And here's what they say to each other...
Astley leans forward. “She wishes him to return. From whatever exile he has chosen.”
“Ah,” Cranmer says. “I wondered if we might face this. I will tell you two things. I do not know where he is, and I would counsel you to leave him be.”
“For Elizabeth’s sake?” Ascham asks, a note of tenderness clear in his voice.
“No. For his own sake. If Elizabeth asks for him, he will come. Without a moment’s hesitation, he will come. Because he is desperately, hopelessly in love with her. And his strength to keep himself away from her comes only from the fear that he will condemn her.”
“But,” Astley says, “she is without hope. The light is gone from her eyes.”
“As I said to this young man of whom you speak, time and faith will heal.”
“It has been six months since last she saw him,” Astley answers, “and she has not got any better. I have never known anyone be more certain about her love.”
“My Lady,” Cranmer says, “Elizabeth is sixteen. A girl. A princess, indeed. She has her whole life before her.”
Ascham frowns at this. “She is as clever as any man I know. And wise beyond her years.”
“Do you mean, Master Ascham,” Cranmer says, “that we should indulge this fantasy? I did not know that you were sentimental.”
Meanwhile, a plea: if you've read the books, a review (even if there's no text in there) on Amazon or Goodreads is most helpful. So, if you're reading this and you have read the books, get reviewing. If you haven't read the books... You know what to do!
Of course I bloody cried...
One good way to calibrate your views on the world is to listen to what Piers Morgan has to say, then assume that what he says is wrong. Katie Hopkins occupies a similar role. It's a genuine possibility: listen to the arguments, find them either baffling, obscure, arcane or otherwise impenetrable, and be as such unable to reach a sensible decision on your own; so look at the list of people who have already decided, and pick the side with the people you like/respect/don't find objectionable...
Let's be honest. Brexit is a colossal balls-up, whether you think we should be leaving or not. Even the name of it is ugly. The current government is - to everyone's surprise, including their own - still going at it, trying to make it happen in a way that at least some people like. But, and this seems to be the actual issue as regards the Commons at the moment, there is no one way that has the support of any large chunk of MPs. As we already know (I think) the majority of MPs were in favour of remaining in the EU, so perhaps asking them is the wrong idea. A second referendum seems likely to create more problems: if remain wins (by a narrow margin), then what? If leave wins, we're still no closer to working out how, unless we give choices on the ballot. And to be honest, I'm not sure I trust the economic, social and cultural future of this country to its current population.
Whatever the ins and outs of Brexit, that Gillette video has been doing the rounds just recently. Obviously they're delighted with all the publicity they're getting, and Piers Morgan will have sold more Gillette products and vegan sausage rolls than the adverts would have done without his intervention. As the owner / proprietor of a small boy, I get the point. It's hard to manage a child of any biological sex, and the creeping sense that you're getting it wrong is not helped by those of the older generations making judgemental faces as you do your parenting. Yes, kids, those same parents that get on your case when you're young, still doing the same basic thing when you're no longer young.
Baby Richardson: unsure how to deal with expectations of him to be male, hit things with hammers, be dominant, powerful and interested in guns and suchlike. He does like a car, but also ducks, stars and - like his sister - snacks, and will merrily shout away (and I do mean 'shout' - he's very noisy, and I've no idea where he gets it from) at the cupboard containing the snacks while you serve him delicious, nutritious home-cooked food. So far, the snacks seem to be winning over the lovingly hand-made stuff.
