Guest post by Rebecca Lyon
Deep dish pizza, the Higgs bosun and swimming pool floaties all make an appearance in my new play for kids to perform, Anne of Cleves, Super Queen! Aspects of the play are very fictional and very silly. Although I would not have been able to write it without the meticulous scholarship of historians, it is interesting to consider how our responsibilities – those of historians and those of writers of historical fiction – are different.
Current scholarship and recent historical fiction convincingly portray Anne as a decent young woman caught up in and adapting to a political situation over which she had very little control. However, old tropes persist. That nasty nickname, the Flanders Mare, which first appeared in a 1757 history book by a novelist named Smollett whose appearance I will pass no judgment on (Google it if you like,) has, like many egregious epithets applied to female celebrities, stuck. I have seen, within the past few years, school plays about Henry VIII where the child playing Anne of Cleves is referred to as a horse, where she is accused of being deliberately deceptive about her appearance, and in one particularly nefarious example, where the little girl playing Anne of Cleves had an elasticated pig snout over her nose.
Whilst historical accuracy suffers, more importantly of course it can potentially harm the child performers involved. This kind of interpretation reinforces the notion that social media has only exacerbated, the idea that pretty is good ugly is bad, that if you look attractive (by dominant cultural standards) you should be treated well and vice versa, that Henry had a right to reject Anne because she was ugly. What a horrible idea to pass on to kids!
Of course, there is much brilliant fiction for children about Tudors at the moment (Ally Sherrick’s heart-warming novel The Queen’s Fool about two children caught up in skulduggery at Katherine of Aragon’s court, and Patrice Lawrence’s Elizabethan shipwreck adventure The Diver’s Daughter are particular favourites,) but while we still see harmful interpretations, it’s our responsibility to write back. And if this adds to a cacophony of conflicting and sometimes contradictory interpretations then so be it. The pen is surely preferable to the sword, or to moaning about things on Twitter!
There’s been plenty of media debate recently about the politics of historical fiction and the sometimes fudgy lines between interpretation and imagination (The Crown having provoked a flurry of online debate.) And old questions – Is history anything more than subjective retelling? How do we best define accuracy and truth? What’s the purpose of history anyway? – refuse to go away.
In writing for children to perform my primary responsibility is the welfare of the children on the stage. Drama lessons, like those of the other arts, can be a place of refuge and release for children coping with pressing real life problems, and my main focus is to make my plays safe, positive and useful for them. My hope is that they will help give kids an appreciation of and ownership of their history, providing both positive models of behaviour and instances where they can clearly see injustice and ways to resist it.
Anne of Cleves, for me, is a gift for this. She was brave – coming to England without her family not speaking the language; she was kind, as evinced by contemporary testimonies and of the generous provisions for her household and for the poor in her will; and she was adaptable – she rolled with the changes with resilience.
Whilst part of me wishes to have written something a bit more radical, (Stick it to the man! Smash the patriarchy!), Anne’s story is about making the most of the system rather than overturning it. Anne handled her life, the aspects she could control, pretty blooming well. “What would Anne of Cleves do?” has become a bit of a mantra for me.
Of course, this is a tongue in cheek question, as I’m sure if I asked her what to do about climate change or changing utilities providers she wouldn’t have a clue (though she’d probably work it out pretty quickly!) And here we have another super important point to ponder when writing children’s historical fiction: accuracy. In seeking to explore truths and useful meanings to current audiences and child performers it is important to consider accuracy when it is needed. There are dates and events which children need to know for testing and assessment which shouldn’t be messed around with in a school context. At an early reading of Anne of Cleves, Super Queen! I was alerted to an embarrassing howler – I had Henry saying that he didn’t want to marry her anymore rather than he didn’t want to be married to her anymore. Focusing on the reaction to rejection had led me to overlook the rather important fact that they were married, if only six months, even though Anne was never crowned. There are other parts of the story where history is more malleable. Historians have made intricate and fascinating studies of Anne’s journey to England – a retinue of over two hundred and fifty people and fifty ships on a journey by land and sea that took several weeks. In my version it’s just Anne and her suitcase on a boat with a sea captain and two boatswains (Higgs and Photon – geddit?!) singing about coconuts. But, I hope, the truth is in the sentiment; she’s on her own, depending, not on the kindness of strangers but on her decisions about how handles the situation she’s in. This gives her an inspiring sense of agency which again makes her a fab subject for a kids’ play.
What I love about the culture of the online Tudor enthusiast community is that Tudors belong to everyone. They are, like Shakespeare’s plays, a part of English-speaking peoples’ cultural identity and as Heather Darsie’s book makes clear, also deeply connected with the politics of England’s continental neighbours. Emphasising this shared history is surely important for unity and understanding in the future, especially in the post-Brexit landscape. It is likewise heartening to see children’s fiction finally including and embracing black history too – the work of Patrice Lawrence is important here as is Comfort Fabian’s Stories that Have Wings YouTube series. I was very conscious in Anne of Cleves Super Queen! not to limit the play to court – brutal though life was in the corridors of power, it is important for children to see the poverty and hardships faced by ordinary Tudor folk such as farmers, former monks and nuns, and other itinerant people.
Finally, historical fiction has a responsibility to declare itself as just that, and where children’s drama is concerned, to centre the wellbeing of the child. Even though now we have knowledge of sub-atomic particles and have reached the culinary heights of perfect pizza, our world, like its historical past is still full of challenges, complexities and injustice. If children’s fiction can play a small part in unmasking injustice and encouraging positive skills and tools to help children now, we should surely play our part. And, although she didn’t have the choice to have children herself, I do hope Anne of Cleves would heartily approve.
Scripts and performance licenses of Anne of Cleves, Super Queen! are available to download at: Anne of Cleves, Super Queen! (artsonthemove.co.uk)
Darsie, Heather, R., Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s Beloved Sister, Amberley, 2020
Norton, Elizabeth, Anne of Cleves: Henry VIII’s Discarded Bride, Amberley, 2009
Morris, Sarah and Grueninger, Natalie, In the Footsteps of the Six Wives of Henry VIII, Amberley, 2016
Kaufman, Miranda, Black Tudors: The Untold Story, OneWorld, 2017
Bilyeau, Nancy, The Chalice, Orion, 2014
Lawrence, Patrice, The Diver’s Daughter, Scholastic, 2019
Mantel, Hilary, The Mirror and the Light, Fourth Estate, 2020
Sherrick, Ally, The Queen’s Fool, Chicken House, 2021