A big thank you to my co-author Clare Cherry for sharing this article with us today. I loved working with Clare on George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier and Diplomat and we have plans to work together in the future as well, just need to find that spare time that people keep mentioning! Over to Clare…
As you know, Claire and I have written a biography on the life of George Boleyn. As you probably also know there had previously been very little written about George by historians. This has led people to the natural conclusion that the reason historians rarely mention George, other than when discussing the fall of Anne Boleyn, is because there is very little information on him in primary sources. And because there has never previously been any detailed study of George this has enabled fiction writers to have enormous fun with him. The view held by some novelists seems to be, “if we know very little about him then we can justifiably do want the hell we want with him, and make him into whatever monster we choose.” This has led to a very slanted perception of George over the last thirty years or so.
So why did Claire and I go to the effort of writing a book about a man who, on the face of it, is at best an enigma, and at worse a man who fiction writers have taught us isn’t worth the effort? Primarily, I think it started because we both read primary sources on the Boleyn family, and came to the same conclusion, independently of one another, that George was worth the effort.
Writing about an historical personality who hasn’t been written about previously in any depth has its own challenges – there’s no one to crib from! That was a joke by the way, but not entirely. All writers of non-fiction will read secondary sources as well as primary sources, and the fact that someone else has also done research on the same subject is very useful; hence historians often quoting one another. Eric Ives mentioned George more than most historians have, so he was a useful starting point, but even in Ives’ biography of Anne George is very much a marginal figure. Julia Fox’s book on Jane Boleyn was also very useful, but obviously that focused on Jane and not George. Finding Edmond Bapst’s late 19th century French biography of George and Henry Howard was extremely helpful. Bapst was writing about both Howard and Boleyn, and he was looking more at their general court careers and their poetry. Although there was limited depth to his work, it provided an excellent starting point when trying to track down primary sources which refer to George.
So yes, writing about an historic personality who hasn’t been written about and researched in any great depth previously can be an enormous challenge, but on the other hand it also its own rewards, and there is definitely a plus side to it. Firstly, there is very little to influence you either for or against the person you’re writing about. You see that person as a blank canvas, neither good nor bad. Secondly, you are forced to go all the way back to the primary sources because you have nothing else to go on. In other words you can’t take the easy or lazy route. It’s a question of having to go back to basics or you’re scuppered!
So that’s exactly what Claire and I did. Having come across George in our research we went into ever greater depth. Between the two of us we have spent years devoted to researching the life and career of George Boleyn. Years devoted to the life of a little known-man? Years looking at ever primary source we could lay our hands on which referred to him? Are we mad?
No we aren’t mad…..honestly. The fact is that George, in his own lifetime, wasn’t ‘little known’. He was a huge player at court as a politician, courtier and diplomat. The primary sources are full of information relating to him as the brother-in-law of the King of England. They are so full that it took years to collate it all together. It was just a question of looking hard enough to find the George who had been there all along. So why did we bother with all that work, and why did we spend countless hours researching him, and sleepless nights worrying that we would do this young man the justice he deserves?
It’s a really easy question to answer. We care enormously about the man who emerged from our research. The man we found didn’t deserve the ignominy and discredit of either being forgotten or being vilified. We learnt from letters and papers written during his lifetime that he was far more than he had previously been portrayed. It then became easy (or relatively so!) to spend hours and hours on research because it became a labour of love, that grew as we found out more and more about George, and the more we found the more we realised he deserved our respect.
Historians should be as objective as possible. I like to think that Claire and I have been objective with George Boleyn. We portray his whole personality, as far as we can, and I don’t believe we shy away from portraying his faults. Irrespective of that, I believe that you have to care about the person you’re writing about. If you don’t, then how can you do them justice? To begin with, there is a risk that the book will be dry, soul-less and dispassionate. If the author doesn’t care then why should the reader? Worse still, the book merely becomes a vehicle to make a name for the author and/or to make money. Claire and I would never deliberately misquote a source to show George in a good light, and we would never manufacture ‘evidence’ to make a point. That is nothing short of dishonesty. But I hope that no one reading our book could ignore the passion and commitment that has gone into it, or the respect and affection we have for our subject matter.
George was worth the effort.
Note from Claire
You can find out more about how Clare and I came to be working together, our research into George’s life and our book in our George Boleyn Interview video series on YouTube – click here. You can find articles on George at www.georgeboleyn.com, and George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier and Diplomat is available as an ebook and paperback from Amazon and other book retailers.