So, what? I wasn't sure whether to write about my reaction to that video. I cried at it, which will come as no great surprise to those of you who know me well or have followed this blog in its previous incarnation. I think the strong reaction and the 1.3 million dislikes the video currently has on YouTube (with about half that number of likes) suggest that they have hit a nerve. Just by way of comparison, Baby Shark has a hundred times as many views, and numbers of likes and dislikes in the same range. Elmo's Song nearly ten times more views, and five times fewer likes and dislikes. What nerve, exactly? Is it perhaps no more than that when unthinking, ancient-but-unchallenged stereotypically male behaviour is called out as unacceptable, the ancient-but-unchallenged males don't like it? My hope for the children is that the world really has made progress since the time I was a kid. But I can't help notice that parents of my acquaintance still do a lot of the little things that add up to those stereotypes, whether it be in choosing certain clothes (or not choosing certain clothes), reacting to play types (dressing up and using make-up being objectionable to an alarmingly high proportion of fathers of boys), offering particular toys or extra-curricular activities... So well done Gillette for doing something ballsy. It's not high art, it's an advert, but it does get people talking about something that needs to be talked about.
Sexist jokes, challenging instances of prejudice, and coming back from the dead...
It's hard to explain why instances of prejudice have to be challenged. I once got into an argument with someone I met playing cricket about same-sex couples adopting children, the punchline of which was him honestly and earnestly stating that a child needs its mother as though that was the end of the discussion and he had proved beyond any doubt that same-sex couples adopting was inherently less good that mixed-sex couples adopting. I was shown an article today, which (somewhat terrifyingly) the person who showed it to me seemed to believe to be from a reputable news source, the gist of which is a joke that might have been getting old in the 1960s and would certainly have been recognised as basically sexist and unimaginative by the time I was alive.
From the perspective of a privileged (privately- and university-educated, white, middle-class, professional(ish), male) person, there's always going to be a challenge to get it. That challenge is very much possible to meet, though, even if it will never be the case that I can feel exactly what it is like to be a woman, black, or whichever minority is in question. There was an interesting discussion on Today this morning about Jeremy Corbyn's attitude to Jewish people and whether he is anti-Semitic, which centred around the fact that because he doesn't consider himself to carry prejudice, he can be guilty of a sort of unrecognised and unacknowledged set of prejudices that are only really apparent to the people to whom they apply, rather than the person who carries them. This is a difficult area, fraught because if the only thing that it takes for a statement to be prejudicial is that someone who hears (of) it considers it to be so, the bar is set so absurdly low that you'd best keep your mouth shut and say nothing at all. The opposite attitude, which I suppose is what libertarianism is all about and what the American constitution tries to enshrine, is to let people say what they damn well please because that's central to freedom. And there is a valuable point to be made in there, because it wouldn't take long to find instances of states silencing dissenting voices, journalists, commentators or opposition politicians where the denial of that freedom is incredibly pernicious.
So what might we constructively do when confronted by these instances of prejudice? It was a good fifteen-or-so years ago that I first encountered the idea while working with recovering drug users not just of consistently and honestly examining my own prejudices and trying to get rid of them, but to watch carefully for instances of prejudice in others and challenge them when they arise. What might usefully be said to the teller of a sexist joke? In some cases, it might require nothing more than a groan, a gentle reminder that sexism-as-humour is actually damaging, whether to people's self-esteem, or their world view and how they interact with others. In some cases, it might require a more demonstrative response, but in whatever case, what matters is that the folk who've done the thinking already don't forget to keep thinking, and that they try to persuade others to do the thinking, rather than just battering them into submission. You don't find (m)any thoughtful sexists or racists, as it goes.
Have some of this from book IV:
“Who are you?” Gilbert asks. He indicates the chairs that they might sit on, then sits down himself. “Please, sit.”
Astley and Ascham look at each other. Then first Ascham sits down, and Astley does the same. “My name,” Ascham says, “is Roger Ascham. Tutor to Elizabeth.”
“And I am her governess. Kat Astley.”
“I have heard of you.” Gilbert looks from one to the other and back. “Well, Roger Ascham and Kat Astley, I would like to know why I should help you, one way or the other.”
Again, Ascham and Astley look at each other. It is Astley who speaks. “My mistress has not been at her ease since he left her. She wants only to see him again.”
