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Unsung Writer: Sally Watson

When I thought of writing an ode of appreciation to my favorite historical fiction authors, I assumed I’d start with one of my favorites–Bernard Cornwell, or maybe Judith Merkle Riley. But thinking further, I’ll start with someone less well-known, and for a very simple reason: she got me hooked on historical fiction in the first place. Meet Sally Watson.

Sally Watson isn’t the best known of writers. She wrote a number of young adult historical fiction novels that ranged widely over English and American history, and most of them are today out of print. I first came across her novel Lark at about age eleven, and it remains my favorite.

Lark is the story of a thirteen-year-old girl caught in the English Civil War, stuck among staid and disapproving Puritan relatives when her own Royalist family is forced into exile. Lark runs away, trying to rejoin her family, and instead ends up joining a young Cavalier spy named James who is on a mission for King Charles II. What makes this book one that I keep revisiting, even though I am no longer eleven?

1. Just the right touch of historical detail. Watson has a feel for her period and its politics, but she doesn’t drown you in facts. I’ve read a huge number of historicals that feel compelled to educate you, and I don’t read fiction to be educated. If all I want is information, I go to Wikipedia. I read novels to be entertained, and Watson knows just how to give the historical details that are needed before stepping back to let her characters take center stage.

2. Characters. The character development in this simple young-adult book is surprisingly sophisticated. Lark grows from a headstrong girl determined to have her way at all costs, into a dignified young woman perceptive enough to know when to stand back and bite her tongue. James’s crisis of conscience over his duties as a loyal subject is serious and well handled. These characters may be young, but they are allowed to struggle with adult problems intelligently. How many adult characters struggle with adult problems intelligently in today’s fiction?

3. Humor. When did historical fiction get so serious? Lark’s inner monologues as she observes her grim and stolid Puritan relatives (named variously Honor, Repent, Temperence, Patience, Submit, and Will-of-God) is a comic gem. James’s exasperated efforts to rid himself of the persistent and resourceful Lark are no less wonderful.

4. Intelligence. Since this is a young-adult book, there is very little gore. But Watson turns this into an advantage by having her hero and heroine rely on their wits to extricate themselves from trouble, rather than bashing their way to safety. There is a priceless scene where Lark, to avoid being taken up by Puritan soldiers, pretends to be insane and James falls promptly into line pretending to be her physician. He spouts made-up medical gibberish while Lark crosses her eyes and chews on her braid; the Puritans let them go; and they continue on their way with mutual congratulations to each other’s acting ability. It’s fun watching people be smart in fiction.

5. Romance. There is a surprisingly effective romance in this book, for all that there is not so much as a kiss in it. The age difference between Lark and James is only five years, but five years is insurmountable if the ages covered are between thirteen and eighteen. Yet romance grows anyway: Lark’s adoration for the lanky, charming James is understandable from the start, and James’s big-brotherly affection deepens to something more without once crossing into the ick factor. There is no hint of anything physical between them, but their shared intelligence, courage, and zest for adventure creates a love that will have room for passion too as they get older. How nice to see a romance that is based on shared emotions and experiences, not just lust.

Lark is not Watson’s only good book by any means–a later book follows a girl who gets caught up with the pirate Anne Bonney, and yet another tells the story of an Elizabethan girl who attempts to foil a plot against the Queen and instead gets caught up in a London thieves’ den. But Lark is my favorite–it and Sally Watson brought me to historical fiction in the first place, and for that I am eternally grateful.

Top Ten Pet Peeves

There’s a lot of good historical fiction out there, but there’s also a lot of bad. In no particular order, here’s a list of my top ten peeves in historical fiction.

1. Twenty-first century attitudes in historical characters. Unquestionably first on the list. Nothing makes me toss a book faster than a twenty-first century feminist striding through medieval England, or a sixth-century warrior who has long relationship talks with his wife. Unfortunately this kind of thing is widespread, and I don’t understand why–writers wouldn’t dream of giving their Elizabethan-England heroine a cell phone, but they can’t seem to resist giving her modern thoughts and opinions. The fact is that most pre-modern parents did not think it abusive to marry off their teenage daughters; most pre-modern men did not have relationship talks with their wives; and any pre-modern woman who ran around demanding equal-sex treatment would have been smacked. Them’s the facts. You don’t like it, stick to writing about the modern era.

2. Trendy historical periods. I’ll admit that Tudor England was my favorite historical period as a child. But how many more books about Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII do we really need? Ditto books about Richard III. Let’s find some new historical figures to write about. England had a lot of kings. And there are other countries besides England.

3. Choosing a historical period or country for its accessories. Scotland is the worst victim here. How many bad historical fiction books have been set in Scotland simply so the author could have Scottish accents, men in kilts, and sex scenes in the heather? I like a man in a kilt as much as anybody, but do your homework. Crack a book or two, give us some details besides the obvious ones. Don’t just watch “Braveheart” and call it a day.

4. Sex scenes in the rain. Here’s one that made its way from the movies. Scarlett Johansson and Jonathan Rhys Meyers did it in “Match Point,” Andie McDowell and Hugh Grant did it in “Four Weddings and A Funeral,” Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron did it in “Sweet November”–and now historical fiction couples are hooking up in the rain too. Be original. A Cossack couple hooks up in the snow during a thrilling novel of the Bolshevik revolution? Not very believable, maybe, but at least I haven’t read it before.

