Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Tudors and the Radical

I was ecstatic when I learned a few months back that Showtime had produced an entire series on Henry the VIII. Conceivably, if it works out (since they named it “The Tudors” and there were lots more Tudors before and after Henry VIII), there will be sequels and prequels. My guess is that it will be a great success, since the Tudors are more like "The Sopranos" (and "Entourage") than you might think. Personally, I think Showtime would do well to go back and start with the Wars of the Roses, a ripping story if there ever was one, and a must-know for comprehending later events, such as why the Duke of Buckingham was endlessly irritable and the Norfolk bunch so insinuating.

Why am I thrilled about this well-known tale being re-packaged, you might ask? As my mother always says about a series or movie like this one, “Why watch? I know how it will turn out.” Not. You might just as well argue, why be interested in history at all? In my view, figuring out why it turned out the way it did is always the fun part, and having the hideous, tragic scab of a “known end” to pick at until the tale unfolds as you know it will adds a certain frisson to many well-explored topics: the Confederacy, all of twentieth century German history, Nicholas II, and Richard Nixon are but a few good story lines in this regard. A fine argument and good writing is what makes an academic book sell to academics; knowing that it will All End Badly is what causes the general public to buy and read -- or watch -- history.

Unbeknownst to my mother, I can boast of a long relationship with the Tudors that was exactly facilitated by her. When I was a child, my maternal unit was a volunteer for the Bryn Mawr Book Sale, an event that under her guidance and that of a friend became a permanent book store on the Bryn Mawr campus for many years. What her volunteer activity gave me access to was endless numbers of books on any topic under the sun. After school, my sister and I would walk over to whatever faintly moldy location the operation was occupying, and after our homework was done, we were free to burrow around in boxes and on shelves completely unsupervised and uncensored until our mother was ready to leave. It was in this way that, at age ten, I came upon Mary McCarthy’s “The Group,” which was ripped from my grasp after I wandered out and asked the (mostly elderly) volunteers, “Can anyone tell me what a pessary is?” After that I learned to look things up in the dictionary, a valuable skill for a future scholar.

Anyway, shortly thereafter, I discovered the novels of Jean Plaidy, a.k.a Victoria Holt, and on her tax forms, Eleanor Alice Burford. According to Wikipedia, “She wrote over eighty historical novels, which nowadays tend to be disparaged by serious enthusiasts of history and more elevated historical fiction, but which served the useful purpose of bringing historical figures and events to a wider readership.” I began with the Tudor series, and soon began to impress others with my firm grasp of British political history. I moved on to her other series’ on Queen Victoria, the Stuarts, and so on, but it was the wives of Henry VIII that I came back to repeatedly, perhaps because I found the business of having so many wives and disposing of them quite remarkable, even in the ‘sixties. In fact, Burford/Plaidy wrote most of her novels through the eyes of women who had a real political role, sometimes as schemers and as vehicles for the schemes of men, but a role all the same.

I am sure this struck a chord that was only truly activated later by the committee system at Zenith. It’s hard to generalize, but reading these historical novels where women’s heads were rolling off their shoulders also probably turned me into a historian and turned me off marriage, permanently, although I may have been wired for that outcome to begin with.

Anyway, I am pleased to re-make the acquaintance of Henry VIII, in the form of Jonathan Rhys Meyers, as well as all of the wives, although I only watched the first episode yesterday and have TIVO’d the rest. And it is fabulous: as people enter the action, I sing happily, “And you will be executed! And YOU will be executed! Buckingham, old fellow – does your head feel loose on your shoulders?”

I also have several observations that I will make as a professional historian, temporarily deserting my preferred role as a History Fan.

The website for the show notes: “The young Henry VIII was an artist, musician, theologian and sportsman — the perfect Renaissance prince — but the failure of his first wife Katherine of Aragon to produce a male heir brought out his darker side.” This is one way of putting it. Another would be to say that most royalty more or less did what they wanted (at least the interesting ones) until Cromwell lopped off Charles I’s head. And it took a second lesson to the French monarchy a century and a half later to drive the point home in a way no one but the Romanovs could ignore.

In another moment drawn straight from the Pages of History, before Henry ravishes yet another of Katharine of Aragon’s (a.k.a, the Queen of England’s) attendants (as the Queen is praying in her chapel for a son), the King asks this gentlewoman: “Do you consent?” “Yes,” she groans huskily, and he rips off her gown from the shoulders. Do not try this at home, children. All I can say about the historical likelihood of this having occurred is that the Antioch rules were not, to the best of my knowledge, originally articulated in fifteenth century England.

But apparently the European Union was! The show posits that the E.U. was an idea that Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey (played by Sam Neil) floated to Henry, partly as an appeal to the monarch’s “humanism” (a theme which gets a lot of play in episode one) that might help forestall a financially and politically disastrous war with France; and partly as one feature of a complicated, secret scheme to get himself elected Pope. “Won’t happen Wolsey!” I crowed at the screen. “An international alliance of all the nations of Europe,” Henry muses in response to the proposal, oblivious to me as usual. “It appeals to my humanism.”

And my favorite part so far is at the end of episode one, where Thomas Boleyn comes home to inform his family that they are all going to France with the King to negotiate the “Treaty of Universal Peace,” and the best part, he says, as he turns to his pubescent daughters and hands them each a glass of wine, “is that you girls will meet the King!”

Heh, heh, heh. Anne dearest, – have you experimented with a coiffure that gets your hair off your neck?


Bardiac said...

I'm jealous (no Showtime at the BardiacShack!)

Who's playing Suffolk? I read a fascinating biography of him, and he sounds, well, way interesting!

Did they start with Arthur's death? Before? After? H7's death?

And what about Fitzroy? Is he in yet?

Dang, I should really find a friend who has Showtime, shouldn't I!!

Anonymous said...

I'm fairly sure that too many historical novels were also a determining factor in my choice to be a historian. Many were about Tudor England--I also remember something called The Marriage of Meggotta with fondness (looking it up, I discover it's a classic).

Bardiac--surely it will be on DVD within a year, if you can wait.

undine said...

I hope this is/will be on Netflix.

BTW, what did you think of the Helen Mirren Elizabeth earlier this year (not her performance, but the treatment of history)?

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