Making The Middle Ages Modern: The Problem Of Male Protagonists

 

It’s been a long (nearly) 9 months since I decided to immerse myself in history, manuscripts and France, in a shameless attempt to start on one of the most self indulgent career choices known to man. I’m sure my friends and family can testify that since I started writing my narcissism levels have gone through the roof. I can’t count how man conversations have started with “when I was in France…” and “looking at this from Henry’s point of view…” (sorry guys). Countless cups of tea have been consumed and I’ve spent more time at the British Library now then when I was struggling along with an English degree. Personally I’ve enjoyed it and have yet to tire of Henry and his adventures even if my poor editor has!

 

"Oh hi there" Norman gargoyles are friendlier than their Parisian cousins!
“Oh hi there” Norman gargoyles are friendlier than their Parisian cousins!

 

Not in an effort to demonstrate my narcissism,I must confess I’ve found the writing process therapeutic and relatively enjoyable. There have been several wobbles, some self doubt but not once have I considered throwing in the towel. I assume this is because writing is really the only thing I feel comfortable doing and-in an ideal world-I’d like it to become more than just a fruitless hobby. Writing has allowed me to conquer several personal demons such as anxiety, crippling nerves and lack of self worth. A lot of these issues stem from an unfortunate medical condition I had as an early teen, growing up I never felt normal or even understood by closest friends. While it still effects me and my day to day life, I’ve come to realise that I can’t let it control my life or dictate the decisions I make as an adult. Travelling alone was almost like sticking two fingers up to my condition; it proved that I can live a normal life and also halted any questions I had about my ability to keep calm and carry on…I do appreciate a tired cliché! Anyway, back to writing!

One of my many holiday destinations, Caen Castle: home to Henry, Richard and John
One of my many holiday destinations, Caen Castle: home to Henry, Richard and John

 

 

One of the main questions I’ve had when asked about my Henry endeavours is: is it hard to write from the point of view of a man? The short answer would be yes. Yes it is incredibly hard to write from the point of view of sexually frustrated 50-something year old man with an infected leg, yes it’s hard to write about-forgive the crudeness-a horny 17 year old duke…but it isn’t impossible. Seriously once you sit down and really think about it, it’s hard but it isn’t impossible (that said we’ll see whether people like it). Yes, Henry is a nearly 900 year old man and I’m a 22 girl and the medieval period was certainly different to our period of sterile, self obsessed individualism. However I don’t think humans change entirely, I believe there are tiny, intrinsic flaws in every person being that make us human. It is said that men and women are born with instinctive feelings, things we’ve felt since the early days of mankind. Women are maternal and men are obsessed with their penises/masculinity. Why should the values that we’re instinctively born with fade over time? I’ve said before that the over-riding themes I focus on: betrayal, love and dysfunctional families, are still very relevant today and I stand by this.

Unhappy Families
Unhappy Families

 

 

The Plantagenets- like the families you see on Jeremy Kyle today-were dysfunctional, they were at war with each other. Sons turned against fathers and siblings constantly tried to outdo each other. They were family torn apart by rivalries, avarice and paranoia which led to a rather Shakespearian downfall. As I approach the daunting finishing line two central themes have begun to appear; firstly of regret and secondly of hurrying through life…these of course are very intertwined. Many of the characters are victims of their own ambitions, endlessly planning for the future and spending no time in the present, as Henry discovers it leads to a lonely and rather depressing life. In history, the Angevin king was constantly on the move, back and forth between various French states and England. He had no relationship with his children, treating his family as a business model, methodically splitting regions and inheritances up and dishing out pointless titles as a substitute for parenting. Like his parents Henry was obsessed by legacy, the mark he’d leave behind, yet he was too scared of failure to allow anyone else a chance at governing. Richard, Young Henry and Geoffrey were given titles, wealth and castles yet no real responsibility leading them to deeply resent their father. Henry behaved in the typical fashion of a guilty absent father, you know the ones who are never there at birthdays but buy ace presents? The kind that say 20 something years down the line you realise you’re actually not that fond of? It seems that some things and some stereotypes never change! Towards the end of his life after countless wars culminating in the betrayal of his favourite son; I’m sure Henry began to wonder where it all went wrong. My -let’s call it a-book is more of a collection of memories, fleeting moments some happy and some sad. Currently in 1189, a dying Henry is looking back on his life and cursing himself and his driven obsession with controlling everything including his sons’ futures.

Don't worry tiny dog/lion I'd be distressed if my final resting place were Richard's feet!
Don’t worry tiny dog/lion I’d be distressed if my final resting place were Richard’s feet!

 

 

But it isn’t just Henry who is full of regrets, most central characters struggle with personal demons. Whether it is their sexuality, hypocrisy, self doubt or guilt, there is not one character who doesn’t have a moment of personal crisis. Yes, this is all told through Henry’s eyes; but through his own inability to read people we can see not only his failings, but what he fails to pick up on. Henry’s famous last words (poetic but not my own) sum up exactly what I’m driving at:

 

 

“Shame, shame on a vanquished king.”

