Category Archives: Interviews with Michael Hirst, Natalie Dormer, and other modern personalities

Portions of interviews from Susan’s forthcoming book, The Creation of Anne Boleyn. Includes interviews with Michael Hirst, Natalie Dormer, Genevieve Bujold, and Joanna Carrick

Susan’s Interview with Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel

The popularity of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl and Showtime’s The Tudors has sparked a blazing controversy over the responsibilities of novelists, screenwriters, and popular historians to the “truths” of history.  Philippa Gregory, in particular, has angered and concerned historians by claiming that all of her “choices” in The Other Boleyn Girl, which contains numerous historically unfounded or discredited elements, “can be defended as a historical probability.” I wanted to collect a variety of views on these issues.  So I asked some well-known writers, from a variety of genres, to respond, in any way they wished, to some questions. Among the authors that I corresponded with was Hilary Mantel, whose sequel to Wolf Hall, entitled Bring Up the Bodies, has just been published.  She was not yet finished with the sequel when we corresponded; in fact, was at that point not planning a trilogy, but a long second volume. Her publishers convinced her, however, that her section on the fall of Anne Boleyn constituted a book on their own—hence, the decision to enlarge and publish that section as Bring up the Bodies.  I promised Hilary not to publish the interview until the sequel was published, so here, finally, it is:

                                   

SB: We all know that any work of imagination has to go beyond the recorded facts.   But do you think that there is a point at which historical fiction can go too far?  What historical standards do you hold yourself to?

HM: First let me say I don’t want to defame other authors for their choices. I don’t want to prescribe for them or defend them.  I don’t think there’s a right way of creating historical fiction, but I think some ways are more honest than others. I am probably less comfortable about ‘making up’ than most authors. I never knowingly distort facts, and even if they’re difficult to explain or for the reader to grasp, I try to find a way round that doesn’t falsify or sell short the complexities of a topic.

I must see myself as part of a chain of literary representation. My Cromwell shakes hands with the Cromwell of the Book of Martyrs, and with the trickster Cromwell of the truly awful but funny Elizabethan play about him. I am conscious of all his later, if fugitive, incarnations in fiction and drama.

I am conscious on every page of hard choices to be made, and I make sure I never believe my own story. (Bring Up the Bodies) raises the whole question with the reader, hands it over if you like: points out the power of gossip once it gets going, the difficulty of separating rumour from facts, the difficulties of bearing witness and assessing evidence. I don’t talk about these problems in a narrative overview, I make them part of the plot. I don’t think AB was brought down by facts, but by the power of rumour. That’s a slippery and insubstantial thing to describe, and almost impossible for historians to tackle. By its nature, conspiracy is off the record. The important conversations probably leave no trace. I think this is why historians try again and again to disentangle the mystery of AB’s fall, without ever sounding entirely convincing. There’s always something that is left over, something unaccounted for,  a piece of territory that vanishes when you try to map it. I think this is where fiction operates best, and can possibly contribute to our understanding of the past. I can’t explain the events better than historians can, but I might be able to evoke what it was like to live through those days.

That’s the largest claim I will make for fiction.

SB: 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?

HM: I think there’s a difference between the sort of making up I do and the sort the creators of ‘The Tudors’ went in for. They decide that fact is not always neat enough, and that fiction can improve it. They think, for example, it’s too complicated for the viewer if Henry has two sisters, so they roll them up into one. So then they have to invent an imaginary king for the composite to marry. And so we get further and further from anything resembling the record, because one falsification trips another. They decide they don’t need too many geographical noblemen — not Norfolk AND Suffolk: so they dispense with AB’s uncle, one of the unignorable figures of Henry’s reign; and that’s a really bad choice, not just historically but dramatically, because they miss all the fun of having a man who helps execute both his nieces.

Re Philippa Gregory: Retha Warnicke’s eccentric interpretation of Anne’s fall is a gift to novelists because it’s so sensational, but it’s very much a minority view. Through PG’s fiction, it’s gained traction. It’s through fiction that it’s become popular, though historians are mostly dismissive. I have to admit to some reservation about PG’s methods, not only because she relies heavily on one interpretation but because I have heard her claim that Mary Boleyn was an obscure figure until she rescued her: whereas of course you can’t read much about Henry’s reign without encountering Mary Boleyn, whose existence was a vast canon law complication.  She’s even a character in that old film ‘Anne of  the Thousand Days.’  However, PG evidently knows her readership and what they want.

SB: 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?

HM: A section telling readers what’s true and what’s false? You can certainly do that in outline, but if I myself were to do it properly, the notes would be longer than the book; almost every line would have to be parsed. Can I give an example? In the winter of 1535 a man otherwise unknown to history wrote to Thomas Cromwell to explain how he had made a snowman. It was made to look like the pope. It was ‘for the better setting forth of the king’s supremacy.’ But his local priest and his associates broke his door down, barged in and accused him of heresy. Can Cromwell help?

This made me laugh very much, and I can bet that was the effect on Cromwell too. (How do I know he had a sense of humour? Letter writers send enclosures, ‘put in to make you laugh.’) So in my book, when TC comes home from court one chilly late December twilight to his house at Stepney, he finds that snowmen have been constructed in the garden (the pope and his cardinals) and everyone under thirty (and some over thirty)  has spent the afternoon at this, for, as his son says ‘the better setting forth of the king’s supremacy,’ and they are also having a bonfire, and dancing around it is led by Christophe (fictional) and Dick Purser (factual.) So what now is the status of the snowmen?

To create an episode like this gives me great delight and  I try to think why. I am happy that the original snowman isn’t lost for ever, that it has been, as it were, rebuilt, only to melt again. I think about myself, thinking about the letter writer, whom perhaps no one has thought of for hundreds of years. And it works dramatically because gives me something silly and joyous to counterpoint the dire things happening that night: Katherine of Aragon is dying, Chapuys is ready to take to the road at dawn, Stephen Vaughan will be right behind him, etc. And it’s something so true of its time, that I could never make it up, would never dare (though everyone will think I have) and it hints at that whole world of Tudor ‘misrule’ and the annual breakdown of authority that marked the turn of the year, which always sounds so unconvincing when it’s described in folkloric texts.

SB: Some defenders of Philippa Gregory have argued that “all history is interpretation anyway.”    This was said, too, 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, because “all you got from historians was competing views, anyway.”  Care to comment?

HM: Having argued that there are not two neat categories, ‘fact’ and ‘fiction,’ I still think the notion that ‘it’s all interpretation’ must be qualified; some interpretations are well grounded in fact and context, others are not. I spend a lot of time seeing if I can reconcile interpretations, and I do as much research and reading as  I possibly can.  But I know I can’t proof myself against errors or misperceptions. And that’s why I don’t like to look down on authors who write quicker: I might this very day be generating some vast error, the more vast because I’ve tried to  know so much.  But I referred above to the idea of being ‘honest’  and I guess this is what I mean: at least, put the hours in. Respect the dead.

You have to think what you owe to history. But you also have to think what you owe to the novel form. Your readers expect a story. And they don’t want it to be two-dimensional, barely dramatized. So (and this is queasy ground) you have to create interiority for your characters. Your chances of guessing their thoughts are slim or none; and yet there is no reality left, against which to measure your failure.

