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I See Dead People

October 31, 2012

Considering the number of people who made premature ends during Henry VIII’s reign, remarkably few ghosts turn up in the novels to set the survivors on edge. There are plenty of supposed real-life sightings of Tudor-era ghosts, of course, and five of Henry’s wives are supposed to walk abroad in various locales (poor Anne of Cleves is the odd one out here, as she was in so much else). But while historical novels have no problems with prophecies and dire warnings, no matter how unlikely, they usually draw the line at ghosts. After all, even the most addled prophet can make a lucky hit once in a while, but a ghost will propel the book firmly out of the Historical and into the uncomfortable waters of the Paranormal genre. It’s a hard mix to achieve while still maintaining some realism and you can see why most authors avoid it, but nonetheless there are a few who try to blur those genre boundaries a little.

“Born in the chime hours,” says the midwife of the newborn Anne in Blood Royal (1988) “this young lady will have the power to see spirits. And she was born under Scorpio, the doctor told us, which will make her strong of will.” As a child, Anne sees a ghost beneath a staircase and runs off, frightened, but sadly for the us that’s all we get to see of Anne the spirit watcher. Towards the end of the story, Mary Boleyn dies reaching for — and calling out to — an Anne whom only she can see.

This is how most of the handful of literary ghosts appear; when the seer is either in extremis or expects to be shortly. In Sow The Tempest (1962) a dying Henry VIII, calling for “Kate”, meaning Catherine Parr, is visited instead by the shade of his first Kate: Catherine of Aragon, who recites her last letter to him. “I have been a good father to Mary,” he tells her, “Since I broke her will.” Katherine Howard and Thomas Cromwell also appear to him but say little (the latter has nothing but his famous written cry of “Mercy, mercy, mercy!”) and Jane Seymour, “such a very tenuous shape” appears last of all, saying nothing. Henry reflects first on how she tried to defy him over the Pilgrimage of Grace, and last on how she did, after all, bear him a son. “The Lord had given, and the Lord had taken away, and Jane had been a little insipid.”

Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, was said to have gone mad after she was condemned, but on at least two occasions her mental state isn’t being helped by her visions of George Boleyn’s ghost. “George! You here, George!” she screams on entering the Tower in Murder Most Royal (1949), and holds long, one-sided conversations with the invisible, headless shade.

“He has come to mock me now. He says that all my wickedness has but led me to the block. He puts his hands to his head and lifts it off to show me that he is not really George but George’s ghost. He says the axe that killed him was wielded by me and it was called vindictiveness. And he says that the axe that will kill me will be wielded by me also and it is called folly. He says I am twice a murderess because I killed him and now I kill myself.”

In The Boleyn Wife (2007) George’s ghost is heralded by Anne’s, who appears to the nerve-racked Jane while Cranmer is interrogating her.

There she was, plain as day — Anne Boleyn in her black velvet and pearls. This was no misty, diaphanous phantom; she was as real and solid as a flesh and blood woman! But only I could see her, though when she moved to stand behind Cranmer’s chair and laid a hand on his shoulder, he shivered mightily and ordered another log to be thrown upon the fire.

This Anne taunts Jane with her disloyalty, lifting off her head and replacing it, until Jane loses it completely and starts throwing things at the vision, at which point Cranmer decides to send her back to her cell, where Anne joins her again and brings company. “More phantoms came to join her. Francis Weston, Henry Norris, William Brereton, and George — my beloved, darling George! Round and round they circled me, cool and detached, bearing witness to my suffering. `He who sows the whirlwind must expect to reap the storm,” they reminded me.'”

And finally for a ghost which, explicitly imaginary as it is, helps bring the book it’s in from the sublime to the ridiculous. Bring Up The Bodies (2012) features a Cromwell who is subtle, thoughtful, and strangely reminiscent of a 21st century agnostic, and while allusions are made to his propensity for doing what’s necessary to get someone to talk, the author is oddly reluctant to show him actually doing said things on the page. After a truly terrifying scene depicting Cromwell’s dinner with Mark Smeaton and the verbal traps he lays for the poor musician (who is depicted as snobbish, useless and possibly pederastic, but then all of Cromwell’s victims are unattractive figures in this book), he orders his household staff to shut Mark up for the night so they can use more persuasive methods on him in the morning. His servants push Mark into the closet which also contains the accoutrements for a children’s Christmas play. The next morning …

He gathers the sheet about him. Next moment, Christophe comes in to wake him. His eyes seem to flinch from the light. He sits up. “Oh, Jesus, I have not slept all night. Why was Mark screaming?”

The boy laughs. “We locked him in with Christmas. I thought of it, myself. You remember when I first saw the star in its sleeves? I said, master, what is that machine that is all over points? I thought it was an engine for torture. Well, it is dark in Christmas. He fell against the star and it impaled him. Then the peacock wings came out of their shroud and brushed his face with fingers. And he thought a phantom was shut up with him in the dark.”

Conveniently, Mark is so terrified that he’s more than willing to babble out names to order. Cromwell has the unlikely thought that “He has never had this problem before, the problem of having frightened someone too much,” and when Mark shows signs of running out of steam, all Cromwell has to say is “Put him back in with the ghost,” and off he goes again. Mark Smeaton has had a long posthumous career as the unofficial Court Idiot, but this version takes the silver medal for sheer witlessness (the gold is still held by the Mark Smeaton of Anne Boleyn: A Dramatic Poem, 1826, who offers a voluntary, unsolicited confession because a random Jesuit told him to). It’s also a very convenient way to spare the reader the sight of Cromwell literally putting the screws to someone. Ironically, the result is that of the few ghosts that appear in Anne Boleyn novels, this last, overtly false one is also by far the least believable.

Happy Halloween!

From → Essays

  1. Tungsten permalink

    “Locked him in with Christmas?” You mean they locked him in the closet where they keep the Christmas decorations? I was puzzling over that paragraph for a couple of minutes . . . it’s very oddly written. Or is that just me?

    • sonetka permalink

      Yes, in context it means the closet with Christmas decorations in it (it had been set up earlier in the book, as well as the wings made of peacock feathers). Mantel’s writing style can be hard to get used to but after you’ve acclimated, so to speak, it’s extremely compelling, almost to the point of being druglike. The problem is when you come down from the prose high and realize that hey, this plot is actually totally ridiculous. I’d compare it to what Davies said about Verdi’s adaptations of Shakespeare; the music is superb but the plot is so hacked up that once you’re out from under the spell of the notes you realize how incredibly jerry-rigged the whole thing is and ultimately it’s a disappointment.

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