“Strelley,” Ascham says, “is your friend. He spoke well of you, to me, to Mistress Astley. To Elizabeth.”
“Strelley,” Gilbert answers, “is a dead man. Thomas Seymour had him killed.”
“Yes,” Ascham answers, “that is the story. But since he died, he saw Elizabeth when she was in the Tower. Not what one might expect of a dead man. She has not stopped thinking about him, dead or otherwise. His friends went to Rome to bring him back once before. Back from the dead.”
“If,” Astley adds, “we were to send his friends to look for him once again, where should we send them?”
Gilbert stares at one, then the other. “I need to understand, if I may…? This dead man, Strelley, you want me to tell you where he is. You, tutor to the princess, and you, her governess, want me to tell you how to find a man who, from what I can tell, will commit, or perhaps has already committed, treason, by absconding with your charge. So by asking me this question, earnestly as you have, you are yourselves accessory to that treason. Have I understood correctly?”
Astley smiles. “Are you threatening us, Master Gilbert?”
More rock'n'roll: watching a documentary about armour whilst ironing shirts. This Tobias fella, in addition to being American, is almost unforgiveably keen to suggest that various bits of the stuff he's looking at belonged to Henry VIII. Clearly there's a motivation, in that it's more interesting to most casual viewers that these suits belonged to the bloke on the front of all the books they've seen, to make it all about Henry. The second half is all about how Elizabeth didn't wear armour at all (breastplate supposedly donned for the address at Tilbury notwithstanding), and how a bunch of show off men at court all vied to look the business in order to impress her. What's so fascinating about this is that the young Elizabeth just doesn't look like the sort of woman who will become desperate for all this male attention later in life, that the early experiences just don't add up to the woman she became. At the very least it's the case that she was hugely capable, intelligent, brave, able to keep pace with the most brilliant minds in the kingdom, and that shows early on in her life. The experience she had at the hands of Thomas Seymour, her imprisonment on several occasions under accusation of treason (and with a real threat of the loss of her life), her suffering under Mary, all of these point to the making of a serious adult. And yet, by the later stages of her life, Elizabeth seems to be asking all these men at her court (Essex was thirty years her junior) to behave as if - to borrow a phrase of this here documentary - they had just fallen in love with her. I wonder... Perhaps, as with so many of the public faces of Elizabeth, this was a mask, worn to disguise some other, truly important thing going on behind it. Perhaps the playing was a distraction from the terror of assassination, or the fear of failure that must have been central to her life. Or, perhaps, she just really did want everyone to behave as if they were in love with her. I don't think so. I don't intend to explore her later life in my own fiction, so it's not for me to answer. History writing (almost) inevitably sees Elizabeth from the perspective of her being a woman, a queen regnant, and unlike her sister a successful ruler, comparing her to Mary Stuart (Queen of Scots), assessing her marriage prospects and how she managed her suitors. I've tried to show her to be a real human being, sometimes happy, sometimes sad, learning her lessons, navigating the abuse she suffered at the hands of Tom Seymour, to see her as a person rather than as a future queen, which at the time she most certainly was not.
