A Leader in the Field: A Profile of Historical Novelist Margaret George

Margaret George has been one of the leading authors of historical fiction since the publication of her first novel, The Autobiography of Henry VIII  (St. Martin’s, 1986).  Her body of work is amazing, and few authors in the historical fiction world have produced such consistently memorable novels, featuring a great variety of larger-than-life historical and legendary figures.  George’s novel about Henry VIII, which portrays the king sympathetically, from his first-person point of view, taking the reader inside his head, was followed by the equally fascinating novels Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles (St. Martin’s, 1992), The Memoirs of Cleopatra (St. Martin’s, 1997), Mary, Called Magdalene (Viking, 2002), Helen of Troy (Viking, 2006), and Elizabeth I (Viking, 2012).  Her latest two novels, The Confessions of Young Nero (Berkley, 2017) and The Splendor Before the Dark (Berkley, 2018), portray Nero as an artist and a misunderstood figure, far from the mad tyrant of legend.

Her Nero books were particularly eye-opening to me, since I, and I’m sure many of us, have an image in my mind of the cruel, mad emperor, responsible for the burning of Rome, and playing his lyre while the city burned.  This picture of Nero  has been shaped by Peter Ustinov’s performance in Quo Vadis.  As she did with Henry VIII, George has told Nero’s story largely from his point of view, with brief chapters narrated by his first love, Acte, and the poisoner Locusta.  I found Locusta’s chapters particularly entertaining.  George’s narrative creates a portrait of a Nero who is, while by no means perfect, certainly deserving of the reader’s sympathy.  Many readers can even find something in his character with which to identify.

“Nero in real life was a surprisingly modern person,” George explains, “the only Roman emperor who seemed to share concerns we have today, making a search for personal fulfillment and self expression his goal in life.  In that he was like people you probably know—and maybe yourself—who want to be an actor, a musician, a writer, but are told by either your parents or society that you need to go to law school instead.  So that was my initial attraction to Nero—I saw a kindred spirit in him.”

According to George, Nero did not really want to be emperor.  He loved being an artist.  Once he became emperor, he was very popular, at least with the common people.  But it was the aristocrats who wrote about him, contributing to his reputation as a madman and tyrant.

“Surprisingly, Nero’s ambition was not to become emperor, but his mother Agrippina had that goal for him,” George says. “She managed to get her son, a great great grandson of Augustus, the emperorship when he was only 16. He had had a childhood full of psychological shocks—today child protective services would have taken him away from Agrippina—and in self-defense had constructed another identity for himself where he could retreat:  that of an artist.

author Margaret George in Alexandria

“He was serious about his music, training very hard and becoming skilled on the cithara, a virtuoso instrument played by Apollo.  Once he became emperor, the arts provided his respite.  Like all artists, he wanted an audience and feedback on his performances, so he shocked patrician Rome by performing on stage for the public. This is the Nero that Peter Ustinov mocked so well.

“The common people, however, loved him.  But it was the aristocrats, the senators and nobles, who wrote his history, and could see him only as inept, frivolous, and scandalous.”

These hostile accounts of Nero were written in the second and third centuries C.E., long after his death.  Contemporary favorable accounts of his life and reign have not survived, and so Nero came to have the reputation he does today.  Modern historians have studied his reign and concluded that, as George says, “He did get a bum rap. But since Suetonius said he had ‘a craving for immortal fame’ he can take some consolation in that ‘Nero’ is a household name, when most of the other 55 Roman emperors are forgotten.”

Many of George’s protagonists, like Nero, are tragic and short-lived.  When I asked her how she chooses her protagonists, and what attracts her to them, she said, “My characters seem to choose me, almost as if they are commissioning me to tell their story, as usually their popular image is at odds with who they really were.  The one thing they all have in common is that they led operatic lives.  All were tragic figures, as operatic figures must be. Most of them didn’t live very long— no happy endings here, although some had happier endings than others. Nero died at 30 and Cleopatra at 39, both by suicide. Mary Queen of Scots died at 44 on the scaffold.”

One exception to this is Elizabeth I, the ultimate survivor: “Elizabeth had the best luck of all these people, but probably because she had the most self control, which is the best defense against tragedy.”  But George also sees Elizabeth as the most challenging of her protagonists, precisely because of that need to be in control. “[Elizabeth] was so self-possessed, to the extent that Sir Dudley Digges, Master of the Rolls in the generation after Elizabeth, said, ‘For her own mind, what that really was, I must leave, as a thing doubly inscrutable both as she was a woman and a queen.’ And Elizabeth wanted it that way—another form of control.  So trying to get to know her, as I did her father Henry VIII—whose thoughts and personality were on display—was a challenge.”

Elizabeth’s love life, or possible lack thereof, has fascinated many readers.  Over the years, people have come to many different conclusions on the subject, and there is no definitive answer.  As George explains: “Her actions were on record to read, but even they can be interpreted many different ways, so people have been bringing their own vision of her, and projecting it off onto her, for almost 500 years. One example:  Elizabeth’s love life.  Did she have one?  Interpretations of that run the spectrum from frustrated old maid to lusty bed partner of Dudley to a supreme tease who liked courtship but not the conclusion, and used it for political theater, again,—for control. Or, finally, a canny woman who used her virginity to substitute for the vacated niche of the Virgin Mary in poplar worship, and to use as proof that she was married to England itself, with her coronation ring as her wedding ring, and that she would be content to have her tomb read, ‘A Virgin pure until her death.’

