This is all well and good and cogently argued, but Miller also takes an opportunity to serve a crushing and sweeping blow to pretty much all other fictional material set in the period. She compares Mantel’s ‘high-brow’ approach with what she disparagingly terms ‘princess novels’ or Tudor set fiction that is focused on women’s lives. Her main point being that such fiction foregrounds lascivious sex and scandal and in so doing makes it no different to schlocky high-school teen dramas.
Philippa Gregory comes in for a particularly contemptuous drubbing, accused of digging out uninteresting female figures from the past and padding out their stories with romance that has no historical validity. Though Miller makes her point well and there is legitimacy to some of what she says, certainly about the gratuitous soft-porn elements of the Showtime series The Tudors, and the wilful manipulation of history in the teen drama Reign, what she overlooks is the serious nature of some of the themes of much Tudor set fiction.
Even the more commercial, romance led, Tudor novels have a profound darkness that makes them a poor comparison to the teen dramas cited. Yes, there are parallels to situations in which young women are living at close quarters and competing for prestige. Miller correctly points out that in such novels much is made of clothing but refrains from exploring the value and symbolic resonance of women’s clothing in these texts. For the Tudors, an upstart family with a tenuous grip on the throne, clothing was a crucial indication of status and thus merits description. Indeed Mantle also employs, to great effect, descriptions of clothing to create a sense of the importance of the outward representation of rank and affiliation through apparel within the courtly arena, where position and allegiance were of primary significance.
The cumbersome clothing women were laced into was also a part of the broader denial of female freedom in much the same way 21st century women living in fundamentalist Islamic communities are required to cover and restrict their bodies. The early modern female body was a precious commodity and was at once expected to be a site of allure and yet also to be contained and kept out of sight to guard its value.
To view such narratives as inconsequential refuses to acknowledge that for these Tudor ‘princesses’ the stakes were vertiginously high. They describe a world in which young women were brutally murdered for political ends and had to negotiate a dangerous path through a male power structure that gave them no agency.
Surely any woman who can gain even a modicum of power in an oppressively misogynist system merits having her story told, and many of the generation of serious historians who are rediscovering such stories would agree. It is unhelpful to regard all such fiction as romantic clap-trap that uses sex as its narrative drive, when marriage was the primary route to power for women. What is noteworthy about these stories is that it becomes impossible to separate sexual and state policy. Princesses are interesting because of, rather than in spite of, the power that was invested in their bodies, and how they used that power makes for fascinating reading.
Early modern women had no freedom, yet they found ways to make themselves heard. For the first time the humanist project, led in England by Thomas More, encouraged education for women, albeit for a limited and privileged cohort, which was surely an important social change that merits our attention. Take Katherine Parr for example, a minor queen of apparently little political importance, but few are aware that she was one of the first women to publish an original text in the English language. At a time when women were obliged to be silent and submissive, to publish religious political texts was an audacious and dangerous act. Indeed these educated females laid the ground for an unprecedented half-century of female rule in England. To say such lives are not worth examining and reduce them to little more than titillating tales, plays into the hands of the misogyny that sought to silence them in the first place.
Because Cromwell’s story is essentially one of social mobility and money, doesn’t automatically invest it with greater legitimacy, as Miller suggests, indeed it could be said that as women’s bodies were a currency traded at the highest level their stories have equal importance from a socio-economic perspective. Social mobility too was mediated through the bodies of women. Consider how the minor landed gentry such as the Seymours and the Parrs became elevated in such a way. These women’s lives provide a vital key in understanding the period, so please let’s not do as David Starkey has long done, and dismiss them as trivial.
For Miller's article:
Elizabeth Fremantle is the author of Tudor trilogy: Queen's Gambit, Sisters of Treason and Watch the Lady. ElizabethFremantle.com