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

HM: A problem: what readers think they know. Fiction is commonly more persuasive than history texts. After Wolf Hall was published, I was constantly being asked ‘Was Thomas More really like that? We thought he was a really nice man!’ I could only answer, ‘I am trying to describe how he might have appeared if you were standing in the shoes of Thomas Cromwell: who, incidentally, did not dislike him.’ But of course what I was really up against was A Man for All Seasons:  the older fiction having accreted authority, just by being around for two generations.  When I say to people, ‘Do you really think More was a 1960s liberal?’ they laugh. ‘Of course not.’ But (again, for the sake of honesty) you constantly have to weaken your own case, by pointing out to people that all historical fiction is really contemporary fiction; you write out of your own time. General readers are always asking you for the ‘real truth,’ and suppose that historians know more than they do: that they have ready access to a corpus of reliable, contemporary, first-hand reports, and that the perverse choice of the historical novelist is to deviate from these, in order to be sensational and sell more copies.

Re AB, I think it’s an obvious point  that she is carrying our projections; we (women readers especially) hang our story on to hers. This explains the undying appeal of the story of Henry VIII. Usually, to bring women characters to the fore in the writing of history (factual or fictional) you have to force the issue a bit. You have to position them centrally, when they weren’t really central, to pretend they were more important than they were or that we know more about them than we do. But in the reign of Bluebeard, you don’t have to pretend. Women, their bodies, their animal nature, their reproductive capacities, are central to the era. Also, you have at least 2 queens, Katherine and Anne, who are very well documented compared to most women in history: the same goes for the princess Mary. Not only are they documented, but they are real players: politicians, strategists.

But. There is a big ‘but’ coming. These women operated in a masculine context. Can you understand their stories if you stay down among the women? I don’t think you can. And I don’t really understand the appeal of doing so.   But I’m very interested in how some popular novels use Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn as ‘teaching material.’ Women’s lives are thus, and thus: do this and you win: but then you get paid out. They are made into moral tales; which, indeed, they were to the contemporaries of the women concerned. It’s rather worrying that the morals drawn are much the same, across the centuries.

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Susan’s Interview with Suzannah Lipscomb, author of 1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII

As many of you know, Susan has been interviewing several well-known authors for their views on Philippa Gregory, “The Tudors,” and the responsibility of fictional representations to historical fact.   Today, in celebration of reaching 1536 ‘likes’, we present Susan’s interview with Suzannah Lipscomb, author of 1536: The Year That Changed 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?

 
Great question. Many people learn most of their history from fiction, which gives novelists and filmmakers something of a responsibility, even if they shrug it off.

Where I find historical fiction really works is when it fills in the gaps in the historical record imaginatively, sensitively and poignantly, and brings the past to life.

For example, one thing that historical fiction has to do is to imagine what historical figures thought and felt, because, especially for a period like the sixteenth century, there is often a dearth of ego-literature – there are rarely helpful diaries with our characters’ reflections in them. We have some letters, we have some recorded speech, but fiction has much to add in filling in the gaps about people’s motivations, feelings, and thoughts.

But going beyond that, I find that there are two ways in which historical fiction can sometimes go too far for me:

1) getting basic facts wrong – like having Anne Boleyn executed with an axe or making Mary Boleyn the younger sister – things that can be easily verified (though because of that, I don’t mind it nearly as much – because interested readers can check the facts for themselves – as…)

2) failing to recreate the mentality of the period, e.g. a common occurrence is making a character essentially atheistic at a period when that was very rare, or sexually liberated in a very 21st century way, or otherwise transposing modern day attitudes to a historical character. This is what bothers me most: the tendency to suggest that people in the past were exactly like us in all their thoughts and feelings, rather than focus on the mysterious difference, as well as the shared humanity.

Ultimately, the key is whether readers are able to distinguish between fact and fiction if they want to.

 
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?

 
Wolf Hall does what I suggest above – it fills in gaps in the historical record, but it impressively remains true to the sensitivities of the early 16th century (I remember, for example, Mantel commenting that novelty was a bad thing in the 16th century, which is absolutely true and contrasts with today’s sense of ‘brand new’ being good) and also stays pretty close to the known facts. The Tudors is a very different kettle of fish – it plays constantly fast and loose with established and basic facts about the period, it projects a 21st century mindset onto the past, it dresses its actors in non-historically accurate clothing (generally, making it far raunchier than the Tudor would have worn) etc: I think that’s why it has received greater criticism than Wolf Hall.

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?

 
Yes, this is interesting. Philippa Gregory, of course, has a doctorate in history[1], so is essentially trained as an historian and knows what she’s doing. But she does create alternative narratives, at times, which because of her standing have a tendency to stick. Also, I’m not sure I completely believe that everything she writes is based on ‘historical probability’: I can certainly think of exceptions in her writing. I think she does probably want to claim both roles.

 
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 a really good idea, and really helps the readers distinguish fact and fiction. My father-in-law is a historical novelist, funnily enough, and in his last series of books, he put an Author’s Note at the end to explain the research on which he had based the book, and the controversial decisions that he had made in staging the events as he did. I think it’s really useful for novelists to do this; I imagine authors don’t because they don’t feel any sense of responsibility to do so, and because their own narrative has become firmly lodged in their head.

 
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?


I think it’s also related to:
1) a general decrease in historical education, certainly here in the UK (even today, there’s an article about 156 schools in the country not offering history at GCSE, i.e. from 14 to 16 years old),
2) the influence of postmodernism (as Portman says below) – all things are seen as equally believable and therefore also equally valid or invalid.

 
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?

 
I remember reading this interview with Natalie Portman and was shocked by the cavalier attitude it reveals. Of course, it’s a very postmodern view, and historians do provide different interpretations on sources – there’s no ‘book of facts’ out there. Yet, there are still verifiably accurate and inaccurate understandings, facts and fictions. And The Other Boleyn Girl as a film is full of historical nonsense that any historian would have been able to point out.

It doesn’t necessarily matter that actors haven’t researched, though it helps – what matters is that the writers and directors have. I recently saw a play produced by theatre company Red Rose Chain called Fallen in Love: The Secret Heart of Anne Boleyn by Joanna Carrick, which managed to combine deep and accurate research with a dramatically moving, compelling story. It is possible – especially with the Tudors, whose stories are so incredible without fabrication.

In the end, I have mixed feelings. I strongly believe that people come to history through film and novels, and I’m very keen, as an historian, to meet people where they are at, and not create barriers to entry. If watching The Other Boleyn Girl makes them turn to a history book, or encourages them to visit Hampton Court, I’m all for it. But – I do think that the truth is often more interesting than the some of the fictions we are given.


[1] Note from SB:  Gregory’s doctorate is actually in literature.

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Why the “1000 Days’” Tower Speech Rang True in 1969—and Still Does Today

Do note cite, quote, copy, or distribute without consent of author: Bordo@uky.edu.

Genevieve Bujold’s performance, and a few key changes in the play, were to make quite a dramatic transformation in the Maxwell Anderson original.  Anderson’s play, despite it’s fireball Anne, was really Henry’s story, and, like Hackett’s biography, was intent on exorcising the ghost of Bluff King Hal, described in Hacket’s biography  as “the  sort of man who cuts off his wife’s heads, ha-ha, out of a big, jovial, exuberant good humor.  Off with her head!  Off with the next one’s head!  The more, the merrier.” (248) Charles Laughton, in Private Life, played precisely this kind of Henry, and with such gusto and ingenuity that many viewers (and reviewers) believed that they were seeing the “real” Henry. John Gamme, in Film Weekly, described Laughton as “drawing a full-blooded portrait of the gross, sensual monarch in whom lust and the satisfaction of vanity are the ruling passions.”[1]

Hacket and Anderson, however, considered this kind of portrait to be a caricature.  Their respective Henrys are not piggy old souls, but tortured monarchs.   Hackett’s was a “man of open manner and gracious fellowship” who, due to an inability to imagine himself and his personal needs as anything other than orchestrated by God, had  “managed to plunge himself and his country in the thick of an inextricable jungle.” Anderson’s Henry is an even more tragic figure than Hackett’s. He truly loves Anne, but gets caught in the net of his own obsession with an heir, masculine pride, and self-indulgence.  Ultimately, he comes to see that he has paid an enormous price, but that “nothing can ever be put back the way it was.”  In the final speech of the play, Henry muses on the magnitude of what has changed for his country (“the limb that was cut from Rome won’t graft to that trunk again”) and, with Anne’s ghost hovering in the background, begins to realize that “all other women will be shadows” and that he will seek Anne “forever down the long corridors of air, finding them empty, hearing only echoes.”  “It would have been easier,” he now recognizes, “to forget you living than to forget you dead.”

