Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Truth vs. Fiction (Truth's stranger. Who knew?)

I recently finished reading The Boleyn Inheritance by Philippa Gregory. My immediate impression of the book is a good one - it's the extremely well-woven tales of three women in Tudor England, the three women involved in Henry VIII's court about whom we know the least (Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard, and Jane Boleyn). I've always been interested in the era, but this particular book, so much richer than other's I've read, has strengthened my desire to know more about each individual character. It's funny how that happens - the first Tudor England book I bought was a YA called Nine Days a Queen by Ann Rinaldi. I loved the writing, but the story was what really took my breath away - because, save for the details, it was true. From there it went on to Carolyn Meyer's Beware, Princess Elizabeth, and later her other books in that set - Patience, Princess Catherine, Mary, Bloody Mary, and Doomed Queen Anne. When I found The Boleyn Inheritance, I knew (by the page count alone) that it would be a more complete look at what is believed to be these women's lives, but I wasn't prepared for the depth of characterization, the intricacy of the story.

But the more I think about it, the more I realize that the character of Jane Boleyn just would not have worked if she hadn't been real.

Jane Boleyn was not, in fact, a Boleyn. She was born Jane Parker, daughter of Henry Parker, Lord Morley and married George Boleyn, the brother of Anne Boleyn, who became King Henry VIII's second wife in 1533, before the anullment of his first marriage. Nice folks. Jane benefitted from Anne's ascension as queen, but only just escaped the scaffold after Anne and George's rather spectacular fall in 1536, pulled from the flames of the court by her uncle-by-marriage Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk (another nice guy). Thus she got to keep her title, the Lady Rochford, and her head (until her execution following the fall of Queen Katherine Howard in 1542. For the record, historians are fairly sure that Katherine was guilty of the adultery that sent her to the block, but Anne almost definitely wasn't) .

That's all background. Historical evidence leads us to believe that Jane was very much in love with her husband George, and found his strong relationship with his sister (thus excluding her) too much to bear. It was her evidence that sent the two Boleyns to the scaffold, for no other reasons that jealousy, malice, and spite, tempered with a desire to preserve the Boleyn inheritance rather than the Boleyns themselves.

If I read a novel in which the villain acted out of nothing but jealousy, malice, and spite, with such disastrous and personal results, I'd be a little skeptical. The inheritance is a big deal, but in that day and age, when your head wasn't securely attached to your neck if you were too close to the king, I'd think that allies would be a tad bit better. Especially allies in high places, never mind the Queen of England.

But you see, in historical fiction (and I'm not taking potshots at authors of historical fiction, either, because I absolutely adore what I've read of it, and I'm definitely not saying it's any easier to write than, say, fantasy), there's that shred of a shield you can hide behind, because this person was real, and this motivation was true to them.

This brings me back to Philippa Gregory's superb writing, because, though I can think about how unbelievable Jane Boleyn is now, while I was reading the book it seemed entirely believable. I'm impressed.

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