Enter any historical fiction section of a bookshop, and the Tudors are bound to pop out at you. They are a persistent part of the fabric of England’s past and are one of the public’s entry points to the past. As such, Tudor England is a traditional source of inspiration for historical fiction.
However, once that book jumped out at you, is it likely to consider the theme of politics? Well, probably not. This article will explore the landscape of historical fiction, to ultimately find that Tudor historical fiction does not handle the theme of politics well.
Firstly, Tudor historical fiction does not handle the theme of politics well because it is dominated by tropes. Your classic Tudor historical fiction novel is either a corset-ripper – picture Philippa Gregory – or a murder mystery. The mainstays of this genre are dominated by these themes rather than necessarily using the vessel of historical fiction to examine, for example, the machinations of the court around the time of Henry VIII’s death. Or to explore the perspectives of the rebels during Kett’s rebellion. It seems that this lens has been underutilised.
However, is this argument derogatory towards the fact that the majority of Tudor historical fiction novels are centred around women? Does it ignore that women could be involved in politics? Well, potentially. For example, the Six Wives Series by Alison Weir has tried to encourage readers to understand the political manoeuvres the queens of Henry VIII made themselves. The first novel in the series focused on Katherine of Aragon, goes into detail about the mechanics of the divorce of Katherine and Henry, whilst simultaneously exploring the personal impact which it had on her. So, it is important to weigh up that whilst historical fiction is full of tropes within the bestseller section, this is also because our understanding of ‘politics’ may be narrowed by how traditionally politics is discussed in the historical context.
Secondly, it is an all or nothing with Tudor historical fiction themed around politics. Either it is a Man Booker Prize winner or a self-published piece on Amazon. There does not seem to be much of a rich middle ground for eager readers to sink their teeth into. Particularly, as the pinnacle of the Tudor political historical fiction is the Wolf Hall trilogy. Hilary Mantel’s trilogy is the yardstick from which not only Tudor historical fiction is judged but also historical fiction more generally. Mantel’s writing not only opens up the world of the Tudor court, but the tool of historical fiction enables the reader to get into the mindset of this crucial Tudor politician and to ponder on how he may have made such decisions.
Yet, whilst there is no denying the strength of Mantel’s series, once a reader has made their way through it, there is little to feed that hunger for good Tudor historical fiction which focuses on politics. Instead, they would be forced back into the world of non-fiction, which for a reader beginning their journey in Tudor history, can be a minefield of inaccessibility. As such, this all or nothing landscape within Tudor historical fiction themed on politics demonstrates that the genre does not handle the theme well because ultimately more quality work is needed within this area.
Thirdly, if works in this genre do make that novel break into politics, they are often criticised for being dry. This may partially be because politics attracts heavy-handed penmanship. But this could also be because traditionally the people in politics were often forgotten about. The centrality of people within politics has only really become something that has developed over the last few decades. But equally, it is also because the source material of politics within the Tudor period does not always have the literal ‘sex’ appeal which the subjects of love and marriage within the period have. As such, this dryness, which has multiple sources, demonstrates further why Tudor historical fiction does not handle the theme of politics particularly well.
What this piece has uncovered is that Tudor historical fiction does not currently handle the theme of politics well, from the genre’s hyper-focus on corset ripping or murder-mysteries, to its all or nothing quality and the dryness sometimes of what is available. Clearly more is needed to truly say that Tudor historical fiction has got a grip on the theme of politics.