In Anderson’s play, it’s Henry, then, who has the final word, who makes the final pronouncements about history, whose torments we are left to imagine. The film, however, ends very differently.  The screenplay, adapted from the play by Brigid Boland, John Hale, and Richard Sokolove, has Henry, in our last glimpse of him, listening for the signal sounding Anne’s death, then galloping off to see Jane Seymour with nary a second thought.  In place of his sober, sad reflections at the end of the play, in the film we see little Elizabeth, a sprig of flowers in her hand, toddling down the path towards greatness (actually in the gardens of Penshurst Castle) while her mother’s voice in the background predicts her daughter’s glorious future.  The voice-over is a repeat of part of an earlier speech, one that has viewers cheering for Anne to this day.  As in the play, Henry visits Anne in the Tower, and as in the play, she lies to him about her fidelity to him.  In the movie, however, she embellishes her lie with more detail–“I was untrue to half your court.  With soldiers of your guard, with grooms, with stablehands.  Look for the rest of your life at every man that ever knew me and wonder if I didn’t find him a better man than you!”–and Henry, rattled and enraged, shouts, “You whore!”  Anne, who knows she has hit the mark of his manhood but has even sharper arrows in her quiver, goes on:

“Yes. But Elizabeth is yours. Watch her as she grows; she’s yours. She’s a Tudor! Get yourself a son off of that sweet, pale girl if you can – and hope that he will live! But Elizabeth shall reign after you! Yes, Elizabeth – child of Anne the Whore and Henry the Blood-Stained Lecher – shall be Queen! And remember this: Elizabeth shall be a greater queen than any king of yours! She shall rule a greater England than you could ever have built! Yes – MY Elizabeth SHALL BE QUEEN! And my blood will have been well spent!”

Yes, it’s overblown.  And it’s utterly without historical foundation.  Henry never visited Anne in her room in the Tower, and Anne never delivered a speech like this; indeed, at this point, Anne knew the chances of Elizabeth ever becoming queen were extremely slim.  Two days before her execution, her marriage to Henry was declared null and void by Henry’s lawyers, and Elizabeth bastardized.  In the movie, she is given a choice that the real Anne never had: to live, if she will willingly end the marriage, freeing Henry to marry Jane Seymour and making Elizabeth illegitimate in the bargain.  Or to die, with Elizabeth still a rightful heir.  She turns Henry down flat.

It was all invention, but of a particularly potent and timely sort for 1969. This was a period of convention-smashing in film: Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, Midnight Cowboy, The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy, and Easy Rider.  But with the exception of Bonnie Parker and Mrs. Robinson (but strikingly not her daughter Elaine), the female characters in the New American Cinema played by the rules.  It was the men who challenged the “status quo,” and the men who paid heroically for it.[2]  Hale and Boland’s Anne, long before Thelma and Louise, is the first female heroine to ride off the cliff, in full consciousness of what she is doing, to preserve her own integrity (and in this case, the future of her daughter and of England).

It struck a chord, even with me. In 1969, I was a pretty cynical movie-goer.  The anti-sentimentalist Pauline Kael, who did movie reviews for The New Yorker,  was my idol, and I hated anything that smacked of pretention or high-mindedness.  I was not a feminist in anything but the most inchoate sense of the word.  While friends of mine were joining consciousness-raising groups and attending demonstrations, I scorned and was made anxious by what I thought of as “groupthink.”  My own personal rebellion was to drop out of school, have a lot of mindless sex, marry someone I didn’t love, and then suffer a nervous breakdown which made me unable to leave him.  But I did manage to make it to the movies—and Anne of the Thousand Days was one of them. It was my first introduction, since the boring, sexless Tudor history I’d read in high school, to the story of Henry and Anne.  I had no idea what was invented and what was historically documented, but it made no difference. I loved fiery, rebellious Anne.  I loved the way she bossed Richard Burton’s Henry around like a surly, 20th-century teenager.  I loved the fact that Genevieve Bujold’s hair was messy as she delivered that speech to Henry, loved her intensity, loved her less-than-perfectly symmetrical beauty, loved the fact that someone that small could pack such a wallop.

Anne’s speech in the Tower might have seemed melodramatic if it had been played by a young Bette Davis—or, heaven forfend, an Elizabeth Taylor!  But Bujold’s fire, issuing from her petite frame and elfin face, her hair disheveled, her dark eyes glittering with pride, desperation, hurt, and vengeance, transformed the potentially hokey into an indelible, iconic moment. Even at a recent festival of Burton’s films, held by the British Film Institute, the audience was stirred, crying out “Go, Anne, go, you tell him!”[3] “After watching this,” writes one contemporary Tudorphile,  “you come away with the feeling that if that ain’t the way it really happened then it should’ve. I love the pride she displays even after Henry slaps her. She’s right, he’s wrong and they both know it. As she goes on talking down to him you can see him shriveling little by little and he nevermore was the man he’d once been. Seems she got the last laugh in more ways than one.”

Bujold also did something with Anne’s famous—and famously ambiguous—comments in the Tower that no other actress before or since has done, and that contributed to the believability of that final speech.   Anne’s behavior in the Tower, as she awaited her sentencing and then her death, provides some of  the most intriguing clues to her personality.  Unfortunately, it was recorded by Constable Kingston, a man who seems to have been tone-deaf to her sense of irony.  When Anne delivered her best-known line—“I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck”—then put her hands around her neck and “laughed heartily” (as Kingston described it), he took her to be showing “much joy and pleasure in death.” The actresses who have played Anne have been too smart to accept that interpretation, but then have been left with the task of figuring out just what was going on.  Merle Oberon and Dorothy Tutin, who played Anne in the 1971 BBC series The Six Wives of Henry VIII, eliminate the laughter entirely, and have Anne say the line wistfully, as if in resigned acceptance (and in the case of Oberon, with a touch of narcissism) over the reality of the coming confrontation between steel and flesh.  Natalie Dormer, who played Anne in Showtime’s The Tudors, plays the “little neck” speech as a moment when the unimaginable stress that Anne is enduring breaks through her composure, and both the absurdity and the terror of her situation erupt in a crazy joke and then, hysterical laughter—an interpretation that fits well with the evidence that Anne’s  behavior in the tower was frequently unhinged.  But Bujold chooses to emphasize Anne’s intelligence and pride rather than her emotional instability, and plays the line as a sardonic response to Kingston’s lame reasurrances that the blow would be so “subtle” there would be no pain. Her Anne recognizes cowardly, self-serving bull when it’s thrown at her, and will have none of it.

In another iconic moment, Anne had said to Kingston, upon arrival at the Tower and being told that she would be housed in the apartment she stayed in before her coronation, that it was “too good for her.”  Kingston reports that she then “kneeled down weeping, and in the same sorrow fell into a great laughing.” One can interpret the weeping as relief and the laughter as hysterical, but Anne also laughed—in the same conversation with Kingston–when he told her that “even the King’s poorest subject hath justice.” It’s hard to read that laughter as anything other than mocking Kingston’s naivete about the King’s “justice,” and Bujold, emphasizing this mockery, which stems from Anne’s uncompromising realism, makes the “it is too good for me” comment drip with sarcasm rather than relief.  For a queen, of course the apartments would hardly be “too good.” By saying the line “It is too good for me” with bitter irony rather than tearful gratitude, Bujold’s Anne is actually pointing out to the clueless, uncomfortable Kingston that she is still, after all, the Queen of England.  Her Anne was, and probably always will be, the proudest of the Annes.

