Literary Notes: Bursting bodices and romantic beheadings

WHEN I was a child, my favourite book in the world was neither The Wind in the Willows nor Winnie the Pooh, but a battered volume in my parents' bookcase called The Tower of London.

A fictionalised history of the eponymous palace/prison, it was by someone called Harrison Ainsworth, who appeared on the title-page as upright and bewhiskered as any Victorian gentleman could be. The fact that he had depths of the utmost gruesome Gothic purple was vouchsafed only to those who, like me, ventured into the murky passages dealing with the final hours of such romantic characters as Lady Jane Grey, who saw her husband's decapitated body while en route to the scaffold herself; or Archbishop Fisher, practising being burnt at the stake by putting his hand in the fire of his prison chamber.

If the old martyr's veins snapping and crackling in the flames were, so to speak, hot stuff, even that paled beside the high drama of the death of Anne Boleyn. The pages would fall open at the description of her sloe- black eyes and mysterious sixth finger and her enduring legacy was that, for years after, I imagined an executive to be someone dressed in a black mask and wielding an axe. From the moment I picked up the book, I was addicted to historical fiction.

I eschewed television for a pile of mint-green Georgette Heyers from the local library. Then I moved on to the colourful oeuvre of the stunningly plain-sounding Jean Plaidy. Her range was as astonishing as her titles were colourful; from Henry VII (The King's Bed) to Charles II (A Health Unto His Majesty), from Ferdinand and Isabella (Spain for the Sovereigns) to Marie Antoinette (the fabulously named Flaunting, Extravagant Queen), she galloped through British and European history with swashbuckling zeal. I neither realised nor cared that this meant my reading matter was tragically unfashionable.

The academic advantages of my historical-novel addiction were, after all, almost infinite. I was light years ahead of my peers in general knowledge. To one who had been reading conversations starting "prithee mistress" and "good my lord" practically since birth, the language of Shakespeare was as familiar to me as if I'd been in the original productions. The only let-down, ironically, was history. How colourless the official version of events was, I thought. There was no sex in any of it. For, among the many virtues of historical novels, chief in my eyes was what you might call their codpiece-centricity. Scarcely a bodice went by without some breasts bursting out of it. Finely turned calves of both sexes abounded, as did mistresses, bastard children and pairs of dancing, naughty eyes. This, I suspect, accounted for the old ladies' interest as well.

Although historical fiction seems to be enjoying a revival of late with Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy and Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong, these works seem to have acquired a literary and even quasi-academic status apparently bent on removing them as far as possible from the bedjacket brigade. A pity, as is the fact that Jean Plaidy, Barbara Cartland and Georgette Heyer have been relegated to much the same status in the eyes of the literary establishment as the author of the Wicked Willie books, or perhaps the no-longer-read Walter Scott. Even Jilly Cooper, reportedly considering writing a historical novel, has abandoned her plans for another orgasmic orchestra. A wonderful configuration of chances to rehabilitate the historical novel has been tragically eschewed.

I've done my best to keep the faith with having a tumbledown stately home complete with tumbledown aristocratic family in my forthcoming novel, but it barely scales the foothills of Jean Plaidy's Everest-like legacy. For the foreseeable future, it seems, the term "historical novel" will remain a dirty word. Just let them remain dirty books, that's all.

Wendy Holden is the author of `Simply Divine' (Headline, 14 January, pounds 10)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz