Youthful Obsessions: Ricardian Edition

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve begun an essay project that involves, among other things, looking back at some of my old Ricardian novels. I wrote another post about them once before, mostly wondering what they would be like to revisit after all these years (more years, now, since it has been nearly three years already since that post–egad!). So far, in addition to reading around in a fair number of relevant non-fiction works, I’ve also reread The Daughter of Time and Marian Palmer’s The White Boar, and now I’m about half way through Rhoda Edwards’s The Broken Sword (which was published as Some Touch of Pity in the UK).  I admit, I was braced for the worst, but really, neither of these old favourites strikes me as embarrassing (unlike Gone with the Wind). Both resolutely avoid any of that annoying “Olde Englishe” stuff that inevitably makes historical fiction seem less, rather than more, authentic–there are traces of faux-medieval idiom in The White Boar, though only in the dialogue, but in general both books are written in very straightforward, literate prose. The characterization in The White Boar is particularly good, with Richard himself important primarily insofar as he inspires the loyalty of the co-protagonists. Neither novel has any strong historical theory behind it (I find this is true of almost all mainstream [if that’s the right word] historical fiction–it’s the rare novelist, like, say, A. S. Byatt or Hilary Mantel, who conjures up a past age as part of a novel of ideas) but both tell a good human story. Both also (like all the others, as I recall) have to touch on key moments that are part of the scanty and very problematic historical record of this period. One of the more interesting things about all this is to watch the novelists work to devise a narrative that makes sense of, say, the various surviving documents, as well as the episodes such as Hastings’s precipitous execution or Richard’s claiming of the crown for himself. Precisely because the record is not complete, there’s lots of room for creative elaboration, and even where the facts are quite specifically known, actions are not self-explanatory–and here, at the level of motive and character, is where the novelists all go to work.

Naturally, I’m rereading these novels with that line about “women writers, for whom the rehabilitation of the reputation of a long-dead king holds a strange and unexplained fascination” echoing in my head: the original sentence is from Charles Ross’s biography, which appears to be the ‘standard’ one at this point, but I’ve found it quoted twice already by other (male) historians–once, oddly, without attribution. I expect to have a thing or two to say about that ‘inexplicable fascination’ in my essay. From a strictly personal point of view, of course, there’s nothing inexplicable at all about it to me, as I shared it! I’ve been wondering why, though. I suppose for any adolescent there’s something appealing about taking up a cause and perceiving yourself to be part of some kind of fight against injustice. But historical injustice? That’s pretty nerdy, I know. My trajectory is logical enough, though: I was a bookworm and a history buff, and before I discovered the Ricardian cause I had already thrown myself into the sad story of the wrongfully imprisoned and executed Mary, Queen of Scots–another fixation that is half intellectual, half visceral or sentimental. I had also been preoccupied with Lady Jane Grey, going so far as to write a play (in 4th grade) about her pathetic (and undeserved!) fate. These cases lacked the contentiousness of the debates over Richard’s guilt or innocence, though–and though both Mary and Jane have been the subjects of novels, they don’t come trailing quite the clouds of exculpatory fiction that Richard enjoys (that I’m aware of, anyway). Novels like The White Boar filled me with passionate advocacy, quite taking over my imagination and convincing me beyond any reasonable doubt that this was a man who needed both love and saving. I’ve been thinking that this is the point at which historiography and eroticism meet, and even merge, in pretty much all of the Ricardian novels:  is that (admittedly odd) combination what makes the male historians so uncomfortable, do you suppose? As you can imagine, this is one of the strands I think my essay will explore.

Did you have youthful reading obsessions? Have you kept them up or gone back to them? What do you think drew you to them?

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