…..Bujold’s own history had prepared her well to play a young woman breaking through the confinements of convention.  She had grown up in a devout French-Canadian Catholic household, and spent her first twelve school years in a convent; in an online biography, she is quoted as saying that at the time she felt “as if I were in a long, dark tunnel, trying to convince myself that if I could ever get out, there was light ahead.” But something about her religious training made its way into her attitude toward acting.  When asked in 2007 how she prepared for her roles, she answered, “You pray for grace.  If you’ve done your homework and, most of all, are open to receive, you go forward…Preparation for me is sacred.”  But going forward with her own life required rebellion as well as grace; she finally “got out’ of the tunnel by being caught reading a forbidden book.  Liberated to pursue her own designs for her life, she enrolled in Montreal’s free Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique.”  While on tour in Paris with the company, she was discovered by director Alain Resnais, who cast her with Yves Montand in the acclaimed La Guerre est Finie.

Resnais taught her an acting lesson that “still is in me, will always be with me. ‘Always go to the end of your movement,’ he told me”–don’t short-circuit the emotion, the bodily expression, the commitments of the personality you are playing, allow them to fully unfold. That’s something that Genevieve saw in Anne as well. “You can’t put something into a character,” she said, “that you haven’t got within you. Every little thing in life is fed into the character…A word, a thought.  I had read something on Anne Boleyn that Hal gave me and I could look at her with joy and energy; Anne brought a smile to my face.” I asked her what elicited that smile. “Independence. A healthy sense of justice. And she knew herself and was well with herself.  She obviously had such profound integrity in that respect.  She was willing to lose her head to go to the end of her movement.”  That’s what we see, too, in her portrayal of Anne, especially in that final speech, and it’s why “My Elizabeth shall be queen!” still has audiences cheering for her, unconcerned with the historical liberties.

Most movies of the late nine-sixties have not worn exceptionally well, particularly with today’s generation of viewers, for whom many of the lifestyle protests of the times seem dated and silly.   My students snoozed through Easy Rider.  With Anne of the Thousand Days, the passing years and changing culture have had the opposite effect; my students adored it, and especially an Anne that seems to become “truer” as the generations have become less patient with passive heroines and perhaps a bit tired by the cutesy, man-focused femininity of many current female stars.: “Everything I imagine Anne really was”; “How I always picture Anne—as a strong woman not a sniveling girl”; “The gold standard of Annes”; “When I imagine Anne, it is her that I see”; “One of the best Annes ever — all fire and grace.” “The definitive Anne Boleyn for me”; “Pitch-perfect”; “So powerful that she turned a big, touch guy like myself into a wimpering fool”; “A remarkable actress.  I will never forget the scene where she and Henry go riding from Hever…Purely from her body language, she radiates suppressed hatred towards Henry—just by sitting on a horse!  And who can forget her in the blue gown, with jewels in her hair, looking devastatingly beautiful and in total command of herself and the situation.” [4]

Before I said good-by to Genevieve in our interview, I asked her who she would pick to play Anne today.  She admitted that she hadn’t seen either Natalie Portman or Natalie Dormer; she lives a fairly reclusive life in Malibu, and rarely sees movies or watches television.  “But is there anyone who you think would do the part justice?”  She was silent for awhile, then asked me if she could be honest.  Of course, I said.  “Maybe it’s selfish, but…the way I feel….” Genevieve had been so warm and generous throughout the interview, praising all her mentors and influences in her life, she was clearly a bit uncomfortable with what she wanted to say.  So, I pressed a bit more, and she responded, with an intensity that recalled her performance and made me smile with delight.

“No-one,” she replied, “Anne is mine.”


[1] Laughton himself maintained, incredibly, that the film, whose liberties with history run rampant (and rollicking) was true to historical fact.  When the film was lambasted by some of the British press for presenting a “disrespectful” view of imperial history, Laughton insisted on its authenticity: “Most of the dialogue was copied straight from contemporary records of Henry’s actual words,” he claimed, a bald faced lie that mattered little to viewers or most critics, most of whom were swept away not by the film’s accuracy, but the entertaining life it breathed into Henry as a personality.

[2] Although nowadays, pop culture tends to call the shots on “reality,” it used to be that it took awhile for movies to catch up with events in the real world. In 1969, Women’s Liberation groups were forming all over the country.  But it would be another five years or so before films like Scorcese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Her Anymore and Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman would bow, gently, in the direction of a “new woman.”  It wouldn’t be until Thelma and Louise (1991) that the deepest gender conventions would be challenged.  In Alice and Unmarried Woman, the heroines’ (Ellen Burstyn and Jill Clayburgh) independence is tempered by the presence of two gorgeous, really nice guys (Kris Kristofferson and Alan Bates, each at the height of his appeal) who, it is implied, will remain in the women’s lives, providing support and great sex while the heroines pursue their careers.  In Thelma and Louise, in contrast, even the nicest of the male characters are impotent; despite every attempt,  they cannot alter the tragic course of events.  The women have chosen, and they—like the rebel-males of the 1968-9 films—will have to pay the price.

[3] Bujold admits that she was also “telling off” Elizabeth Taylor when she filmed that scene.  After hearing rumors about Burton’s interest in Bujold, Liz had unexpectedly shown up on the set that day.  “It was all rubbish,” Burton told his biographer Michael Nunn, but it was a “problem for Gin, because she had Elizabeth training her sights on her.”  When Taylor showed up on the set, Bujold, as Wallis relates in his autobiography, “was fighting mad,” and “flung herself into the scene with a display of acting skill I have seldom seen equaled in my career.  Then she stormed off the set.”

[4] Comments from readers of my FB page.

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Filed under Anne Through the Ages, Interviews with Michael Hirst, Natalie Dormer, and other modern personalities

Susan’s Interview with Robin Maxwell, author of The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn and Mademoiselle Boleyn

Author Robin Maxwell

You’ve written two best-selling novels about Anne Boleyn.  Can you tell us something about your inspiration for them?

I wrote The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn because I thought she was totally misunderstood, especially about her part in the Reformation. I’m not saying it wouldn’t have happened without Anne Boleyn but it happened when it did in England because of her. And then, too, I was fascinated by the idea of exploring the relationship between Anne and her mother.  In the biographies and histories, I never could find more than a couple of sentences about it. And as I started to get older- I didn’t write this book until I was close to fifty–the more I realized that it doesn’t matter how old you are or whether your parents are dead, they continue to have a huge influence in your life. Even if Elizabeth didn’t speak her mother’s name until twenty years after she died and even if she believed the spin around her and all the bad press–that her mother was a whore and a witch, and so forth- even so she would be influenced by her.

And history provides some intriguing hints. We know that very shortly after Elizabeth took the throne, within a couple of years, she started giving honors and grants and lands and titles to the Boleyn relatives who had lived through Henry’s reign.  She started wearing a ring (some say a locket) with her mother’s miniature in it.   Perhaps, I thought, her attitude toward her mother changed at some point?  And if so, what made her change?  Did she learn something about her mother? And I thought, well, if she learned the truth about her mother and how strong her mom was, and how false the rumors and the charges were, that would impact Elizabeth’s life.

And, you know, it touched a nerve.  The books have been published in fourteen languages.

It seems as though a big reason for its success, besides the fact that it’s a wonderful read, is that it explores an emotional terrain that has deep meaning for most of us.

