Today’s first Tudor Tuesday is a bit of a funny one. As has been well documented so far (and in only a handful of blogs that’s pretty impressive) I am rather partial to a dose of historical fiction. But I recently read a book which made me question the genre and wonder – when does popularising historical events go too far. The answer could be The Queen of Subtleties by Suzannah Dunn, the book which sparked off this thought process in my head.
I don’t want my blog to be a negative space, and hadn’t really thought what I would do if I really disliked a book, probably just choose not write about it. But as a historical fiction fan I just couldn’t let this one pass. In her take on the often re-told story of the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn, Dunn also weaves in a sub-plot linking Henry VIII’s confectioner to Mark Smeaton (the musician purported to have had an affair with Anne). This plot device is so strange and pointless I’m not even going to give it air time in this post. Because what I really want to talk about today, is the modernisations Dunn makes. Now to be fair to the author, she lays these out right at the beginning, letting us know that she has changed names so that the book doesn’t feel dated…it’s historical fiction…the clue is in the title, we’re after some dated here.
So, to give a few examples we have Anne referring to Catherine of Aragon as ‘Fat Cath’, the men of the court as her boys and actually asking Smeaton ‘What’s up’. That’s not even to go into the odd name changes which make the plot almost impossible to follow, who are Frankie, Charlie and Billy? I realise that there is always going to be an element of the unauthentic, and I know full well that authors I enjoy are guilty of adopting modern speech, but I have never read anything quite like this before. For me, it made the book nearly unreadable, I was desperate to finish it so that I wouldn’t have read that dialogue any more.
These steps to modernise the world of the Tudors loses something of what it is to read about the court and the lives these people lived. By allowing such modern turns of phrase, we can almost forget we’re in history, which in turn makes it harder to sympathise with the situations the protagonists find themselves in. One of the reasons I’ve always supported the genre is that, apart from being good fun to read, it sparked a love of actual history for me. For every fiction book I read I’ll also pick up the factual equivalent, I want to know what really happened (two or three books may be needed to cancel out the effect of this book!) and I hope that it does the same for other people. I can only speak for myself but I know that if this had been the first Tudor historical fiction I’d picked up, I don’t think that would have happened. It was so like reading a modern book that my interest wouldn’t have been piqued.
So, The Queen of Subtleties was not, in the end, quite so subtle. It left me feeling frustrated and wondering how other fans of the genre felt about it. Being a fan of Phillipa Gregory I’m sure I can be accused of hypocrisy, but I’d be really interested to know what you think – how far is too far when it comes to writing historical fiction for a modern world?