George sees Elizabeth’s decision to have Mary Queen of Scots executed as an act resulting from her need for control, and as one that caused her much anguish, even though Elizabeth saw it as necessary to protect England: “Parliament insisted that for the safety of the realm it had to be done, but at the same time, executing an anointed sovereign set a terrible precedent that could come back to haunt her and England.  And it did—62 years later Charles I—only two reigns removed from Elizabeth—was executed by order of Parliament. And the line stretches on and on, to Marie Antoinette more than 200 years after the ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots, with others in between.”

George does a great deal of painstaking research for her novels, as she must while writing about such iconic figures.  But her narratives flow so easily that the reader does not take notice of how much research must have gone into them.  George never sounds like she’s lecturing the reader or giving a history lesson.  The details in her novels make her characters come to life.  About her research, she says: “I do try to do all my research before I start writing. Often when writing I’ll remember some odd little fact that suddenly seems right for a scene, but if I didn’t already know that fact it wouldn’t come to mind.  For example, the fact that Nero’s baths were notorious for the high temperature of the water.  So when I have a scene with him designing the bath he can order that the water be especially hot.  A small thing but it makes the scene more real to me.  Another interesting thing I saw in Rome on ancient tombstones is that they recorded the year, the month, the days, and the very hour of the life.  Wow. I didn’t get to use that, but it gave me an insight into how they viewed a lifespan.”

I asked George about the differences in the publishing industry between the time when The Autobiography of Henry VIII, which is 930 pages long, was published, and today, especially whether it is more difficult to publish a long book today than it was in the 1980s, and, if so, why that is the case.  She replied, “There are so many differences!  A couple of the main ones are that there are so many more books being published now, and it is much harder for any one of them to get noticed.”  The Autobiography of Henry VIII received over 100 newspaper reviews, which George says is hard to imagine today.  She also notes the decline of book tours, and attention to authors in the media, in recent years. “When The Memoirs of Cleopatra came out, book tours were in full swing, and authors on tour got a lot of attention, on local and national TV and in big feature articles in newspapers.  All that has disappeared. It is very hard for a new author to be discovered now, even though there are more books being published, which theoretically ought to be encouraging but so many stay invisible.

“Another thing I have noticed is the shrinking of the midlevel type of book.  Just as in some towns the neighborhood trattoria has vanished and the choice is now between expensive chef-driven restaurants and Chipotle’s, fiction at least seems to be increasingly either ‘literary’ or ‘genre’, much of the ‘genre’ being short books meant to entertain briefly. If a writer does not fit into either category he/she has difficulty.

“And of course the elephant in the room—digital entertainment, whether social media or streaming video—which competes directly with the written word.  I read that children now spend seven hours a day on screen, and that’s not counting time online related to homework.”

Because many publishers impose word-count limitations on first-time authors, it is much more difficult today than it was in the 1980s to get a long book published: “Although some established writers are grandfathered on length, as an unknown today writing Henry VIII I wouldn’t get the privilege of the 930 pages.”

George has been deeply involved in the historical fiction community over the years, and she has been a member of the Historical Novel Society since 2009.  She praises the organization, saying that, at the third conference in Schaumburg, IL, “I discovered a world of writers like me!  I’ve been to every conference since then in the U.S. and several in the U.K.  I’ve made many friends and learned a great deal about the field in general.

“Founding the HNS was a welcome move, because we didn’t have an organization of our own like the crime or romance writers.  It has certainly helped us to have a tangible presence and identity in the book world.”

When I asked her if she noticed a difference in the reputation of historical fiction between the time she joined the Historical Novel Society and today, she said: “It doesn’t hurt that famous writers like Hillary Mantel have been writing wildly successful historical novels.

“I think historical novels, and the perception of them by the public, has changed.  The rise of ‘women’s historical romance’ in the 1970s caused the entire field to be regarded as fluff for a long time.  But we have slowly emerged from that, in no small part because the level of research and writing has risen so much since then, and because of an increased interest in history by the public.  People who don’t want a scholarly tome still like to learn history through drama and storytelling, so our field has had a resurgence, upping our respectability factor.”

George has the following advice for aspiring authors of historical fiction: “Besides the usual advice about being persistent, believing in what you are doing, and looking at the big picture, I would say to analyze carefully what is selling today and try to find something that would not be at complete odds with that. But, if you could find a subject or person you feel has been overlooked but would arouse interest, that’s a good path to pursue.  Especially there are a lot of women who did fascinating things, just waiting to be discovered.  This is the time they—and maybe you?—-have been waiting for.”

That is excellent advice, from one of the leaders in the field.  I am certainly looking forward to finding out who her next protagonist is going to be.

For more about Margaret George and her novels, including more details about her research and writing process, visit her website.


About the contributor: Vicki Kondelik is a cataloger at the University of Michigan’s Graduate Library, and edits their blog, Lost in the Stacks.  She is working on a novel about Beatrice Cenci.

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