Right, probably the most important relationship in our lives.  And it also “answers” some questions about Elizabeth, because the way I tied it up is that when she learned about the power of men from her mother’s diary, she realized that you needed to hold on to your power when it came to men.  That was the reason—a fiction, but something I do believe—that she decided never to marry.

Mademoiselle Boleyn

And what about Mademoiselle Boleyn?  How did the idea of that come to you?

Actually, I had been doing the research for Signora da Vinci, and when I read that Leonardo was in the French court of Francois I around 1515, it occurred to me that those were the years that Anne and Mary Boleyn were there.  I went back to my Boleyn research books and found that it was true.  The sisters were very much in the “inner circle” of Francois’ court, and the King considered Leonardo his best friend.  He went to visit him every day at a chateau just a couple of hundred yards downriver from Amboise (sometimes using a secret tunnel).  I deduced that Anne must of met the Maestro while she was a teenager (and during the time Mary was Francois’ mistress).  That was the germ of the idea.  Then I realized that no historical fiction had ever shown this period of the Boleyn girls’ lives in any depth.  So much happened to Anne.  It was the place (and under the tutelage of the King’s sister, the Duchess Margaret D’Alencon) that Anne received her “progressive” religious training, as Margaret was a Lutheran (in a deeply Catholic court).  And it was here, I reckoned, that Anne – watching her sister be handed around to all of the courtiers when Francois tired of her –  realized she needed to withhold sexual favors (which she did for six years with Henry) if she wanted to keep any control of her life.

What do think fiction can do that non-fiction cannot?

It allows us to do what I call “extrapolation.” I’ll give you an example. Remember the scene when Anne is in the Tower of London after her arrest, and she’s hoping that Henry is going to come and intervene and get her out of this mess–and instead Cranmer shows up?  Every book I read took me up to that moment where Cranmer came in to the her tower room with a document that he said Henry wanted Anne to sign, claiming that Elizabeth was a bastard child.  But nobody knows what actually happened between them in the tower and it’s especially intriguing because he was a good friend of hers, who shared her religious views and who was seriously shocked when he found out about the charges against her.  All we know, though, is that he came in with that document, and walked out with it signed.  To me, filling in that chasm of unknowing was one of the greatest challenges, to take everything I’d learned about Cranmer and Anne…and turn it into the drama of that chapter. I still think it is one of the best chapters I have ever written.  Is it historically verifiable?  No.  But it gets us from  point A to point B in a way that the actual history can’t. And it was such an important moment because Anne had struggled for all of those years to ensure that Elizabeth was a legitimate princess. She sacrificed a lot and she’d taken a lot of chances. Then with a sweep of the pen, she gave Elizabeth up.  She must have done that because she knew it wouldn’t go well for her daughter if she didn’t.  Anne was facing her end, but wanted to make sure that Henry didn’t come after Elizabeth.  Tragic—and inspiring.

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?

I always feel like I am stepping on eggshells when I talk about Phillipa Gregory because her books have been so wildly successful, and she’s brought many readers who otherwise wouldn’t have read historical fiction to our genre, so it can sound like sour grapes.  But the fact is that I find what she has done disturbing.  Because of The Other Boleyn Girl, an entire generation of readers, mostly young women, believe that Anne was a horrible, scheming woman who would steal her sister’s child, sleep with her brother, was involved in witchcraft, poisoned people, had a horribly deformed child.  It’s just incredible!

And you’re right, I think part of the reason why some readers are so annoyed with Ms. Gregory is that when she is questioned she defends the historicity of it.

The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn

When TOBG was written, our common editor at Touchstone asked me if I would give the book a blurb because Secret Diary had been published several years before, and it was the only historical novel in quite a while to have tackled Anne Boleyn.  Our editor sent me the manuscript and I read it. It was a great read, a page turner, but I was completely appalled at the path she’d taken with Anne. Every false rumor, every nasty thing that anyone had ever said about her, Gregory turned into the truth in her book.  ­­­­  This wasn’t a blunder.  It was intentional.  Clearly she did her research, but then she decided what was going to be most dramatic and entertaining, and that was what she wrote.  I’m sure she is a scholar and knows what is truth and what’s not, but what’s going to work in the storyline that will hook the most readers is what seems to matter­­ to her. It’s really hard to fight it, though, because when you are that successful, publishers don’t care.  And you can argue that she has every right, because she’s a historical fiction author.  The upshot for me was that when I was asked to blurb the book, I said no. I refused the blurb on principle.  I had come to love the person that Anne Boleyn was.  I deeply respected her.  I felt she had stood up to a half-mad male despot and lost her life for her courage and convictions.  I thought The Other Bolyen Girl was an unnecessary smear-job.  A poke at a long-dead woman who couldn’t defend herself.  I hope people will read Secret Diary so they can see the other perspective, and let them decide for themselves what kind of person Anne was.

Along the same lines, 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?

As far as I’m concerned, the proof is in the pudding.  It was a great cast but a bad movie.  There was no chemistry between any of the characters, and the story (unbeliebably) was forgettable.  How could THAT story be forgettable?

What did you think of “The Tudors”?

I was addicted to the show.  I couldn’t get enough of it.

I didn’t like “Elizabeth,” the movie that Michael Hirst did, and of course he wasn’t completely sticking to facts with The Tudors, either, but I thought his portrayal of Anne was pretty darn decent.  I mean I loved Genevieve Bujold in “Anne of a Thousand Days”, but that whole movie in retrospect, as wonderful as it was,  gave all of the credit for the Protestant Reformation to the men. I think Natalie Dormer was fantastic.  I think she is the best of the lot of actresses who’ve played Anne.   Of course, having such an extended series, not having to squeeze everything into a two hours movie, helped as well.  I actually thought it was especially good as far as Anne’s potrayal was concerned.

What’s on the horizon for you?

Well, I am working with an Australian producer on developing The Wild Irish and the Queen’s Bastard as a cable series.  I’ll co-produce, and I will be one of the main writers, as I’ve adapted a number of my novels into screenplays.  I was actually a screenwriter long before I started writing novels.  The Wild Irish (the fourth in my Elizabethan Quartet) show Elizabeth in her later years –  after she went from being her mother’s daughter (audacious, courageous) to her father’s daughter (manipulative and murderous).  She basically killed half the population of Ireland in trying to colonize the country and subjugate the people,  Where she had been a heroine in the first three books of the quartet, she became the villain in the fourth.  The heroine was Grace O’Malley, who was brought up by her father on a pirate ship and became a female “Braveheart” and the Mother of the Irish Rebellion against England. In the midst of the revolt, when Grace would have been considered a traitor, she sailed her ship up the Thames, parked in front of Greenwich Castle, marched in and demanded an audience with Elizabeth–which she got–and in front of the whole court made three huge demands on Elizabeth.  One, to release her son, who was also an Irish rebel, from the English prison in Ireland.  Two, to remove a particularly brutal captain that was ravaging Western Ireland, and three, she demanded a pension from Elizabeth. Elizabeth granted all of her demands!

In The Secret Diary, the book was prompted by a question – Why did Elizabeth change her mind about her mother?  In The Wild Irish, the question was – why did Elizabeth grant Grace O’Malley her three demands?  If you like Anne Boleyn you will love Grace O’Malley!

My next novel – it won’t be published till September 2012, is JANE:  The Woman Who Loved Tarzan.  It’s set in 1912 and it’s fiction, so I suppose it could be considered historical fiction.  But it was written (with the full authorization and support of the Edgar Rice Burroughs Estate) as a Tarzan classic.  It’s the first novel in the ERB Tarzan franchise to be penned by a woman, and the first of the series written from Jane’s point of view.  It crosses several genres (adventure, sci-fi/fantasy, romance, and women’s literature), but at its heart it is, like all my other books, the story of a strong, fabulous woman who stands tall under extraordinary circumstances.

