I’ve recently been doing some freelance history writing. As part of this, I’ve spent time reading and writing about Henry VIII and his daughter, Mary I. It made me feel some surprisingly extreme things, and I want to talk about that experience and how we deal with emotions when writing for work.
Poor Bloody Mary
Lets start with a history lesson.
Henry VIII is generally treated as a hero or a joke in English history – the strong leader with the six wives. But when we look at his personal life, we see something that by modern standards is pretty monstrous. Among other things, he accused his second wife Anne of cheating on him and had her killed because they’d fallen out; had his fifth wife Catherine killed for actually cheating on him, despite his own numerous extra-marital affairs; declared his daughters Mary and Elizabeth illegitimate and largely excluding them from his life because they weren’t boys; bullied Mary into signing a document that went against both her values and her respect for her late mother, out of fear that he’d have her executed; and much more. You can make all sorts of arguments about the necessity of his actions, but that still looks like horrifying domestic abuse to me, whatever the reasons for it.
There’s a terrible irony to the fact that his daughter Mary helped Henry through a period of depression after Catherine’s cheating and execution. Mary’s own understanding of depression came from the fact that she’d suffered it for years thanks to her father. Long deprived by political circumstances of the chance to marry – something she strongly desired – often isolated from friends and support, when Mary finally married she suffered from a neglectful husband and a series of miscarriages and false pregnancies. The death of many Protestants at her hands is appalling, but so is the suffering she endured in her life, for most of which she suffered from poor physical and mental health.
As I say, Henry is mostly remembered as a great leader and/or punchline, Mary as a villain. It appears that memory, like their lives, has little taste for justice.
Reading and writing about Henry and Mary hit me very hard. I’ve suffered from depression. My wife and I have struggled with the long, frustrating process of trying to have a child, only to be robbed of it by a miscarriage. This stuff hit me where I live, and it hit me hard. I’ve worked in schools and for social service, read case files and heard first hand accounts of the vilest treatment dished out to families by abusers. How much worse then to see the effect of a parent who was outright abusive and who is now regarded in the playful and positive light Henry is.
There’s another irony here, and it’s in my attitude. When a king is presented to me as a villain, like King John has been, and I then learn about the other side of them, I can somewhat come to terms with their appalling behaviour. John was responsible for the death of his nephew among others, but because of his troubled upbringing I’ve come to see him in a more forgiving light than the traditional tales of the evil king. I recognise the hideousness of some of John’s actions, but I can step back and put them in context. In contrast, hearing about Henry filled me with near-unbearable bile. I was literally shaking with anger and sorrow.
Part of this is of course about current discourse, not just history. I’m almost as angry at our idolisation of Henry as at his behaviour. A domestic abuser shouldn’t be seen as a hero or the subject of casual jokes.
And part of it is how personal these issues are, not just to me but in a general sense. Looking at the domestic lives of Henry and Mary takes us past the veil of top level politics, something beyond most of our lives, and into the realm of the personal, where we all live. We all have some experience of love, loss and family. Seeing those things warped and broken affects us all.
Dealing With the Pain
There’s a part of me that wants to rationalise away these feelings. To tell myself that I’m getting wound up over something that’s not about me, that I should just calm down and do my job. This is my work, not a place to get emotional.
And to that I give a heartfelt cry of ‘bullshit!’
These are my feelings. This is the way the world affects me. They are a way of drawing attention to something that is wrong. Millions of years of evolution have equipped me to feel these things, and repressing them isn’t just incredibly unhealthy, it’s a waste of part of my human potential. Our feelings have a legitimate place in every corner of our lives, including our work. How else would we ever care about what we achieve?
More than that, this is the work of writing. Words are meant to move, not just to inform. They’re meant to fill our bellies with fire, our eyes with tears, our hearts with rage, sorrow, love and the desire to change the world.
I’m not saying this experience has been good for me. I’m not saying all this grief and anger I’m feeling for long-dead aristocrats is fun. But it’s a part of writing, a part of reading, a part of responding to history. It’s a part of being human, and that’s something to be proud of.
OK, got that vented, for now at least. In case you hadn’t realised, what you just read was part of my dealing with this.
And now over to you. Are there parts of history or works of fiction that really move you, in happy or unhappy ways? Have they surprised you by doing that? I’d love to read about your experiences in the comments below.