I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, so it stands to reason that I would have an obsession with all things having to do with England, especially its literature and history, right? After all, there’s an obvious correlation between growing up in an uneducated, mostly Italian-American working class neighborhood and reading Beowulf, Chaucer and Shakespeare (and actually understanding them). It’s very typical, really. I recall fondly Louie Sirigniano, Tony Montinino, Joey Marino and Sally Boy Castelli, friends of mine, sitting at the curbside, wiping their runny noses, with their pocket knives pointed towards the asphalt, rhapsodizing about England’s famed literary culture, spouting names like Virginia Woolfe, George Orwell and Thomas Hardy from their mouths as easily as they spit their saliva. They, like me, were lucky to have parents who bred this culture into them (when we weren’t being knocked on the sides of our heads and called stupid).
Seriously, England and its culture, whether literary or historical, couldn’t have been more remote to me growing up where and how I did. So, the question begs to be asked: Where does this interest of mine—visiting England frequently, reading voraciously books about the Tudor era, in particular, and writing novels (two already on this subject)—come from? It must be my DNA, something to do with the name Smith, my father’s mother’s surname, she who, though long dead, could be a relative of Maggie Smith, Zadie Smith, Captain John Smith, he of Pocahontas lore, or Winston Smith, he, unfortunately, of Big Brother lore, or any of the other millions of Smiths who reside in England.
As a boy, I met Olla Mae Smith, my grandmother but retain only a vague memory, and that’s because she didn’t live with my father, his other thirteen siblings and my grandfather, Davy Crockett (I’m not kidding), who kicked her out of his house (after killing her supposed lover—yes, true) when my father was just two years old back in Nebo, Illinois, an even more remote place to breed culture than Brooklyn, New York.
It turns out this woman whom I’m told I met for a few minutes in a shack in Arkansas when I was eleven years old has had a great influence on me as a traveler and writer, thanks to her surname and the fact that her people can be traced to the seaside town of Whitby on the northeastern coast of England. Why else, other than DNA, am I so drawn to the English countryside, evident in how many times I’ve watched episodes of “Escape to the Country,” wishing each time to sell my belongings and escape to England, to live in a cottage near old women who use herbs and roots to heal the afflicted, while whistling through their teeth, speaking a language left over from the Anglo-Saxons and Britons, long before William the Conqueror conquered the “sceptered isle” and John Barleycorn invented beer and whisky? Maybe someday I’ll make the move. Until then, I may consider changing my surname to Smith.
So, why would I write about a subject as large (pun intended) and well-known as Henry VIII? I can hear the naysayers: What more is there to add? Enough already! We know his atrocities: his abandonments and beheadings of wives, his executions of once-trusted advisers, his dissolution of the monasteries to bring himself and his closest courtiers further wealth, his depletion of the English treasury through senseless wars with the French. We have read his story over and over, in biographies and histories, in fictional novels and plays; we have seen it in countless films and BBC enactments; we have listened to it on Beefeater tours at the Tower of London and in songs dedicated to his infamous legacy. We know everything there is to know about him; he was a petulant king, a tyrant; he does not deserve any more attention than he has already received. Let us keep his nearly five hundred years old bones, resting beneath the floor of St. George’s chapel at Windsor, silent from here on out.
I have my reasons, though, for keeping him alive and giving him and those associated with him--wives, children, advisers--voices. Yes, we know his deplorable acts; we know the facts, depending on whose account we wish to believe. Still, we don’t necessarily know the man. I mean, really know him. If he were alive today, we would know him through his Twitter account, his Instagram, his interviews on primetime television, his Facebook page, revealing where he shops, which restaurants he frequents, where and with whom he socializes, who he dates or marries; and of course we would know him through his journals and memoirs, which contain his secret thoughts and feelings. We have none of that, however. What we do have is historical conjecture and speculation, based largely on sixteenth century writings that, arguably, are biased and, thus, unreliable.
All of which is great news for a writer who wishes to create a fresh perspective, to undress Henry of his well-worn historical garments, to reveal his scars, his vulnerabilities, his indecisiveness and fears; who wishes to add flesh to his mythic bones and paint a psychological, behavioral portrait of him in words, to make him less of a king, less of a historical caricature, and more of a man, albeit one who hasn’t grown beyond boyhood, with a deep-seated insecurity about being second best in his father’s eyes, needing to justify to himself what he does and why he does it, seeking approval from the dead.
A writer can never be certain about what he creates, or at least the effect of what he creates. I do know that old stories, especially great ones with lasting appeal, can be—and should be—told in new ways, eliciting new questions, such as the following: In probing far under Henry’s skin, did I manage to change readers’ perceptions about Henry VIII? I leave that question to those who read Thorns in a Realm of Roses.
Thorns in a Realm of Roses is published by Top Hat Books April 26th 2019 in paperback and ebook...Buy Now
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