A few weeks ago, I received a copy of Philippa Wiat’s 1983 novel about Katherine Grey, Five Gold Rings. The novel opens with a chapter showing Katherine’s older sister, Lady Jane Grey, being cajoled, whipped, and finally raped by a man whose identity is concealed from the reader until the last line in the chapter: it is her father.
This episode is entirely fictitious; while there are certainly sins that could be laid at the door of Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk, incest and rape are not among them. The incident has little connection to the rest of the plot, most of which centers around Katherine Grey’s love affair with and marriage to the Earl of Hertford. It is apparently there only to arouse the reader’s loathing for the duke.
As a reader, I seem to be noticing more of these sort of episodes in historical fiction lately—incidents with no historical basis and with little literary justification for their existence. While I haven’t read enough of these episodes, fortunately, to speak of them as a trend, I’ve seen enough of them to be disturbed. A novel I recently read about Cleopatra Selene, for instance, had Octavian attempting to rape the preteen heroine shortly after her mother’s suicide, stopping only at the urging of his companion. I’ve previously mentioned in this blog a novel set during the Wars of the Roses where a young and saintly Richard, Duke of Gloucester, witnesses a drunken William Hastings rape a virgin peasant girl, whom he has drugged; the girl later dies of the effect of the drug. The same author in another novel depicts John Morton as lusting after choirboys; in yet another one, Henry VII orders Elizabeth of York to have premarital sex with him so that he can test her virginity. I’m not at all knowledgeable about Octavian, but I can attest from my own research that there’s no evidence whatsoever that Hastings was a rapist, that Morton was a pedophile, or that Henry VII forced Elizabeth of York into his bed.
Far more common, however, are novels that stop short of making their villain a sexual predator, but depict him as a brute in the marital bed. This is usually done by having a man consummate his marriage in a style that is little short of rape. With some historical figures, such scenes are almost a given: for instance, novelists are fond of having the newlywed Guildford Dudley deflower Jane Grey in this manner (the possibility that Jane might have enjoyed or at least tolerated sexual relations with a young and reputedly good-looking man being too painful a notion for many to entertain). Likewise, novelists, particularly admirers of Richard III, often have Edward of Lancaster brutally initiate Anne Neville into marriage, which not only underscores the hopelessly evil nature of the House of Lancaster but gives Anne’s second husband, the Duke of Gloucester, a fine opportunity to demonstrate his immense sensitivity when Providence finally places Anne in his bed. Such scenes have made it to the screen as well: in the miniseries “The Tudors,” George Boleyn, who would clearly rather be with a male partner, gets his marriage to Jane Parker off to a particularly bad start. Again, these episodes are ahistorical; we have no idea of what happened between these couples in bed.
So why include these scenes in novels? In the right hands, depicting sexual assault can be powerful and disturbing: In Sharon Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour, for instance, there’s a scene very early in the book where a young servant girl is dragged off by Lancastrian troops and raped. That episode serves a purpose: it illustrates the horrors that war inflicts upon innocent bystanders, and it is also based upon fact, as the chronicles record that there was rape at Ludlow. The episodes like those involving the Duke of Suffolk, however, fulfill no similar purpose; they could have been left out of the novels in question without anything being lost thereby. Their sole raison d’être appears to be to make characters who are already being portrayed as villains several shades more black or (in the case of Hastings) to prevent the reader from according him any sympathy when he later dies at the hands of the saintly Duke of Gloucester.
Those men who are depicted as novelists as behaving brutally in the marital bed are a somewhat different matter. In one of my own novels, I have a man rape his wife: it is an aberration by a decent man in what has been a mostly happy marriage, and occurs at a time when the spouses are furious at each other and under great stress. In some novels and historical films, those husbands who start off treating their wife badly do improve with time. (Even George Boleyn in “The Tudors” has a lovable side.) It is the other cases—those where the man’s behavior toward his wife is simply a continuation of his villainous behavior in every other sphere of his life, and where there’s no historical basis for such a characterization—that I find objectionable.
Writing about sexual relations between historical figures is a delicate matter, of course. With many historical couples, we can only guess about whether their marriage was happy or otherwise, and we know even less about what went on in the most intimate part of their lives. Some invention, therefore, is inevitable, and indeed inescapable if we are to write a readable novel. But for the responsible novelist, that literary license shouldn’t extend to ascribing sexual crimes or misdeeds to men that history never attributed to them simply because it’s too much trouble to add a few shades of gray to a character’s color palette.