 

 

It’s a tragic and deeply moving sentiment, they are the words of a weary, dying old man, words that describes feelings of regret and also of defeat. His death will not be an easy scene to write and I’m sure I’ll have to revisit it many times, writing this I feel as I’m making Henry’s mistakes all over again with him, with killing him comes a weird sense of guilt…I’m too attached to the characters! That said I am trying to make this as real as I feasibly can. One of my biggest pet peeves are the 21st century anxieties writers project onto their protagonists in their novels. Unfortunately, this mainly happens with the female characters as we are so aware of just how awful life was for a woman way back when. For example in the largely devicise bestseller The White Queen, Elizabeth Woodville is not best pleased the tubby (original) merry monarch Edward IV is playing away. I’m pretty sure the master schemer that is Elizabeth Woodville, wouldn’t give a rat’s ass if her husband cheated on her and all of those weepy princesses that hate being used by their fathers as diplomatic pawns? Yeah they’d have been used to it, it’s expected, it was accepted social convention. I’m not trying to be anti feminist-far from it-but I believe that’s why there are few male protagonists in historical fiction, it’s just easier to write sympathetically from the point of view of a woman. It makes me feel slightly morally uncomfortable writing Henry justifying a long term affair, but it happened and to be honest it was expected. That is pretty much the main issue regarding historical novels and their portrayal of the Angevins. They’re almost always Eleanor-centric -fair dos there is a huge market for such a magnetic figure-and usually unfairly portray her as deeply hurt by Henry’s affair. If there were, and I believe there were, feelings between Henry and Eleanor; I doubt she was upset at it his infidelity, it was more likely her pride that was hurt by Henry’s dalliance with a certain Mistress Clifford. Henry flaunting Rosamund, living with her openly and holding court with her, is far more offensive to any queen than him having a mistress itself…also Eleanor had some wild times in Poitiers without Henry so let’s be real about infidelity. Henry’s main characteristic in many books is basically being a dick-head. It’s not the most eloquent of phrases fair enough, but that’s the feeling I got reading her book. Yes some books are (I’ll use the example of Sharon Penman) beautifully written and meticulously researched but Henry just comes across as a relentless arse, a little more black and white than his lady wife. Most books usually show as Henry either getting angry and or cheating or both! Where are the characteristics that historians remember him for? Where is the sharp mind, the passion for reading and culture, the desire to bring about equality in the justice system? Henry II was famed for his temper but he was equally famed for making an overwhelming impact on the British law system and our economy. Without his sense of justice and outrage towards the corrupt nobility, England may well have skidded straight back into the Feudal System.

 

The medieval Brangelina
The medieval Brangelina

 

I’m sure this is the fear of writing a male character that alienates female readers, it’s hard to like a guy that neglects his kids and screws around. It’s also hard to penetrate the male psyche as we are so involved with our own genders. Hilary Mantel, Madeline Miller and Andrew Miller have both written strong and compelling male protagonists but the market for fiction in general (and I say this as somebody who works in the book trade) is overwhelmingly female and the publishing market-currently dying-tends to stick with a popular trend they know will sell. Even with Madeline Miller’s masterfully written Song of Achilles it’s a hard sell as the thrust of the story is a homosexual love story, and sadly, not everyone feels comfortable reading that. The Tudors are sexy, the War of the Roses have sexy tortured brothers and sultry queens. Let’s face it; apart from Eleanor of Aquitaine (who in my opinion is portrayed as a bit of a sap in most books) there aren’t many opportunities to be sexy in the 1100s…apart from Henry’s rather rampant libido!

 

This is why my book is about mistakes and memories. I try to explain the reasons behind the awful, awful decisions Henry makes not just portray him as a philandering husband. Yes, he is one, but there is more to him than that.  Don’t’ worry history buffs, this is not a sympathy piece, I’m not making an effort to make him seem like a nice guy, because he had the ability to be ruthless. I’m just trying to humanise a very inhuman figure. After all, Richard III-in my opinion a shit king- can have a renaissance why can’t Henry II?

Over and out!

Richardians if you read this blog please don’t kill me!

 

2 thoughts on “Making The Middle Ages Modern: The Problem Of Male Protagonists

  1. I think your book will be a beauty. I am a huge fan of Henry ll and an even larger fan of his Grandfather Fulk V they were brilliant. I love the way you approach the subjects, You are always placing yourself in the period , free from contemporary concepts that will definatley contaminate the true likelyhood of past lives, this is hard to do for many, but you paint the picture beautifully. Once again , love your work.

    P.S I met a Richardian at the Airport and she was a bit scary. Good Luck

    Like

    1. What a lovely comment! Henry II definitely needs better press but also an honest portrayal that is more than an angry man who gets around. He was a human being capable of actual emotion (without sounding too dramatic) and I’m sure the betrayal of his sons AND Eleanor’s betrayal hurt him deeply. The loss of an infant son and then the subsequent deaths of Young Henry and Geoffrey within the space of a year must have been tragic moments but again, they’re glossed over. Even more importantly he was a talented, overwhelmingly important figure of British history! I’m interested in learning about Fulk now as I’m not too familiar with him. So happy you’re enjoying the blog!

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