Tag Archives: historical novel

Reading History: “Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen” (Alison Weir)

I first discovered the work of the historian Alison Weir when I picked up her Life of Elizabeth I way back in 2000. Since then, I’ve read several of her other historical biographies, as well as some of the historical fiction novels that she’s written. I’ve almost always loved them.

I was a little underwhelmed by the idea of another series about the wives of Henry VIII. Surely, the King’s Great Matter (his desire to have his marriage to Katherine of Aragon annulled so he could marry Anne Boleyn) has been so many times that another novel would feel repetitive.

Boy, was I wrong.

Somehow (probably through magic of some sort), Weir has managed to take this well-worn tale and weave it into something truly compelling, magical, and deeply saddening. A fitting way to describe the life of Katherine of Aragon, yes? Though all of Henry VIII’s queens deserve a measure of pity for having to put up with such a tyrant, Katherine has always occupied pride of place in the pantheon of royal martyrs.

The novel is basically a fictional biography of Henry VIII’s first queen, from the time that she sets out to be the bride of his elder brother Arthur (who dies soon after their wedding, probably from tuberculosis), all the way to her death several years later, after Henry has had their marriage annulled on his own authority and essentially had Katherine imprisoned.

It would be easy for a historical fiction author to paint this story in stark, unsubtle tones, so that Katherine is the virtuous sufferer while Anne is the scheming harlot. Though the novel is told exclusively from Katherine’s  perspective, Weir does manage to keep it from slipping into this simplistic model. Katherine is understandably resentful of her young rival, and we are certainly meant to identify with her, but that’s to be expected.

In Weir’s hands, Katherine emerges as a fiercely intelligent, independent woman who nevertheless accepts her inferior place in Henry’s life. She recognizes that, as a woman in Early Modern England, her status will always remain continent on her husband, and while her decision to defy him is certainly justified by her sincere belief that she was a virgin when she came to Henry–and, contra some other authors, Weir makes it clear that Arthur was not able to seeing the consummation through–and by her belief in her daughter’s inheritance, Weir also makes it clear that Katherine was not always as astute as she might have been.

One of the novel’s great strengths is its willingness to show Katherine in all of her complexity. She was incredibly proud–of her lineage, of her royal blood, of her status as a wife to Henry–and she was also deeply pious. We get the strong sense that she defied Henry not only from pride, but also from actual love for him. Whether or not an Early Modern royal woman could feel those things is rather beside the point.

Through this novel, we get a sense of a world that, as Weir puts it in the author’s note, was by turns beautiful and brutal. This was a world of courtly love and sumptuous banquets, but also of ruthless politicking and brutal executions. Katherine, as a royal, was in both a very powerful and privileged position, yet she too was subject to the whims of a man who gradually grew to believe that he truly was next to God in terms of how much authority he deserved. Thus, her life was always in his keeping, a fact that becomes crushingly evident as his royal favour gradually turns sour and his wrath threatens to fall in full force upon her.

Weir also makes no bones about the fact that Henry was, in many ways, a sociopathic tyrant whose will it was extremely dangerous to thwart. That being said, she doesn’t paint him in the sort of cartoonish villain light common to other works of historical fiction (ahem, Philippa Gregory), but instead as the natural product of his time. This was the period in which the medieval was already a memory and the Early Modern was giving birth to new classes of people. Katherine had the misfortune to fall squarely into that tumultuous period.

Next up, I’ll be making my way through some of Weir’s other works, so stay tuned!

Reading History: “Mary, Called Magdalene” (by Margaret George)

Since finishing The Confessions of the Young Nero, the most recent literary outing from historical fiction author Margaret George, I’ve found myself possessed of the desire to re-read her entire oeuvre, beginning with the two novels of hers that I haven’t read. So, I started with Mary, Called Magdalene. 

In another life, I was passionately interested in the history of early Christianity, and I even entertained the notion of pursuing graduate work in that field. Since I opted out of that, I am very happy to see that works like George continue to bring to light the lives and experiences of those women who have been largely left out of the larger historical narratives concerning the genesis and birth of Christianity. Fortunately for me and those like me, Margaret George is right there to bring to light what it might have felt like to walk in the shoes of one of Jesus’s earliest converts.

Having combed through both the canonical gospels as well as numerous other ancient sources, George has managed to construct a plausible idea of what Mary’s life must have been like before, during, and after her membership in the circle of disciples that follow Jesus. While she begins the novel as a traditional Jewish wife and mother of the 1st Century CE, things begin to change when she is possessed by a number of demons, vengeful spirits that have grown angry at their dispossession. Ultimately driven nearly mad, she is only saved when she encounters Jesus at the River Jordan, after which she joins his ministry, following him until his death and even afterward.

George ably captures the contradictory position that women occupied in ancient Israel, and Mary consistently chafes at the limits imposed upon her by both her own family–who constantly criticize her for her willfulness and ultimately disown her after her decision to follow Jesus–and even by her fellow disciples. In refusing to bow down to the imperative of respectability, she also sacrifices her place in society. While this means that she must also give up her access to her daughter Elisheba–a sacrifice that haunts Mary throughout the novel–she never regrets her decision to follow Jesus and subscribe to the dictates of his ministry.

