Friday, 8 June 2012
Reflecting on 'don't defame the dead'
There is a very interesting topic being discussed in some of my favourite blogs, started by Kathryn at her brilliantly researched Edward II, and also at the Thomas Cromwell Experience and Neville Feast. It’s all about ‘Don't defame the dead’. Edward II, Thomas Cromwell and Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick have all been much maligned in fiction and non-fiction. It can be easily done because you cannot libel the dead. And once a historical person is given a reputation, it can sometimes be very hard to shake the perception. Those with an interest in history will I’m sure make the effort to check so-called facts, sources and interpretations. Those who merely like a good story, probably won’t, unless their interest is sparked. A friend of mine always reads the top sellers, whatever their content, and I could hardly believe what she was trying to tell me about Anne Boleyn after reading ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ by Phillippa Gregory. I just cannot believe that anyone would think Anne guilty of the charge of incest. There are so many biographies on Anne, and almost all find her innocent of the charges brought against her – but a work of fiction being quoted at me as evidence of her character was shocking! Even worse was the film that followed, which those with little knowledge took as ‘the truth’. You could say that Gregory is entitled to artistic licence and to interpret the history of Anne as she wants, but when I see Gregory on tv speaking as a ‘historian’, the line becomes blurred for me.
I must admit I read very little historical fiction these days. The main problem is time, and also that there is so much ‘bad’ historical fiction out there. In my early teens, way before the internet, I relied on my local library, and read every Jean Plaidy novel I could get my hands on. I always read non-fiction books on the Tudors, but any non-Tudor Plaidy novels I read would always spark an interest and then I’d look for factual books and check her historical interpretation and understanding. Plaidy relied on Agnes Strickland’s ‘Lives of the Queens of England’, of which there was a complete reference set in my local library and I spent many a rainy day in school holidays ploughing through the volumes. Of course a lot of what Strickland wrote has been challenged, and rightly so. I found Plaidy’s novels inoffensive, even when I disagreed with her interpretation. It was having read Plaidy’s ‘Follies of the King’ which ignited my interest in Piers Gaveston, although it was very difficult to find any history bios on Edward II then, let alone Piers. I read many fiction books at that time, and was used to the portrayal of Edward and Piers as being weak, Edward being more or less stupid and being led by the nose by Piers, who was always arrogant and vain and annoyed the hell out of a neglected/vengeful Isabella and paid the price.
Today’s historical fiction goes much further than Plaidy ever did. Some of the things I’ve read have bordered on the ridiculous, the bizarre and downright insulting. In some novels I’ve read how Isabella was abused by her brothers as a child, Piers was a high – or even low – class whore, Edward was unbelievably stupid and a rapist who didn’t love his children. It’s the portrayal of Piers as a prostitute I most object to. There is NO evidence for this. Piers is praised in the chronicles of the time as being graceful, well-mannered and chivalrous who actively took part in warfare or tournaments and was seen as a fit companion for the Prince of Wales by no less a person than his father, Edward Ist. So, whenever Piers is down on his luck, short of money etc, does he enter a rich tournament? Ask Edward for some money? Or even ‘steal’ Edward’s wedding presents? Ask his family for money? Sell his horse or fine clothes? Indulge in a bit of piracy? No, he sleeps with anyone for whatever coin he can get. Apparently this is all to do with him being raped as a child. Poor Piers ends up getting raped by Edward and Warwick’s men when he is imprisoned in the same novel. I wonder where the source for this evidence comes from? Is there a book out there entitled ‘Knighthood and Prostitution in Medieval times’? or maybe ‘Warfare and whoring’?
The nature of the relationship between Piers and Edward II may never be known – unless Piers’ diary is secretly out there somewhere. It is open to interpretation by novelists. But as the novelist Susan Higginbotham said on Kathryn’s blog, and I hope she doesn’t mind me re-posting it here –
I think there's responsible gap-filling and irresponsible gap-filling. For instance, it's beyond dispute that something happened to Richard III's nephews. A novelist writing about Richard is going to have to come up with some solution to the mystery (unless he or she chooses to leave it unsolved, which for me as a reader would be off-putting).
But there's irresponsible gap-filling--as in a novel I read where the author invents an episode where Lady Jane Grey is raped by her father, and then uses this supposed rape, which is not supported by a shred of historical evidence, to explain some of Jane's actions later in the novel.
I totally agree with what Susan is saying, and I have read her novels and thoroughly enjoyed them, and there are times I may disagree with her historical interpretation, but I accept why she has written it and more importantly, I have never been offended by anything she has written.
Many thanks to Kathryn for this wonderful 'card' which I hope she doesn't mind me re-posting - it says it all for me.