5. Ecstatic sex scenes in general. Half the fun of a good book is a vicarious bonk, but I get a little tired of virginal heroines who have ecstatic first-time sex. How many of us really had that much fun the first time? It doesn’t all need to be pain and blood, but why not give things a little more awkwardness? Might be funny and touching as well as sexy.

6. She hates him, but she loves him. Historical fiction isn’t the only guilty genre here–it seems like most romantic couples in books these days start out fighting like cat and dog, then finally realizing (with a gasp) that they’re in love. I think this one came over from the movies too. Let’s just skip it.

7. Humorless historical fiction. When did historical fiction get so serious? Did nobody pre-21st century ever laugh?

8. She isn’t beautiful, but she is. Heroines described as not being beautiful, but all the men in the book are in love with them and their large eyes and small waists are constantly referred to.

9. The pregnancy issue. No one in historical novels ever seems to think about getting pregnant. Even women who have a lot to lose by getting pregnant–unmarried girls, married women with husbands away from home–never seem to consider the consequences. Admittedly, reliable birth control was non-existent in many historical eras. But you’d think the women in these books would give a thought to the possibility of an oops.

10. List-making. Female writers are prone to make long lists of their heroine’s clothes and accessories. Male writers go on long technical riffs about their hero’s weapons. But unless the heroine’s shoe collection or the hero’s rifle-barreled pistols are going to feature importantly in the plot, spare me the details.

This list is by no means inclusive. Any other thoughts?

Those Trendy Tudors

Philippa Gregory made it big with The Other Boleyn Girl and followed it with The Virgin’s Lover, The Queen’s Fool, and The Boleyn Inheritance. Now there are approximately 2,500 books about Anne Boleyn, Cate Blanchett garnered an Oscar nomination or two playing Elizabeth I, a major television show called “The Tudors” is racking up viewers, and don’t even get started on the existing Masterpiece Theatre specials, novels, and historical biographies already written in the past century.

I admit to being fascinated by the Tudors myself. I spent a good deal of my childhood pretending to be Elizabeth I sitting on the steps outside the Tower of London, just as I’d seen Glenda Jackson do in Masterpiece Theatre’s “Elizabeth R.” There were other queens–Catherine the Great of Russia, Maria-Therese of Austria–but it was Elizabeth who filled my childhood fantasies. So my question for today is: Why are the Tudors so trendy?

There are other historical figures who rack up a lot of fictional space: Richard III, for example. But his fascination can be explained by the hatchet-job his reputation received at the hands of Shakespeare, which has led to a counter-balancing determination by later novelists and historians to see his better side explored. But the Tudors are different. They were a dynasty of red-haired charmers who happened to rule England during a period of historical and cultural richness, and four hundred years later we are still fascinated by them.

Why?

The Tudors had that compelling combination of charisma, good looks, and turbulent personal lives that makes for such appealing tabloid fodder today. Henry VIII certainly wasn’t the greatest king England ever had; in fact, he squandered an enormous national treasury on personal entertainment. But the man had staggering personal charm–even those who knew better, like his daughters who were both denounced as bastards and their mothers either murdered or hounded to death, forgave his misdeeds. And he was the ideal of the Renaissance man so popular in the era, a handsome prince who excelled at warfare and physical sports yet also wrote poetry, played musical instruments, read widely, and appreciated the arts. So Henry is remembered today, that fat old bastard with VD who went through wives like tissue paper. Elizabeth had every bit of his charm, and the added gift of intelligence and diligence; she is more worthy of the adulation she continues to this day to receive. Her sister Mary was less attractive, but at least she was a religious fanatic and those always give good value fictionally. Their brother Edward died too young to be of much interest, but Lady Jane Grey as a more obscure Tudor came along to spice things up with her nine-day-reign, her tragic death, and her Helena Bonham-Carter movie. Even Mary, Queen of Scots, can be included in the aura of Tudor radiance: she had Tudor blood, after all, and the red hair, tempestuous personal life, and personal charisma that went with it. To the end, Mary’s charm persuaded people to help her against their better judgment, at least until Elizabeth took her down like the stupid, conniving fool she really was.

What I find amusing is that Henry VII, the founder of the Tudor dynasty, had none of the attributes that would make his descendants so famous. He was a dour, tight-fisted king who won his throne by treachery and kept it by tight-lipped suspicion, a man notoriously lacking in generosity, charm, or good looks. He even failed the family mold by having only one wife and being relatively faithful to her. He can be remembered as a good King, one who gave England some sorely needed peace and built up a prosperous and thriving economy. But no one writes books today about him.

In an era before television, celebrities, and tabloid journalism, people looked to royalty for entertainment. Kings who got the job done, like Henry VII, might be appreciated but not remembered. Kings who swung the other way and provided entirely too much entertainment in the form of war, rebellion, and blatant favoritism (Edward II, Richard II, Henry VI) might be remembered but certainly not appreciated. The Tudors, however, managed to keep things interesting without going overboard. Henry VIII’s revolving wives, Elizabeth I’s will-she-or-won’t-she marital status, Mary Queen of Scots’s endless plotting–the Tudors kept their subjects entertained while simultaneously providing peace, stability, and a cultural renaissance. No wonder they’re so celebrated today.

That being said, I do wish writers would give them a rest for a while. How many books about Elizabeth I, Henry VIII and various wives, and Mary, Queen of Scots does the world need? I love Elizabeth I, but I don’t think I could ever write a book about her. They’ve all been written. I think all the Tudor books have been written by now. Perhaps a brilliant writer out there can find an unlit angle for a totally new novel, but I’m skeptical.

Bottom line: The Tudors are great. Let’s appreciate them–and move on.

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