Any final words for our readers?

I’m constantly aware that if it hadn’t been for Anne Boleyn and her extraordinary life I never would have had this career. So I feel like I have a very personal relationship with her. It was because of her that my husband, Max, and I were able to move out of LA, and now own 22 acres in a high desert paradise.  It’s extraordinary.  For years after we bought the property, and sometimes even now, we come in through the gates, and we cannot believe what we have, and we say “Thank you Anne”, “Thank you Henry.”  It’s bittersweet.  Sometimes I think: the tragedy of her life…it made my career.  Thank you, Anne Boleyn, thank you!

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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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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 Amazon.com 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: http://www.nellgavin.net/


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.

[1]
For those that are interested, I document my thoughts on the subject at http://www.facebook.com/l/eAQDnRTZvAQBpExDYjzfU8sBY5SsVDHBwiY8_kXg_Ln78gw/www.nellgavin.net/reincarnation.htm

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Susan Bordo’s Exclusive Interview with Howard Brenton, Author of “Anne Boleyn”

In the summer of 2010, just a few days after Howard Brenton’s play Anne Boleyn opened to rave reviews at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, Brenton met with me in the coffee shop of the theatre to talk about the play, what inspired him to write it, his conception of Anne, Henry, and Cromwell, and the difference between polemic and art:

 

SB:            So little exists in terms of actual documentation about what Anne was like; it makes tremendous sense that she would have a very active fictional life, in novels and plays, but also in popular history. Some of the most influential narratives have been based on little more than court gossip, some of them have reflected various political agendas and religious agendas, some are purely the product of over-active imaginations. Your play, however, is really the first, among modern fictionalized narratives anyway, to emphasize Anne’s reformist activities. How did that come about?

 

Brenton:            I wanted to write a play about the Tudors for a long time, but couldn’t find a way of doing it, and then this occurred to me when the Globe wanted a play celebrating the King James Bible for the 400th anniversary. I first said I don’t think can do that, how do you dramatize that?  And then I remembered that Anne Boleyn had a testament, a Tyndale testament–and of course the King James Bible is largely based on Tyndale–so I thought that was interesting, and then the play spun itself from that. In getting the details right, Eric Ives’ Life and Death of Anne Boleyn was a big help.

 

SB:            Ives is one of the most responsible and thorough historians of Anne.

 

Brenton:            Yes, very much so. Then I began to think a lot about Henry.  In my view, what makes the Boleyn story work, in the play at least if not in reality, is my view of Henry that he wasn’t exactly weak, but he would let people run him.  He would have someone close to him, he’d elevate them, and they’d be terrific and virtually take the country over, run everything on his behalf and then when something went wrong or a different wind came his way, he would turn 180 degrees against them and they would be out.  This happened for good reason to Wolsey, it happened to More, it happened to Anne, and then it happened to Cromwell five years after she was executed.  It wasn’t that Henry was weak. But his attention span was probably not the greatest, and although he was an intellectual like any trained prince would be, he wasn’t a great intellectual. He worked hard to be the Renaissance prince when he was young, but basically he was out hunting a lot.

 

SB:            That’s a very interesting answer to what remains a real mystery, which is how could someone who had so much affection and warmth and attachment to various people could turn so ruthlessly against them. One day he has his arm around Wolsey, telling him “don’t be afraid, my friend” and then Wolsey never sees him again. He tells Anne, when she has a fit over Jane, to calm down, that “all will be well, Sweetheart”, and the next thing you know her head is in the sawdust.

 

Brenton:            Yes, that’s what happens when people don’t succeed in doing the big thing that he wants, And it’s very sudden, unlike Elizabeth, where there is a gradual easing in and out of her favorites. Also, there were checks and counterpoints between people in Elizabeth’s court.  With Henry, you were either totally in or you were dead.

 

SB:            Exactly. His capriciousness wasn’t just a function of being king, was it?  Because not all monarchs behaved that way. And of course, there are all these hypotheses as to why Henry did. A  popular one, which partly comes from David Starkey, is that he was overly pampered by his mother. He expected everyone, in a sense, to breastfeed him, metaphorically speaking, and when the milk stopped flowing, so did his attachment and protection.

 

Brenton:            Yes, he was brought up by women, but he wasn’t brought up as the king.  Arthur was, so Henry was always number two, and farmed out to be looked after by women.  I think he was always at ease with women, and of course, they would all defer to him.  The adoration was enormous around the young prince, and then when he was elevated and they tried to try give him a more kingly kind of spine, it had to be bolted together. And then, too, the regime was still really young.  With his father, there were virtual bankers taking over the country, so they had to sort of nail the Tudor dynasty down very hard, and they did that with pomp and centralization. Everyone had to come to court and then travel around with you.  And he got rid of those people who were getting too powerful, building too much, building more than he was, both metaphorically and literally, because he was a manic builder.  No one builds higher skyscrapers than the monarchy.  Don’t put up a taller building than mine or you’d find it knocked down!

 

SB: There was something that you said once in an interview that really interested me.  You said we all live in this world of cardboard, fantasy creations, but life is of course much messier and more chaotic, and that your job, as an artist, is finding the fault lines, the instability. I was wondering how this play fits in to that idea of finding the fault lines, whether in terms of history or in terms of our own, current situation.

 

Brenton:            Perhaps because it’s about the instability of regimes.  But I don’t think you can know whether something you’re working on is going to resonate for an audience.  And often later, if it does, you realize “oh, that’s why I was so obsessed with that at that time!” In my view, you can’t ever have a message-stricken play that tries to disrupt accepted ideas, and so on. You just follow an instinct, something that you’re obsessed with at the moment, and then only later do you realize why.  It’s very dangerous for writers to suddenly begin to think about their “whys”. You can go bonkers; you turn into the label that you’ve created.  We can’t be moralists or ideologues.  It’s a different kind of truth we should be after. Dostoevsky was a great novelist, but if you read his political and religious tracts, they are awful.  They’re one dimensional, ranting, very little human feeling or insight to the human condition in them.

 

SB:            Yes, it’s as though when one stays on the level of theoretical or political abstraction, you’re in a whole different world than our own, contradictory, always-changing one– but when you move to the concrete, the way art (as opposed to polemic) does, the concrete tells you what it has to be.  It tells you that this character must do this whether or not you like it or not –

 

Brenton:            Yes, whether you like it or not.

 

 

SB:            Which bring us to Anne.  How did your Anne come about?

 

Brenton:            I really admire Anne. What was extraordinary to me about her was her recklessness. The Tudor court was unbelievably dangerous and yet she got to the very center of it, and the only way out was either bear a male child or death.  There was no other way out.  There was no retreat, and that I thought was an extraordinary existential place to end up, and I thought the recklessness of it, the courage that took, was amazing.

 

 

 

SB:            Something else about your Anne that really struck me is the way in which you allow her to be both playful and spiritual at the same time.  The typical way the characters are written has Anne equal sex and Catherine equal piety. But in fact Anne, having spent her formative years at the French court, where women could be both playful and have strong religious commitments—Francis’s sister Marguerite is the best example—put it together differently than the English.

 

Brenton:              Yes.  I thought a lot about this. I do think that even in England, the mind/ body split, or the soul / body split, the fallen body, all that, which came out of Calvin, really, was only beginning to make its way into the reformist faction at this kind.  Come the turn of the century, it had taken hold, and it was warfare between the different sections of Puritans, really.  But I thought, well, maybe it hadn’t really got hold by the time of this play.  And that’s reflected in Anne’s version of Protestantism.

