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Intermission: Cruel Intentions

March 23, 2013

I had every intention of putting up another overview this weekend, but as I was taking some notes on this week’s Anne Boleyn play, I saw the stage direction “HENRY rapes ANNE”, and faltered. I tried to keep on, but found that I kept getting distracted by LOLcats, Livejournal, random newspaper articles, paint drying … and eventually decided that this week’s play was going to have to be next week’s play. It’s not that I was overcome at the mere mention of rape — this isn’t even the first or second fictional rape perpetrated by Henry VIII, and he’s hardly the only one — but I was severely aggravated at what rape (or attempted rape) is becoming in the world of historical fiction. Namely, it’s turning into a way of putting an enormous sandwich board on a male character which states “THIS PERSON IS A HORRIBLE RAPIST AND THEREFORE WILL DESERVE HIS (USUALLY UNPLEASANT) FATE.” All well and good for a straight-up romance novel in which real people make cameo appearances at most, but not good at all in a book which is using the names and — to some extent — likenesses of people who actually existed and whom the reader may not know a great deal about. And while the reader obviously knows it’s fiction, it’s natural to assume that the writer has not invented any really big events.

Making a villainous and/or doomed person misbehave sexually in some way isn’t new, of course. But in earlier times, men didn’t have to be quite as violent as they are now to qualify as transgressive. In Anne Boleyn: A Tragedy (1826) Francis Weston seduces and then abandons Meg Wyatt, for example, but there’s no suggestion that he used force. Still, we’re not encouraged to be especially sorry that he’s going to the block. In the twentieth century, the designated evildoers began to get more obnoxious; Nicholas Carewe in The Favor Of Kings (1912) stalks Anne all over the place while threatening her with eventual dire reprisal should she refuse. She does, and Carewe helps set up the conspiracy to dethrone her. (Carewe, of course, was beheaded three years later). In The Uncommon Marriage (1960) Mark Smeaton tries to rape her — granted, he’s under the influence of a love potion that Cromwell slipped him, but it’s made clear that he’s been perving on her for some time previous. Henry VIII, of course, comes in for his share. Excluding borderline scenarios in which Anne doesn’t want to sleep with him but goes ahead because that’s what you do when you’re married (correctly for the time period), the Henry of Anne Boleyn (1912) stalks Anne across two countries and marries her by force, presumably consummating said marriage with as much force afterward. In The Boleyn Wife (2007) he rapes an unconscious and drugged Jane Seymour a few months before Anne’s beheading, and in The Seduction of Anne Boleyn (1998) he rapes Anne towards the end of their marriage, after a fight about their continued lack of male progeny. The resulting baby becomes the January 1536 miscarriage — ill deeds never prosper, apparently.

Henry VIII, at least, is such a well-known figure and has had so many varied and unflattering fictional portrayals that, frankly speaking, a few rapes probably can’t do his reputation much more damage. It’s a different matter for the satellite males, who may not get too many starring fictional roles and whose portrayals as rapists and/or unsavoury gropers of some variety have more potential to deceive people. George Boleyn is one of these, albeit his vilification came largely at the hands of The Tudors and not from books, although we should not forget Alison Weir’s nonfiction assessment of George Boleyn as a probable rapist, thanks to Cavendish’s one line “I forced widows.” George Boleyn has, in the last thirty years, progressed from high-minded, tormented homosexual (inspired by Retha Warnicke’s hypotheses) in The Seduction of Anne Boleyn and The Other Boleyn Girl (2001) to wife-raping, abusive homosexual (The Tudors) to wife-beating, boy-raping bisexual (The Boleyn Wife) with an occasional detour in which he’s a garden-variety obnoxious groper (Anne Boleyn And Me, 2004). Thomas More is another one whose stock has dropped considerably in the last few decades, but just in case we don’t dislike him enough for burning heretics, some authors decide to endow him with some dirty little secrets as well. Wolf Hall (2009) very artfully implies that there’s something not quite right with his relationship with his eldest daughter, and the execrably written The Queen’s Lady (1994) goes one further by having him lust after an (imaginary) foster daughter and then go crazy and try to rape her in jail. Henry Norris almost manages to rape Madge Shelton a couple of times in At The Mercy Of The Queen (2012), and Madge feels almost nothing but relief at his departure. And ranging further afield, Innocent Traitor shows Jane Grey getting very, very graphically raped by Guildford Dudley. (As it happens, this novel is also by Alison Weir). And there are many others in a similar vein.

What do all the men portrayed above have in common? There is zero evidence, none, that any of them ever raped anyone — the closest any of them come is George Boleyn’s line from Cavendish, which isn’t very close at all. The other thing they have in common (with the exception of Henry VIII) is that they died shameful, violent deaths for causes which were partially if not wholly not of their making. Such deaths were horrifying enough for their contemporaries; for us, who think of the death penalty as something to be resorted to only for the most hideous of crimes (if that) it’s very hard to imagine living in a world where such executions could happen, and happen frequently and as a matter of policy. It’s hard not to pity someone who ended in such cruel circumstances, however unpleasant he (or she) may have been while he was alive. And so authors who have such a person slated to be their book’s antagonist all too frequently arrive at a solution; make the person so repulsive — in a way to which modern readers are especially sensitive — and voila! the reader’s sympathy won’t be inappropriately diverted. It’s effective. It’s also lazy and cheap. It’s essentially the equivalent of giving the antagonist a -20 handicap without having to do any real work to show why this should be the case. It’s also, incidentally, highly misleading to readers who haven’t got the time or the inclination to read forty different books on the subject. If Alison Weir, noted writer of popular history books, says Guildford Dudley and George Boleyn were rapists, why shouldn’t we believe her? If Hilary Mantel, talented writer and in-depth researcher, says that Thomas More may have been a little more than kin with his daughter, well, she must have backing for it, right?

