Strap in. This is going to be a long one.
That’s what she said.
We’ve been retelling stories since we first had stories – there are so many different versions of the same fairy tale, and how many of us have heard someone tell a story and thought ‘that’s not the version I was told’? – so retellings themselves are not the least bit new. Over the past decade, as YA has become more established in the publishing world, retellings have become a whole sub-genre, from The Lunar Chronicles to A Blade So Black.
There’s nothing we won’t retell: fairy tales, myths, classics and, more recently, history.
Again, retelling history is nothing new. We could argue the historical biographies in every generation are a retelling of history because each generation has new, updated research and, of course, biases from their own experience as human beings.
We could also argue that alternate history novels are essentially retellings of history, but they’re not quite the same thing. The Calculating Stars takes place in a version of the 1950s where a meteorite hits Earth and forces humankind to colonise outer space, Temeraire adds dragons to the Napoleonic Wars, and Dread Nation takes place in a version of 19th century America in which the undead rise on the battlefields of the Civil War.
These aren’t quite retellings because they’re not taking established figures from history and asking ‘what if?’, they’re changing the construct of the world in that time period as we know it.
Recently, however, I’ve seen a few YA books that are literally retellings of history. They take real historical figures and twist the story a little by adding a dash of the speculative, and I’m here today to ask: should they?
Now, some disclaimers before I carry on:
- I’m a big history nerd so I can 100% understand that this kind of thing won’t bother other readers as much as it might bother me.
- This isn’t a post to tell you what you should be reading or to shame you if you have read and enjoyed history retellings – if you love these kinds of books, that’s great, we should always celebrate reading. This is just my opinion, so if you love these books I’m not calling you out for it.
- Ultimately I’d never tell an author what they should write. If the story they desperately want to tell is a history retelling then they obviously don’t need my permission to go for it.
One book in particular that I can’t bring myself to read, despite my love for the Tudor era, is My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows.
My Lady Jane got a lot of buzz when it was released and, I have to admit, initially I was intrigued. I’ve loved history my whole life, but my first and truest history love is for the Tudor era, and Lady Jane Grey has played a big part in that.
When I was around eight-years-old my mum worked in a pub. One day there was a wedding reception and she had to work late, so she couldn’t come and pick me up from school until around an hour or so after the school day had finished. So, after everyone had gone home, my teacher at the time (whose name I’ve completely forgotten, which makes me sad!) took me through to the computer room, sat me down and taught me about Lady Jane Grey. I was already a history lover, but from that moment on the Tudor era captivated me like none other.
I haven’t read any historical fiction (or any non fiction, yet!) about Lady Jane Grey, so to see a YA novel about her being released and getting a lot of attention and positive reviews had me really excited.
And then I read the blurb.
So, for those of you who might not know, Lady Jane Grey lived in England during the Tudor era, which took place from the beginning of the reign of Henry VII in 1485 to the end of Elizabeth I’s reign in 1603.
Henry VII’s heir was the infamous Henry VIII, who made his way through six wives during his lifetime, and Lady Jane Grey was the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister, Mary Brandon.
After Henry VIII came Edward VI, who was only nine-years-old when he ascended to the throne and died when he was only 15. Having no heirs of his own, the crown was set to pass to his older half sister, Mary Tudor, but here there was a problem. England experienced a tumultuous change in religion during this era after Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church and created the Church of England. Edward, as the king, was head of the Church of England and believed in it, but Mary was a staunch Catholic and had been her whole life.
Edward’s councillors didn’t want a Catholic on the throne. Edward’s other sister, the future Elizabeth I, was also a Protestant like he was, but as Edward needed to claim Mary wasn’t legitimate to avoid making her the queen, he also needed to claim his other half-sister, Elizabeth, was illegitimate. Why? Henry VIII’s marriages to Mary and Elizabeth’s mothers (Katharine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn respectively) had both been declared null and void during Henry’s life.
Therefore, the next in line for the throne just happened to be Lady Jane Grey.
Jane is remembered today as the Nine Days’ Queen. Her reign was incredibly short-lived, she was forced into a marriage she didn’t want and fought against her controlling father-in-law when she refused to make her husband King of England (and therefore higher in authority than her). Mary soon reclaimed the throne with the support of the English people who didn’t think it right that Mary had been removed from the succession. When it became clear that Protestants would continue to rebel in the name of Lady Jane Grey and Jane refused to convert to Catholicism, she was put to death.
She was beheaded at the Tower of London on 12 February 1554, when she was around 16-years-old.
Forgive me if a story about Jane and her husband, who turns into some kind of werehorse, doesn’t appeal.
I’m not even making that up. In this novel, her husband (who was a bellend in real life) literally turns into a horse. Because… I don’t know, reasons?
I realise – and I really do realise, I promise, I know I sound like a grump – that this is supposed to be funny and it’s not supposed to be taken seriously, but a 16-year-old was forced onto the throne of England and then had her head cut off for it. That’s heartbreaking, it’s horrific, and that’s also a far more compelling story than whatever this is.
Jane was a fiercely intelligent young woman, she was raised by Catherine Parr for a time, the first woman to publish an English book in England under her own name, alongside the future Elizabeth I. She was the prime example of women who loved to learn and longed to be educated alongside the men of the era, and yet here we have a rom-com in which her husband turns into a horse.
There are ways to rewrite Jane’s story, and give her a happier ending, without making it a comedy. I think the fact that it’s a comedy is what bothers me because it’s not funny! These people may have lived 500 years ago, but that doesn’t mean they no longer deserve our respect.