 

SB:            It could be speculated that both Anne and Henry get caught, so to speak, by a shift that they don’t quite know is happening.  The new ideas about the “base, physical” body change ideas about courtly love, too, so that things that Anne did that just 10 years before would have been seen as entirely innocent—the provocative talk with the men she was accused of sleeping with, and so on–now begin to be seen as signaling that something more is going on.  I’m not saying that Cromwell didn’t cook up the charges, but perhaps this cultural change is one reason why others were so ready to believe them. In a certain way, Anne and Henry are caught in the grip of historical changes that they can’t control, and that makes it possible for Cromwell to exploit certain things about her.

 

Brenton:            Yes. Cromwell was out to get her, certainly. Originally, he was in league with her and the collaboration was perfect for his purposes, with her access to the royal pillow.  Absolutely wonderful, brilliant arrangement! He was thrilled to realize the extent of her religious fervor.  But then of course, it all went wrong. I took it from the Eric Ives that she was going to tell the king that she was horrified at what was happening, the misuse of the money from the dissolution of monasteries. I found it entirely credible that Cromwell then moved against her.  It was so sudden.  It took him three weeks!  In three weeks, you’ve got all the witnesses, the trial. and she was gone.

 

 

SB:           It’s certainly disturbing, then, to see a book like the Bernard book, Fatal Attractions, which seems so retrograde, arguing that she likely actually slept with at least one of the men.

 

Brenton:            Yes. It’s trying to establish the old story. And Bernard forgets that those aristocratic women who reported to Cromwell were Anne’s enemies. Her only protection was Henry, and the possibility that she was going to give him a male heir.  That’s her only protection.  People hated her family.  So nothing that anyone said about her and her sexual behavior was to be trusted.

 

 

SB:            We know what that led to. But your play, despite what happened to Anne, does end on a curiously hopeful note.

 

 

Brenton:            Yes.  It’s as though she’s saying, “Over to you out there, here’s the mess.  How are you doing with the mess?  Bye bye!”

 

SB:            “I had fun…fun, despite it all!”

 

Bremtpm:            Oddly, that’s what she’s saying here isn’t she? She blows everyone a kiss. And there we are, having been handed the reformation, Puritanism, the whole heritage…

 

 

SB:            Are you aware, by the way, of the huge new interest in Anne, especially on the internet?  I call it “viral Anne.” I think that she appeals to contemporary girls because of her complexity, and they “get” her in a way that many of the official historians don’t.  She says to them: You can be smart.  You can be dedicated.  You can fight for a cause.  But you also can like beautiful clothes and jewelry and don’t think for a minute that just because I flirt with you that you can’t take me seriously. And don’t think I’m anyone’s victim! They want heroines who stand up for themselves, who fight for what they believe, but who also have a sexual, playful, ironic side.  And I think Anne works that way for them.  In a sense, she’s a “third-wave” heroine.

 

 

Brenton:            Dominic [Dromgoole, Artistic Director of the Globe] actually pointed this out to me.  I wasn’t aware of it you see, and he said you do know about this, he’s got daughters who had been through their Anne Boleyn experience when they were 12-13, very young. He said you do know what may happen… you may have an audience of 13-year-olds becoming hysterical in the aisles.

 

SB:            I think they would love the play because your Anne is much closer to the Anne they admire than the Anne of the old stereotypes.  Fascinating, isn’t it? Henry tried to destroy all evidence of her queenship—her letters, her portraits, her emblems.  But she got her revenge, not just through Elizabeth, but by remaining the most endlessly fascinating of all the wives. She’s still a work in progress isn’t she?  Always has been and perhaps always will be.

 

Susan Bordo is a professor of the humanities who is currently writing a book about Anne Boleyn, The Creation of Anne Boleyn, to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn begins its second run at the Globe Theatre on July 8th.

 

 

 

 

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Anne and Natalie Defy the Ideal: From Susan’s Book and Interview with Natalie Dormer

The following is the intellectual property of Susan Bordo.  Please do not quote or cite without attribution to: Susan Bordo, The Creation of Anne Boleyn, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, forthcoming 2012.

Defying the fashion for blondes, which many privileged women with less than “whitely” locks tried to achieve through various recipes for hair and skin-lightening, Anne grew her dark hair so long that she could sit on it.  Before marriage, young women were permitted to wear their hair loose (after, it had to be hidden under a hood; the exception was the Queen, on those state occasions which required her to wear a crown.)   Religious ideology aside, Anne, must have been quite a ravishing sight, dancing at court, her thick, chestnut mane cascading down her back. “Her gracefulness rivaled Venus,” said the French courtier Brantome. When spotted after she returned to the English court by the French king Francis (whose wife Claude Anne had attended when she was younger) he declared:  “Venus etait blonde, on m’a dit: L’on voit bien, qu’elle est brunette.”  (“They say Venus was a blonde; but you can well see that she is a brunette.) Henry was obsessed with besting Francis, and the comment must have both pleased and provoked him. He was fiercely jealous of Francis’s reputation for style and dash.  I imagine the comment making its way around court, sending hearts and tongues aflutter, gossiping over the “brunette” beauty, as controversial—and influential—as the debut of the twentieth-century “flapper’s” short hair or Twiggy’s pixie.

Natalie Dormer, who plays Anne, is naturally blonde, and she auditioned that way, fully expecting, however, that if she got the role, she would play her as a brunette.  After she received the phone call telling her she’d won the part, she immediately dyed her hair.  When she arrived on set, she was shocked to discover that they had wanted her to remain blonde:

“They were really unhappy and it was communicated to me that I’d almost jeopardized my casting. But it’s such an important detail! Because she was defying the ideal, of what it meant for a female to be attractive. So we’re all barely cast, and I went to Bob Greenblatt with my heart in my mouth, and told him how important it was that Anne be dark. You have to let me play her dark! Some might say I was being melodramatic and self-important.  But I thought it would just be a direct betrayal of Anne. Of her refusal to step into the imprint of the acceptable norm at the time. “

The 16th century ideal

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More of Susan’s Interview with Michael Hirst, Writer of The Tudors

Intellectual property of Susan Bordo.  Do not quote or cite without attribution to The Creation of Anne Boleyn FB page (www.facebook.com/creationofanneboleyn)

SB = Susan Bordo

MH= Michael Hirst

SB:

We’ve talked about the fact that you are not doing history. In other interviews you’ve said “art is different from life, it has to have form”.  I agree completely. But I’m wondering, though, if you think that there’s a point at which a line gets crossed.  I’m thinking here in particular of “The Other Boleyn Girl,” which many of my students believe is true.

MH  

I just think you have to judge the results. Philippa Gregory has no historical sensibility at all. Her characters are all middle class people wandering into a historical situation and behaving in a very modern middle class way as a result.

SB

The rivalry between Mary and Anne, for example?

MH 

Yes, yes, she just invented that or she didn’t know. With good fiction, you actually do understand history and you understand two things.  One is that people are completely different from us and at the same time they are completely the same. In other words, they believe things that seem extraordinary to us. But you understand their existence and you can touch them.  You don’t have to make this huge phony effort to make Anne Boleyn seem like someone in the next dorm of your university, you know.  She was of her time. Her sensibility would not have been a contemporary sensibility. But behind that she is real, behind that she is human.

SB

I do wonder, though, with respect to The Tudors, whether you didn’t try to appeal to viewers yourself, by making Anne, in the first season, all about sex. I think that is part of what led some people to think “oh, here we have it again, Anne the slut.” Would you do that differently now or do you still stand by those choices?