What, then, of the complicity of Katherine Parr in that series of events? I've just been reading The Heretic, a seemingly obscure novel of the 1960s told from the perspective of the maid of Anne Askew (yes, she got burned relatively early on in These Matters). She (Askew) supposedly had a fair amount of contact with the sixth and last of Henry's queens, their shared attitude to new learning (for which read 'Protestantism') putting them at risk of the wrath of the utterly confused Henry in the last years of his life. I think the word itself ('Protestant') is an anachronism, at least in England, but the author (Alison MacLeod; no, me neither) uses it sensibly so that those of us reading the thing know roughly what she's on about. In any case, what is a minor punctuation in my stuff is the story in this. Anne Askew is shown to be (ish) a modern feminist, refusing to defer to her husband on all sorts of matters, insisting on the merit of education for as many as will take it, standing by her principles at the expense of her life. A good woman, no doubt, and perhaps, if MacLeod is to be believed, a great one obscured by history. It's hard to judge whether the anecdotes stand up to scrutiny, of course, and that includes the involvement (or lack of it) of Katherine. Katherine was a benign influence on her husband, although she came close to pushing him too far more than once on the subject of religious reform. She certainly helped him to reconcile himself with his daughters, and made sure the standard of Elizabeth's education (along with Jane Grey's) was very high. But her failure to protect Elizabeth from Tom Seymour seems totally out of character, as though she had a blind spot for his behaviour. Indeed, given what sort of man he was, it seems that she must have had a more general blind spot for him, because he just does not make sense for her. I suppose that is in the nature of things, though - that people will fall in love with the wrong person, that people will make different judgments for those they love, that people will get it wrong because of their love for someone - and Katherine Parr most definitely got it wrong for Elizabeth in 1548.
The Heretic is a good book, more so for being sensibly short, and written with a clear affection for its main subject that makes it highly engaging. As with a lot of the stuff I mention on here, though, it's not for everyone. And good luck finding a copy. Mine is inscribed to say 'This book is the property of Alison MacLeod...'
I recently finished reading (another) biography of Elizabeth, this one subtitled 'Renaissance Prince'. Yes, that's rock'n'roll me, endlessly researching these characters and events that bind together my story. This short biography gives a series of more-or-less chronologically ordered essays on a subject, some of which are entirely public, some of which attempt to get behind the mask and find out what Elizabeth was, to borrow a well-worn phrase, 'really like'. Twenty years ago, I studied the life of Augustus, the first (proper) emperor of Ancient Rome, through the various surviving things written about him. Some of those things were written by the man himself (ish - one imagines that he employed a ghost!), some by historians, some in a roundabout way by poets, and it's worth remembering both the book and TV series of I, Claudius, which gives us Robert Graves' opinion on it, although nearly two thousand years after the fact. It's worth letting (proper) historians do some of the legwork, because trying to discover letters in archives looks for all the world like a fool's errand for an amateur.
The concept of my A level was that there were two faces to Augustus, a public face which he invested time, effort and energy in controlling, and a private face which others - after the fact, for the most part - spent their own effort to try to discover. It's probably worth saying that we all wear masks and disguise what's going on so that the people around us don't think we are weird, dangerous or just unpleasant. But a public figure of Augustus's type had a much more serious job of work in managing that public profile. He wanted Rome to be a certain way, and some of his personal conduct would not have met the standards he set for the people he governed. That is to understate the case by some distance, of course. He might have been a great leader, but he certainly does not come across like a good person in several versions of the story. He managed his image ruthlessly, and it is consequently hard to get at the real person, although saying that involves making the assumption that the real person is the private person, and the mask is the public persona. Sometimes we all have to manage what other people get to know about us, and that can be anything from a kindly-meant desire to be comforting (in spite of whatever negative thing), sometimes for self-protection, right the way through to keeping hidden something deeply dangerous. Part of the fun of writing fiction is the access to the characters' motivations that you have as the writer, and trying to translate that into something which comes across as real on the page. My rule, both in my writing and necessarily in my professional life, is that the internal processes remain just as hidden in the books as they are in reality. Writing that sentence alerts me to the possibility that it is precisely because of all the stuff that I have to keep behind the mask that I have this motivation for writing in that way. I do not know, although perhaps I will figure it out at some point. I've no doubt that part of the motivation for writing these musings is to have a little space for those things which in some contexts I absolutely cannot let out. But even here, I have to admit to managing carefully what 'goes out', if nothing else to avoid the risk of looking daft, cruel, vain, or whatever it is that I risk coming across as.
