When I was in high school, I watched the movie Lady Jane, starring a very young Helena Bonham Carter and an equally young Carey Elwes (plus a bonus part for Patrick Stewart, before I knew who he was). Later, when Lady Jane Grey herself came up in my history class, I almost convulsively said out loud, "I saw that movie!" To which my teacher responded immediately, "Really? Because, that movie was just sex sex sex!" To which I wish I had responded, "How did you know?" which comeback is less sassy now that I think about it than it seemed when I thought of it five minutes after blushing and not responding to her well-meant teasing, or the class giggling at me.
You know how sometimes you come across something unusual, or maybe a word you've never heard before, and then all of a sudden it's everywhere? Well, apparently Alison Weir has written some five million books about British history, all very readable nonfiction, and I've only just come across her. I'm reading Innocent Traitor, which is about Jane Grey, who holds a special place in my heart because of the aforementioned anecdote (and the movie that spawned it--it really was all about sex, and I was 15). It's an enjoyable book, and well-written in its way. It doesn't have a lot of the qualities of a really literary novel, though the writing is very enjoyable and well-crafted. It's really a book by a non-fiction writer who's giving herself permission to create scenes. I really was giving her credit for doing something clever by using cliched phrases in a historical novel to give it a flavor of the past tied to the present, but when a newly married woman explained that she "had never felt such bliss," I realized she was just trying too hard.
The sudden existence of Alison Weir and all her knowledge of Tudor and Stuart England (as Miss Lavoie's class was called) reminds me of Philippa Gregory, and I'm again asking myself if I should try to read something else by her. I really kind of hated The Other Boleyn Girl, mostly because real history contained some rather un-novel-like facts--such as the fact that randy King Henry VIII was kept twitching on the end of a string for NINE YEARS. It's hard to drag out a novel of cat-and-mouse romance for nine years. You end up writing things like a one page chapter entitled "Spring, 1527," "Summer, 1527," and "Fall and Winter, 1527." It gets, in a word, boring.
But maybe I should read The Queen's Fool. It's about Elizabeth, who I find to be more interesting than most of the rest of them. I don't know why I'd give the woman another chance, but I want to. Part of me wants to. Mostly because I love pre-digested history--I love the stories with the boring or dragging parts taken out. I love the characters when they're revealed to me, instead of being told up front what their personalities are, the way actual books of history seem to. I love it when the craft of storytelling, as used in fiction, is brought to history. I love Sarah Vowell, who by the way is working on a new book about the Pilgrims and I'm so excited. She should write faster, in my opinion.
In sum: Alison Weir, good. Philippa Gregory, bad, but for some reason getting a second chance. Sarah Vowell, awesome.