George also ably demonstrates the troubling sense of doubt that Jesus’s disciples must have felt as they struggled to accept a message and a man that went beyond anything that they had been raised to understand. All of them see in Jesus and his message something that helps them make sense of the world, and it is precisely in this multiplicity that George situates Mary and her own interpretation of Jesus. She sees in him both a possible romantic connection (ultimately dashed) and something more, something that is a message that is not based in empty ritual but instead on spiritual fulfillment. She sees in Jesus not a political messiah but instead someone who can, indeed, bring about a very different kingdom, one of the spirit rather than the flesh.

The world that George paints is one poised on the edge of a great conflagration. Increasingly embittered as a result of their subjection under the yoke of Rome, the Jewish people yearn for someone to deliver them. For some, Jesus promises an escape from their dilemma, while for others–most notably the leaders of the Temple–he represents a very real threat to their political alliance with Rome. Mary, as a prosperous Jewish woman, finds herself caught up in this conflict, even as she attempts to understand Jesus’ message and her relationship to it.

The novel is peopled by a variety of characters from all walks of life, from fisherman to tax collectors to zealots, all of whom see in Jesus something slightly different. It is for this reason that Mary fits in with them, though she does have moments of conflict. Most notably, she finds herself in several terse interactions with Judas, who is both the most like her and the one most prone to his own inner demons and despair. She also finds herself in something of a competition with Peter, with whom she vies for the position of being closest to Jesus.

While the entire novel is compellingly readable, it’s the last portion that I found to be the most moving. Here, we are given a close-up perspective of the gospel that Mary has begun to compose, for she comes to understand that Christianity as a faith increasingly diverges from its Jewish origins and that there are those in the fledgeling communities who desperately yearn for the words and testimony of those who were with Jesus while he still walked the earth. As time continues its inexorable march forward, Mary finds herself a key part of the history of a religion.

Yet the most heartbreaking thing is the fact that Mary is not reunited with her daughter until it is too late, after she has died as a result of injuries she sustains as a result of her casting down of idols in the city of Ephesus. It is only then that her daughter finally comes to see her, and she erects a memorial testifying to her affection. This sense of being too-late adds a further layer of emotional resonance to Mary’s story.

The core of Mary’s narrative and personal dilemma is her awareness and recognition that despite his earth-changing message, the historical world moves on, even though her own life has irrevocably changed. Tormented by the visions that she has of the future, she bears the heavy weight of historical and spiritual responsibility. With its privileging of her perspective–almost the entire novel is related either in third person limited or first person–Mary, Called Magdalene gives us a unique perspective on the presence of the feminine at the root of Christian thought and history.

Currently, I’m hard at work on George’s other novel about a famous Mary, Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles. It’s quite a large work, so it will take me quite a while to finish but worry not. Watch this space for my thoughts and reflections on that book as well.

What Makes Effective Historical Fiction

I’ve been a fan of historical fiction for most of my life.  There is something enchanting about a well-written and well-researched novel that can not just transport you to another time and place, but actually make you feel the ethos and the atmosphere of the time.  Although few historical novels accomplish this feat exceedingly well, there are a few.  As an avid reader and aspiring writer of the genre, I’ve developed a few thoughts on what I believe makes for effective historical fiction.  This is not to say that historical fiction that does not necessarily do these things is ineffective; it is merely to suggest that historical fiction that employs these strategies is, in my opinion, effective at creating a particular type of relationship between the contemporary reader and the past moment being depicted.

As I have already suggested, I understand the historical past as being fundamentally and inescapably different from the present.  This is not to say that there are not points of similarity.  Instead, it is to argue that the structures of thought and means of making sense of the world were not the same as they are today, and that it is often a mistake to assume that people in ancient Greece, for example, conceived of homosexual behavior as an identity in the same way that contemporary Western culture does (this argument is more fully laid out in the groundbreaking work done by classicist and queer scholar David Halperin).  Effective historical fiction, rather than just plopping down contemporary American heroes and heroines in a past time, actually attempts to create characters that live and engage with their world in a way that is at least somewhat similar to that of how we believe people in that period might have behaved.

The historical novels of Mary Renault are an excellent case of historical fiction that manages to capture the strange, alien nature of the past.  Her prose often features a syntax that is subtly different than our own, and when I read her work I often find that there are passages that, because of her prose and the foreignness of the worldview of her characters, require some re-reading to gain a full understanding of what is actually happening.  Though this might be a turn-off for some readers, I actually find it a compelling reading experience, as it allows me to get a glimpse, however, brief of a way of speaking and a worldview that is different from my own.

Just as traditional historiography forces (or should, anyway) us to think about the role that the past has to play in the development of the present and the future, so historical fiction, if done effectively and with an eye to difference, can make us think critically and deeply about our relationship to the world that has come before.  Once we acknowledge that there are deep and sometimes insurmountable differences between the past and the present, we can begin thinking of new and more exciting ways of engaging with the world that came before us.