In the long term, I think these writers are only handicapping themselves. Looking at the very early examples of this sort of villain-making, the characters who are given the treatment always stand out, and not in a good way. Nowadays, the idea that Francis Weston deserves no less than death for having an affair with a silly girl and dumping her afterwards seems bizarre, and the Saturday Morning Serial characterization of Nicholas Carewe in The Favor Of Kings makes him a tedious, two-dimensional, mustache-twirling interloper into what is otherwise a pretty good book. The Mark Smeaton of The Uncommon Marriage seems to be channeling Oliver Mellors the gamekeeper. In a few decades, ideas of what constitutes the ultimate sexual villainy are going to change, somehow, and today’s sexual villains are going to be beached in their own books, painfully obvious reminders of how fashions change.

This is not to say that rape should not be depicted in fiction at all — clearly, it must have happened, and it may well be that one or more of the gentlemen accused in fiction were guilty in reality. Still, it’s a terrible accusation to hang around anyone’s neck, even if they’re long dead. Unless writing about someone who’s known to have at least been accused of molestation or rape — Thomas Culpepper, lover of Katherine Howard, will suit many writers’ needs, as would a few others — it really needs to be toned down. If you absolutely must have Snidely Whiplash pursuing your heroine, that’s what fictional men were invented for — men like Simon, Baron Blackston in To Die For (2011). If you hesitate to introduce such interlopers, then at the very least don’t name names — Threads (2002) features an Anne Boleyn who was repeatedly molested while a young girl in France, but is very careful never to name the man concerned, just to say that he’s powerful and his word would be believed over a mere maid of honour’s. That description fits enough people that it would be impossible to decipher who it “really” was. It was very cleverly done on the author’s part.

And finally, there are depictions of what would be considered rape now, but was not then — and the characters don’t anachronistically consider it as such. A good example is in Blood Royal (1988). The newly-married Thomas Boleyn, anxious to get the consummation taken care of before he has too much to drink at the post-ceremony feast, barges in on Elizabeth, knocks her down and commits what we would now describe as a marital rape. Elizabeth is very angry, but not for the reasons we would expect. She’s not angry that he had sex with her, but with “the manner and the timing of it.” He should have done things with more ceremony, but she never thinks that her own consent might have anything to do with it. This Thomas is not, incidentally, any more villainous than the rest of them; he’s just frighteningly good at planning ahead and wants to get his business done in case drink incapacitates him for the actual wedding night. (It doesn’t, as it turns out).

Readers don’t need to be guided as much as many writers think; we are, in fact, capable of feeling mixed emotions about a character. Ironically, my reaction to being hammered over the head with imaginary rapes committed by the designated villain is to sympathize with him more than I would have in a reasonably-written story. These people had enough invented or dubious accusations thrown at them while they were still alive — there’s no reason to add new ones now.

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From → Essays

6 Comments
  1. Esther permalink

    Great article. Another factor, IMO, is our modern gloss on events of the Tudor era. For example, Thomas Seymour’s treatment of the young Elizabeth today makes him look like a perv — because an adult male’s sexual interest in a 15 year old today is seen much differently than it was seen back then.

    • sonetka permalink

      Definitely — not that Seymour’s behavior was that great, but time has added a layer of creepiness which wouldn’t have been there to begin with. (I wonder why it is that Seymour catches it so hard but the Duke of Suffolk manages to escape? Probably because of the Great Romance angle of his marriage to the “French Queen.”)

  2. Clare permalink

    I love this site. Thank you for common sense and perspective on the way these people are portrayed without merit.

    • sonetka permalink

      Thanks! I’m glad you liked it. Novels have to walk a fine line between dramatizing and over-dramatizing, but this sort of thing just feels like a lazy short-cut, which is bad no matter what kind of fiction is being written.

  3. Tungsten permalink

    Couldn’t agree more. You see this a lot in fantasy, too, especially the high fantasy set in medieval-esque eras: we need a Bad King, let’s make him a rapist. Obviously fantasy doesn’t have the same “these were real people” problem that historical fiction does, but it still comes off as a pretty lazy setup. You’ll sometimes see slavery used in the same context–modern people abhor it, so the Bad King encourages the slave trade or makes money from slavers. It’s like using Premade Villain Mix instead of making your own from scratch.

    • sonetka permalink

      I remember once reading a Sunfire Romance at the library (shut up! I was thirteen) in which the heroine finally realized that the brash young newspaperman would never be her true love because he — get ready — used a racial slur. In 1889. Even then I thought that was ridiculous. I think the author must have been getting close to the page limit and the girl had to choose between her inevitable two suitors somehow, and so, voila! Quick-fix ending!

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