MH

Well, it goes back slightly to the initial situation we were in.  When Showtime commissioned the series they were really taking a giant leap because they believed there was no ready market for anything like that, so we had to push the boundary there.  It wasn’t until the second season when we had a market established that I could then settle down a little more and discuss serious things.  But the sex stuff wasn’t entirely cynical, because I did want to show, unlike high-school history, that there was a lot of sex at the time.  All the courts of Europe were run by people in their teens and twenties…that’s why they were so crazy.  We have this image now that the court is always middle aged, but it wasn’t true.  You know, Henry was 18 when he became King, and I thought it was ridiculous that people were telling me he was really rather prudish and there was no sex because there was no heating in the palaces…

SB

Have they never been on a camping trip?

MH

So, I’m not entirely sorry but I understand your point and its quite true.  People were able to dismiss it because they saw it only as a romp.  But, it wasn’t. It was a way of gaining an audience for something that wouldn’t otherwise have been watched and once I had my audience I could develop more complicated issues…

SB

I understand what you mean.  And I think that you succeeded in that.  But some choices did puzzle me.  One, for example, was the decision not to have Henry’s body change.  That, and the minimal aging that Jonathan Rhys-Meyers did.  I mean he limped, sure, but he still looked like a pretty hot, sexy guy by the end of the series.  How did that come about?

MH 

Well the main thing was that Johnny actually has a small head and if you put a big body suit on him he would have looked ridiculous and I never wanted to go down the line of the slightly comical Henry VIII.  The moment people start laughing at him he can’t be a monster, and I’m more interested in the dangerous guy who is killing his wives. I do think, though, that he was pretty effectively degraded because on the very last show when he appears as a young man again there has been a significant change in him and, historically speaking, the real Henry VIII didn’t become monstrously fat until the last five years of his life.  The other thing is, we simply couldn’t have got Johnny to do it.  Johnny would not have allowed us to make him grotesque.

But I’m not saying this is the real Henry VIII.  This is my Henry VIII.  In fact, I wrote the scene when he commissioned Holbein to paint him as a majestic figure because I wanted to make the point that when we see historical figures, a lot of it is propaganda and how they wanted to be seen.  That picture of Henry was essentially a piece of propaganda…

SB 

I agree about the Holbein portrait, but I think a slim, older Henry is wrong. I can see, though, why it would have been difficult to do that with Rhys-Meyers.  For me, one of the most successful Henrys, both in terms of acting and physicality, was Robert Shaw, in “A Man for All Seasons.” He had the kind of heft that can turn to obesity in old age, whereas I think it would have been hard to have an athletic and slim guy like Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, even if he had allowed it, seem to develop that.

MH 

In any case, the great shocking thing for many people was to show Henry VIII as young and fit.  That was a truth that a lot of people didn’t want to recognize.

SB

To go back to the difference between history and fiction, and how good fiction, whatever its inventions, stays true to the historical context, do you think Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” falls into that category?

MH 

Well, I think it’s wonderful.  But, what amuses me is that The Tudors was often accused of being historically inaccurate, whereas I tried my best to make it as accurate within obvious limitations as possible and I used as many real quotes and recorded conversations as possible.  But Wolf Hall is completely made up.  It’s complete fiction. But nobody says that. They all say “what a wonderful book, what insights it brings to the Tudors…” Isn’t that bizarre?

SB 

A good point.  I found it ingenious and fascinating but I was disturbed by the same old mythology in the portrait of Anne Boleyn.  Mantel is a wonderful writer, but when it comes to Anne, it’s the same old schemer, only re-cycled.

MH  

Exactly, it’s trying to redeem Cromwell at the expense of damning Anne yet again.

 

Writer of The Tudors, Michael Hirst

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Interview with Joanna Carrick, author of “Fallen in Love”

1.     What got you interested in writing a play focusing on the relationship between Anne and George?

Originally my interest was in writing about Anne.  I’ve always been mildly fascinated. There is a village very near here called Erwarton where Anne’s aunt and uncle lived and she visited them as a child. A school friend of mine lived in the hall and I went there a couple of times and was told stories about Anne haunting once a year.  The Church in Erwarton has a legend that Anne’s heart was buried there and I was taken there quite often as a child. There’s a Boleyn Close and a Queen’s Head Pub in the village and so I suppose from an early age Anne has been a part of the landscape for me. My interest turned to writing a play about Anne, after having written a historical play about Thomas Clarkson, a most inspiring person who devoted himself to achieving the abolition of the slave trade. This project got me really fired up about history and bringing it to life for a diverse audience. Having decided to write about Anne, I read extensively about her life and visited historical sites. At Red Rose Chain I work with recovering heroin addicts and run a women’s group for women moving away from drug addiction and street prostitution. Four years ago, five women involved in street prostitution were horrific ally murdered in Ipswich and the work we do today was initiated in response to those events. The women I work with, all non-achievers at school, have been inspired by the Anne Boleyn story and have become known recently as The History Girls, becoming very knowledgeable about the subject and developing their own theories about what happened to Anne. In our discussions, the subject of George and the accusation of incest regularly came up and the girls explored the idea in historical and modern improvisations as well as discussions. I became fascinated  by Anne and George’s relationship and why, if untrue, so many people believed the accusations. For a while I considered writing a play with four characters, Anne, George, Henry and Jane Parker but in time I realized that it was Anne and George I really wanted to portray and decided to create a two hander with the other characters off stage.

2.     What, if anything, annoys you/delights you about how Anne has been represented in other works?

I haven’t in all honesty dwelt much on other interpretations recently, as I’ve been finding out as much as I can and trying to develop my own idea of Anne for some time now. What I don’t relate to is the “horrible histories”  “let’s all enjoy a good beheading” approach. I’ve been trying to stretch out a hand over the last 475 years and emphasize the humanity we have in common.

3.     Why do you think interest in Anne has blossomed over the past few years?  Do you think Anne “speaks” to young women in some way?

I have certainly found this to be the case, working with my women’s group. Anne’s strength and modernity have made her extremely attractive to them, while her flaws of character seem to have endeared her even more. I think the intellectual parity of her relationship with Henry, coupled with her eventual total lack of equality with him makes her a feminist martyr to be celebrated and the act of celebrating her seems to me to empower young women today and especially those who have been victims of abuse and the sex industry.

4.     I love the fact that Henry is “missing” in your play.  Do you have any thoughts on his personality/character?

I don’t know where to begin! I also like the fact that he’s missing, because it enables the audience to create their own visions of him in their minds. At the end of the scene where Anne is about to marry Henry, both Anne and George turn and bow toward the door as music announces his approach and every night during the run the sense of excitement at this moment was palpable as the audience turned to see him, although of course he wasn’t really there. In rehearsals we worked on the idea of Henry a great deal. Both the characters impersonate him at different points and we needed to create a shared vision for them both. Personally I think he was utterly spoilt in the true sense of the word. A man with enormous abilities but totally corrupted by his own power and vanity.

5.     What was the most challenging thing about writing about Anne?

Once I’d got the history right, it was developing a voice for her which sounded real, which had a   sense of period about it but didn’t sound “cod” historical. I found myself imagining her sitting next to me in my car and got used to talking to her and showing her things.

6.     Has anything surprised you about audience/critic responses to your play?

I’ve been delighted by the response. The opening night was a wonderful experience. There couldn’t have been anyone more scary turn up than Alison Weir – unless Anne herself had put in an appearance – and to get such an overwhelming endorsement from her has had a really significant impact on me. It was also such an amazing experience to actually see Alison enjoying the play so much!  During the run, which played to over 2500 people the reaction just seemed to get better and better and we were inundated with letters and emails praising the show and urging us to take it on tour, which we are doing in 2012. People were very moved but also inspired by the ending. Lots of men cried!

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