. Stardom

    Thank you for such an interesting interview. I’m Reading right now “the autobiography of Henry VIII” and I simply say that IS the best book I’ve read so far. and I’ve read hundreds….what a great book. I love it. really, a great book.
    Also, I’ve read Mary Magdalene 2 years ago, and actually, it was my first book by George and I loved it so much, sooo much, that I said, ok, I’ll read more about this autor, so I ended up with the book about Henry VIII, and I love it so much. so, well, I only can say that this autor is a gift for the humanity¡¡¡ it’s a real joy to read her books. thanks again for the interview, I liked to read about Margaret George. thanks¡¡¡ 🙂

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