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Why do we have such an appetite for the Tudors?

Posters of Katherine Howard are everywhere, advertising yet another Tudor novel

By on Wednesday, 1 June 2011

At every railway station I have been in recently, there she is – Katherine Howard. Not bad for a teenage girl executed over 450 years ago, and whose passing was not much lamented at the time. The eye-catching posters are in fact advertising a novel – yet another one – about the unlucky fifth wife of Henry VIII. You can see details of the novel here and its author, Suzannah Dunn, has her website here.

The online reviews suggest the book is rather a good one. Miss Dunn, I am told, is following in the footsteps of Philippa Gregory, whose books sell by the cartload. I have, however, tried reading the latter and found her hard going, and sometimes unintentionally hilarious, largely because I felt the register of language that she uses is jarring. I cannot imagine Tudor people speaking to each other in the way she describes. And incidentally, just in case you think that historical novels are not my thing, I greatly admire the work of Jean Plaidy; and if you think I am a highbrow snob, let me tell you that I simply loathed Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which I reviewed for the Church Times. That review is behind a pay wall, but a copy can be seen here.

I have already blogged about the headless queens of Henry VIII, so forgive me going back to this subject, with which the entire nation (not just me) seems obsessed. While on the topic, you might like to know of an author who to my mind writes brilliantly well about the Tudor period. He is C J Sansom, and I am just about to settle into his latest novel, Heartstone.

I have spent many years reviewing books in various places, and one of the reviews I am proudest of is the one I wrote for C J Sansom’s first book, Dissolution, back in 2003. It was a first novel, but I said that it marked the debut of a great new talent, or something like that. And so it has proved. My other critical direct hit was when I spotted Salley Vickers’s first novel Miss Garnet’s Angel as marking her out as a writer of rare talent. There, too, I was shown to be correct. I notice from Salley’s website that Miss Garnet has sold about 350,000 copies. Well, I said it was good, and people have agreed with me.

I remember the late Colin Haycraft telling me once, a long time ago, that the success or failure of a book was in the lap of the gods. I think that was his way of saying that no one, least of all publishers, can truly predict what books will succeed and what will not. Public taste is elusive, hence all the dud books that roll off the press every year. The public lapped up The Da Vinci Code, but have proved stubbornly uncharmed by its numerous imitators. It is true that anything Tudor sells, but can anyone tell me why?

  • Annie

    I blame Shakespeare.

  • Parasum

    Because it’s colourful, and brutal, and spectacular. And because the viewer is not in the slightest danger of being burnt, beheaded, hanged in chains, hanged, eviscerated or otherwise inconvenienced – unlike those who were. And also because, unlike some other native dynasties, the Tudors have become part of popular culture. The Hanoverians, though recent, have not – and the Plantagenets are too long ago: Richard I is remembered, & that’s about it. The Tudors lasted 117+ years -  they are long ago, but recent enough to have made a reputation for themselves. It probably helps that the  introduction of printing into England, & the Battle  of Bosworth won by Henry Tudor, took place less than ten years apart. And on top of that, it probably helps that Henry VIII & Elizabeth were strong personalities. Printing made extensive propaganda possible – & that may be relevant.

    If more historical novelists wrote about Henry III, or Edward I, they might be remembered better.

  • Anonymous

    CJ Sansom is brilliant, but don’t knock the popularisation of history, if it gets people interested enough to delve deeper, all to the good.