After the Tudor era came the Stuart era. James VI of Scotland became James I of England after the death of Elizabeth I; he was the only son of Mary, Queen of Scots, whom Elizabeth was forced to have executed in 1587, but he was also descended from Henry VII through Henry VIII’s other sister, Margaret Tudor, who married into the Scottish royal family.
Nadine Brandes’ Fawkes features, unsurprisingly, the story of Guy Fawkes. Guy Fawkes was one of the conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot, in which a group of Catholics attempted to blow up the House of Lords, with the king and his councillors inside, on 5 November 1605.
Why? Well, if Edward VI’s councillors hated Catholics, they didn’t hate them anywhere near as much as James I did. This is the same monarch who was terrified of witches and sparked the spread of witch trials throughout the UK during this era of history. He was a very superstitious, not very pleasant chap. If you were discovered to be a Catholic in this era the consequences were severe, with hanging, drawing and quartering being the preferred method of execution. Not a nice way to go.
It shows just how unhappy the Catholics were under James’s reign that he ascended to the throne of England in 1603, and by 1605 someone was already trying to blow him up.
Guy Fawkes is the one who’s been remembered because he’s the one who was found with the gunpowder, he was the one who was set to light the fuse, but one of the other conspirators had a relative who worked in the House of Lords and, stupidly, sent him an anonymous letter that essentially warned him not to go to work. The king was informed and Fawkes was found.
He underwent horrendous torture in the Tower of London and initially refused to give his true name or the names of any of his co-conspirators. It wasn’t until 8 November that he began to reveal the names of his allies, and it’s very likely that he was tortured on the rack. Just look at his two signatures from the Tower below:
The top signature was made soon after his torture, and is barely legible.
In Fawkes, Brandes retells the story from the POV of Guy Fawkes’ fictional son, Thomas. Considering he served as a soldier and likely had some kind of sexual experience at some point in his life (although that’s not guaranteed) Fawkes may have had illegitimate children, but there’s no record of him ever being married or having any legitimate children or any illegitimate children that he acknowledged. (This isn’t important, I just wanted to say there’s no record of a Fawkes junior anywhere.)
Now this could be an interesting angle to work with. Although we can look back now and understand the Catholics’ anger – imagine being threatened with being disembowelled while still alive just for practising the faith you believe in – Fawkes and his co-conspirators were essentially religious radicals and terrorists. What did they really hope to achieve? James already had children by this point so there were already little Protestant heirs ready to take over should their father meet an untimely end, and they certainly weren’t going to be sympathetic to the Catholic cause if the Catholics blew up the Houses of Parliament. Having a story from the point of view of the son of a terrorist is a great hook.
The only problem here (for me) is that Brandes has turned the conflict into a fantastical one. There’s colour magic (which does sound cool, to be fair) and Keepers and Igniters (I don’t know what either of those things are) and a Stone Plague. In this story, Guy Fawkes doesn’t want to assassinate the king because his treatment of Catholics is brutal, he wants to assassinate him because he’s an Igniter.
Again, I don’t know what that means and I don’t know why I should care when the original story is already so juicy. I get that religious and political upheaval isn’t everyone’s thing, and some people would much rather read about a fantastical war, but why do it with this particular period of history? Why not create a fantasy world with a plot inspired by the Gunpowder Plot? I’d be down for that.
I actually love historical fantasy, I love it when magic or mythological creatures are added to a historical setting, but I don’t like it when they’re added at the expense of something else. At no point in that blurb is the fact that Fawkes is a Catholic mentioned, and to me that completely takes for granted the suffering and persecution that that group of people suffered during this period of the UK’s history. Why remove it?
In this book’s defence, I’ve seen a few reviews claiming that the magic in this book is essentially an allegory for the Protestant Reformation and, of the two books in this post, Fawkes is the one I’m most likely to try because it does still sound like it has a lot of potential.
Now these novels could be excellent entryways into these periods of history. If you didn’t know anything about Lady Jane Grey or the Gunpowder Plot and one of these novels convinced you to go out and learn more, that’s a truly wonderful thing and it’s one of the things I love most about historical fiction in all its forms. I do also have to acknowledge that, while I’m a history lover, plenty of other people aren’t and it’s really not the end of the world if they don’t care about Lady Jane Grey as much as I do.
If an author chooses to write historical fiction, however, I do think they have a duty to do their research and to show the subjects they’re writing about respect—especially if, like Lady Jane Grey and Guy Fawkes, they met a terrible end because of the religion they practised. In a way it’s a shame that fantastical allegories are used for religion instead of the religions themselves (and I have no idea if Lady Jane Grey’s fervent Protestantism is touched upon in My Lady Jane) when, if we’re going to write historical fiction, we have to acknowledge that religion was a big part of many people’s lives.
Whatever your religious beliefs, whether you have a faith or you’re not religious at all, I think we need to see more religious characters—particularly in YA. It’s so true that reading fiction teaches us empathy, and when we currently live in a world where anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are, sadly, still present, I think it’d do many of us a lot of good to be reminded how everyone has a right to their faith, whatever it might be, as long as they cause no others harm. Historical fiction is one of the best genres authors can write in if they want to explore faith and all its strengths and foibles. When we replace faith with magic, I can’t help feeling that we’re putting a distance between ourselves and the generations of people who’ve walked the earth before us.