Guest Article by: JoAnn Spears
Dishing with the Tudors: My adventures in Renaissance comedy
I am one of those people who ‘reads out’ a subject or author of interest.
That took some doing with Jean Plaidy’s canon of eighty-odd historical fiction novels. Having started in on the task at the age of twelve, with The Captive Queen of Scots, I was actually able to exhaust all that Plaidy had to offer before I was out of my twenties.
My favorite subjects in those wonderful novels were Henry VIII’s six wives and their Tudor relatives. Eventually, I read the Tudors out too, both in fiction and in biography. From Norah Lofts and Mary M. Luke down through Alison Weir, I read anything that was going about Henry VIII and his clan. When I ran out of biographies of the heavy-hitting Tudors, I read bios of the supporting Tudor cast, such as Bess of Hardwick and Arabella Stuart.
I still remember the day that I stood in front of a Tudor shelf at Barnes and Noble, looked at everything that was on offer, and felt that I’d seen it all before. It’s high time, I thought, for something different. Enough tragedy, excuses, and apologies. Henry’s six wives need to come out on top for a change!
At around the same time, I spent an evening in a hot tub in Vermont, chatting with a friend who was working on a book. She knew that I did a lot of report writing in my professional life, and asked me if I didn’t have an idea for a novel. She dared me to tell it to her. And for the first time, I gave voice to that ‘something different’ that I wanted to see in the Tudor world.
It was scary, talking out loud about an idea that had heretofore lived only in my head. Maybe it was the hot tub ambience, or more likely the wine, but out the idea came.
I wanted to write about Henry VIII’s six wives. My heroine, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, would meet the Big Six somewhere on the other side, after losing consciousness. She’d join the Tudor women for a night of revelation and vindication on their part, and of self-discovery on hers. She’d return to the real world a wiser girl for her time with the Tudors.
Once I started in on writing about Henry VIII’s six wives, things flowed easily for a while. The Katherine Parr and Ann of Cleves alternative histories were low hanging fruit. Jane Seymour’s and Catherine Howard’s subplots took a bit more researching, but they did come together next. The Anne Boleyn and Katharine of Aragon subplots emerged only after a spell of cluelessness and the shedding of some blood, sweat, and tears, but eventually, emerge they did. And best of all, because of the fantasy setting, I got to have the six wives interacting with each other, as well as with my heroine. It was a Tudor history buff’s dream come true.
The wives’ stories as created for Six of One are obviously outré and entirely a product of my fevered Tudor imagination, but they were carefully researched and made plausible to give the reader some food for thought. What if, even if only in imagination, each of these women had a secret that took her from victim status to victory over Henry VIII? Might such secrets make for a satisfying, albeit brief and fictional, experience for the jaded Tudorphile? Might my book inspire Tudor neophytes to want to learn more about these fabulous women?
Since my six wives subplots were so very offbeat, I felt that the best way to approach the entire novel was to take it as a comedy. Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women inspired me here, with its all-girl cast, ‘girls’ night in’ feel, and comic sass and dishing.
Seven Will Out, my second novel, brings the comic corrective recapitulation and the hen party atmosphere to the stories of the latter generation Tudors and their associates. It addresses the complicated family dynamics between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots, Bess of Hardwick and Arabella Stuart, and ‘Bloody’ Mary and Jane Grey, to name a few.
Of course, it is for the reading public, and ultimately individual readers and Tudorphiles, to determine if my experiment is a success, and if there is indeed a place for comedy in the chaotic and execution-laden realm of the Tudors. My Amazon reviews tell me that some readers are all for it (‘Go girls!’ ‘Great new take.’ ‘Humorous her-story.’ ‘Great romp through 16th century England.’ ‘Weird at first, but it grabs you.’ ‘Oh Henry!’ ‘What a hoot.’’) Other reviews tell me that readers prefer their Tudors straight up, serious, and traditional (‘I couldn’t’. ‘Don’t bother’. ‘This book was a little silly.’ ‘Great idea in theory.’ ‘Not for me.’ ‘Too lightweight for my tastes.’)
In Claire Ridgway’s review of Six of One, she says ‘…you need to not mind your favourite wife being made fun of…this Kindle book made me laugh. I love spoofs and can handle misrepresentations of historical characters when they are presented in a way which is clearly a spoof and not to be taken seriously.’ On the other hand, I have had a reviewer say ‘…It seems the author doesn’t really like Anne Boleyn with all the snide remarks made throughout the book.’ (Just for the record, I do not hate Anne Boleyn.)
So, what do you think? Would you try your Tudors with a comic, fantasy, revisionist twist? Or do you prefer them familiar and traditional? I’d love to know what you think!
Author of Six of One, a Tudor Comedy, and the upcoming sequel, working title Seven Will Out. It’s the most fun you can have with your nightdress on!