So what of Elizabeth? It's obviously hard to say at a distance of nearly half a millennium what exactly she was like, and which experiences shaped her. That's my agenda. There was no Edward Strelley in reality, of course, so any theory which involves his influence in her life is absolutely fiction. But it is nevertheless entertaining and engaging (for me - not, it seems, for hordes of paperback and ebook buying folk on Amazon) to think about what it was like to be her. Lisa Hilton's book treats Elizabeth from the several angles of her personal life, her government, her image in England and outside it, and the things we can learn from all those documents that I can't be bothered with discovering. She doesn't offer any outstandingly new insight, which isn't that surprising writing about a woman who has been studied in great detail for hundreds of years, but does bring out the focus on how it must have been to be Elizabeth, a regnant queen in a Europe of male leaders, a potential wife for the ambitious, a woman whose status as queen was under constant threat of dilution by some outsider, a woman, in short, in a man's world. It's useless for me to offer any comment of the form 'she was a great woman', or even 'she was a good person', because those judgements wouldn't change what actually happened. They might be a useful idea for me to carry while writing about her, so I can frame her in the story. But her (real) story is not the story I'm trying to tell.
The Burial of the Dead
I thought today was Blue Monday. It isn't, which means that next Monday is going to be even less pleasant than this one. January - without the promise of Christmas to work towards - is always hard, and has been more so for me over the past four years. February is, despite the fact that it is that bit closer to spring and the lifting of winter's gloom, the month that I associate with my own mental health deteriorating (I think it might have been called a nervous breakdown in the past), and with needless and hopeless death and grief. I can't read the awful majesty of the Burial of the Dead, not without tears, even now. The preface - which I had not remembered when looking it up and therefore took me quite by surprise when writing this - is utterly, thoroughly miserable. I wrote once before about the effect on me of a section in a German film about Martin Luther where they discussed the burial of a suicide in consecrated ground. Give-or-take, I was devastated by the tiny and unappreciated kindness that was allowing him to be buried in the churchyard. Apologies, then, if it has the same effect on you, dear reader: "Here is to be noted, that the Office ensuing is not to be used for any that die unbaptized, or excommunicate, or have laid violent hands upon themselves." Those last seven words are like a scythe, sweeping and knocking me down. I had not realised when I started writing this that it would turn quite so sad. I am baptized, as many of my generation are, but I am neither a churchgoer nor a metaphysical believer in the afterlife. I don't know why I should care - as I seem to, regardless of my irreligious beliefs - about what Christians say about suicides, but it turns out that I (still) do. It seems so cruel to deny those people for whom life was so wrong that they thought they might suffer less by ending it the promise of peace, and doubly cruel on those left behind.
"We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings: Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort."
And what if my faith says that God will forgive me, whatever my sins? Isn't that the point of the New Testament? Perhaps. My view of God is of course tempered by the one key point that whatever His properties, existence isn't one of them...
So, instead, some of book IV:
Blackaller strolls over, holding Strelley’s sword and poniard. Behind him, one of his men carries the great broadsword that Strelley faced in anger just half-an-hour previously.
“These are yours,” Blackaller says with a laugh. “I didn’t know you had it in you.”
“Nor did I,” Strelley hisses.
“Seems like you’ve missed your chance to die, Edward Strelley. I thought you were done for.” Blackaller’s tone is light, almost jovial.
Strelley struggles to focus himself on Blackaller. Fletcher once again leaves off the sewing, anticipating Strelley speaking.
“I seem to be finding it difficult to get myself killed.” Strelley says, forcing a smile. “Must try harder.”
“Not today, my friend,” Blackaller says. “Today, we celebrate.”
“With what?” Fletcher asks. “Dead rats?”
Blackaller frowns at him. “If we must.” And he disappears off, whistling a jaunty tune, as Fletcher carries on his work of patching up his friend.
“See, Edward?” Fletcher says as Blackaller recedes, “God keeps you alive. Must be for something.”
“Just wish I knew what.” Strelley manages to speak the words, then he heaves and vomits copiously, just missing Fletcher’s feet.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought