By April 27, 2015 5 Comments Read More →

Is it All Sex and Scandal?

TUDOR FICTION: is it all sex and scandal?

by Elizabeth Fremantle

I thought I’d run out of things to say about Wolf Hall when my attention was drawn to Laura Miller’s article in Salon, in which she responds to the TV adaptation of Mantel’s novels in the context of other Tudor texts.  In it Miller sings the praises of Mantel’s serious approach to a period that she scathingly describes as ‘for chicks,’ applauding the way the author draws out the idea of the Tudor period marking the break from Medieval feudalism and the beginning of the modern world, with the increase of social mobility in figures like Cromwell.


Wolf Hall courtesy BBC

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 willful 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 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.

Courtesy of The Tudors & Showtime (

Courtesy of The Tudors & Showtime (

By comparing a novel about Anne Boleyn to Gossip Girl, Miller is refusing to acknowledge that these privileged young women are unlike their contemporary counterparts because their stories are inherently tragic – real tragedy that ends in brutal death – when the worst outcome in teen drama is social ostracisation. What could be more pitiful than the execution of of Catherine Howard. Yes, she may have been a shallow girl preoccupied with love (she was seventeen for goodness’ sake) but her life was caught up in a political vortex over which she had no control and as such it is worth inspecting as a means to understand the extraordinary lack of power such women – even queen consorts – had in those days. These women were rendered shallow and infantalised by the paternal hegemony to which they belonged. To compare them with modern women who have sexual and professional freedom, who are educated and, importantly, choose to be largely concerned with superficial matters is missing the point.

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 is 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 female authors 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.

Elizabeth Fremantle is the author of Tudor set novels: Queen’s Gambit and Sisters of Treason; the third part in her trilogy, Watch the Lady, will be out in June.


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About the Author:

I am a writer of fiction, history & travel journalist. Originally from Tennessee, I now live in Atlanta, GA. History, travel, and international culture are my specialties. Look for my fictional stories, written as Hunter S. Jones. If you love history, check out Sexuality & Its Impact on History: The British Stripped Bare, an all-female collection of essays, coming soon from Pen & Sword Books.
  • Christopher W. Gortner

    Ms Freemantle has demonstrated here with grace and style the marked difference between a thoughtful approach to a particular genre, which has both its highs and lows, and the contemptuous derision of someone like Laura Miller, who seems to think her exclusive tastes give her the right to denigrate an author like Philippa Gregory. Ms Gregory might not be “a queen of the bestseller lists”, per Ms Miller (I’d beg to differ on this point), but no one can deny that Gregory single-handily revived a waning genre by daring to present women’s history in a fresh light. Whether or not one is a fan of the so-called “princess” novel, the fact remains that the popularity of these books has given many talented (and yes, some mediocre) writers the opportunity to re-interpret women’s contributions to history based on the factual evidence, rather than tongue-clucking Victorian morale. Hilary Mantel certainly deserves all the accolades for her magnificent work on Cromwell, and no one can reasonably expect most Hollywood-produced historical dramas to adhere to the truth, as that would make for unappetizing box-office, indeed, yet surely there is room in this world for different approaches to the historical genre? I wonder why Ms Miller would take such umbrage to Tudor-based fiction, when our bookstore shelves currently groan under the weight of more fattening fare. Frankly, I’ll take a princess-in-peril novel any day.

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    • PeachtreeGlobal

      A very well done article, isn’t it?

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    • Elizabeth Fremantle

      Hear hear!

      Thanks for your lovely comment, Christopher.

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      • Anne Easter Smith

        Well put, Christopher! I’d like to give a nod to my first editor, Trish Todd, who put Philippa Gregory’s THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL into readers’ hands and led the way for others of us to publish who have written about strong women of the past.

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