Hostile Historians and Uppity Authors: Never the Twain Shall Meet?
You would have had to have been locked a dark dungeon in the Tower not to have noticed that there is a new TV series out based on a Philippa Gregory bestseller. THE WHITE PRINCESS has hit the screens in the US (no dates for the UK this time; the BBC bailed after The White Queen.) In both book and series, the ravishing Elizabeth of York, here called Lizzie for short (an anachronism right there–girls called Elizabeth were normally called Bess or Bessy, with Lizzie not appearing for several hundred years) fights for the honour of the fallen House of York against the husband she loathes but has been forced to marry, the new King Henry Tudor (here anachronistically bearded and impossibly attractive) and his sinister, lurking mother, Margaret Beaufort (Catelyn Stark in a late medieval version of a Mickey Mouse hat.) The first episode has a brief flash back to Lizzie’s pre-Bosworth on-the-battlefield fling with Uncle Richard, and then much time is spent bemoaning the untimely death of her lost lover and fighting against the dastardly machinations of Henry and his mummy. And then, eventually, Lizzie and Henry fall in lurrrrve.
Now much of this scenario is fantasy, pleasing to neither the Tudorites, who frequently moan that ‘Philippa Gregory is anti-Tudor!’ because, amongst other things, she didn’t make the Henry-Elizabeth alliance an immediate Mills and Boon romance, and equally TWP is not admired by the Ricardians because of Gregory’s overblown use of the discredited idea of an affair between Elizabeth and Richard III, when it is known from existing state documents in Portugal that he planned to marry Joanna of Portugal and at the same time have Elizabeth wed Duke Manuel of Beja. Certainly it is true that Richard had to deny in public that he wished to marry Elizabeth, but it genuinely appears that this so-called proposed marriage was nothing more than gossip, much of it deliberately malicious, and the other possibly arising from pure misunderstanding. Why should anyone be surprised that courts were full of rumours about sex?- Look at how the modern press pairs celebrities up when they hardly even know each other!
Of course, Philippa Gregory is a fiction author so she is entitled to write whatever floats her boat. The public decides what it enjoys, and with her very hefty bank balance and millions of sales under her belt, people obviously enjoy her writing, accurate in historical content or not. Witchy Woodvilles, whistling down stormwinds isn’t exactly my thing, nor is the repetition of words/phrases and names that seem to be her trademark style, but clearly the easy to read, first person, female format appeals to many readers.
However, the problem seem to be of late that Ms Gregory has assumed the designation of ‘historian’ in interviews and documentaries, and this self-appointment has irked a few familiar faces, including the eminently irkable David Starkey and highly successful historical fiction author Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall. Doctor Gregory, as many of her fans call her, indeed has a doctorate …but it is not in history, medieval, Tudor or otherwise. Rather, it is in literature. Certainly many laymen have great knowledge of history and have come up with new discoveries and theories missed totally by accredited historians, but the problem seems to be when the lines of fiction/non-fiction blur due to the author’s own self-promotion and self-accreditation. This is clear from the comments on the webpages dedicated to the new White Princess series; many viewers/readers are convinced that every word of the novel and the prequels (and their tv versions) is true because the author ‘researches everything SO thoroughly and is a historian.’
No, she is a fiction writer with a long-term interest in history, using a reasonable amount of historical facts alongside some intriguing historical fictions (and of course history itself is full of myth, rumour and outright lies!) in order to make a rousing story. If Gregory is as well-versed in history as she claims, she should be honest enough to at least admit that the affair between Richard and Elizabeth, as an example, most likely never happened. Instead, she points selectively to anything that might ‘back up’ her book and completely ignores any evidence to the contrary. That is just self-promo and is indeed a far cry from what she herself said when TWP was still a work in progress–that of all her books it contained ‘the most fantasy.’
(That said, I don’t 100% agree with Hilary Mantel, either, who said she thought historical fiction writers should not add bibliographies into their novels as it implied they were non-fiction and the contents therefore ‘true’. I believe a brief list should be included, in order to have the readers (hopefully) study more of the time periods involved and make up their own minds. )
So, dear viewers, please take the White Princess with a pinch of salt – the Bosworth night fling, the rather aged and silent Francis Lovell, who now appears mysteriously in the story after being completely invisible in The White Queen, a letter of Buckingham (who is long dead) and other gaffs, along with Ms Gregory’s amazing claim in the article linked below that Richard III was ‘terrified’ of Elizabeth Woodville (Awk, say what? Why, did her weird whistling magic bother him that much?) Enjoy it, if it’s your thing, but forget the ‘history’ part.
Fiction brings the past alive for many of us, me included, but let’s remember that’s what it is. Fiction. However, I fear this plea will be in vain. After all, look how many people still think Shakespeare was a historian and not a playwright!