|Example of Mills & Boons
In the twentieth century the historical novel tended to split its readership between male and female readers. The gendering of historical fiction came before the rise of gender history and although there is a risk here of stereotyping reader’s, in general early modern high society belong to women whilst adventure and warfare belong to men; with murder mysteries somewhere in-between.
Woman’s historical fiction ranges from the light romantic fiction of Mills & Boon promising ‘chivalrous knights, roguish rakes and rugged cattlemen’ to serious studies of the female role in past societies. Catherine Cookson for example writes novels that are ‘idealistic about relationships but clear-sighted about history’. Cookson’s 1950 Kate Hannigan focuses on a cross-class romance between a girl in the slums and a doctor set in the Edwardian period.
In his 2010 The Historical Novel, Jerome de Groot explains that historical fiction written by women for women offer ‘places of feminine solidarity’ and provide a relationship for women with the past that is often limited in schools to Whiggish ‘male’ history. The example of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife illustrates this form of historical fiction: ‘it has sex, adultery, pregnancy, scandal, divorce, royaltry, glitterati, religious quarrels, and larger than-life personalities’ (de Groot, p. 70). There have been various takes on Boleyn over the years including Jean Plaidy’s Murder Most Royal (1949); Margaret Campbell Barne’s Brief Gaudy Hour (1949); Evelyn Anthony’s Anne Boleyn (1957); Jane Lane’s Sow the Tempest (1960); Norah Loft’s The Concubine (1963); and most recently Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl (2001) – there are many more!
|The Other Boleyn Girl film adaptation (2008)|
In a way Anne Boleyn is an odd topic for historical romance as it ends, inevitably, with Boleyn’s execution. However, the interest in her character – at once represented as beautiful, fearless and intelligent whilst at the same time ambitious, vengeful and ‘a sexual predator’ – is not only in the romance, but in the bringing into light a strong female character from a time when women were largely hidden in the historical records. Anne Boleyn allows us then to explore female agency where history rarely gives us a similar opportunity.
Jerome de Groot’s analysis also picks up on a rather ahistorical approach to historical fiction written by women for women. This form of historical fiction is not really based upon academic history but on the semi-fantasy world of Jane Austen. Continuations of Pride and Prejudice fit more into that fictional world than any historical analysis; for example Linda Berdoll’s Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife: Pride and Prejudice Continues (2004) which looks at the married life of Darcy and Elizabeth.
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