Anne Boleyn, Donizetti, and Fact & Fiction
Most historical fiction takes some liberties with the historical record, from the minor to the sweeping. I try to be accurate but inevitably in developing plots that feature real and fictional characters and combine real and historical fictional events, one is putting real historical figures in situations that are not part of the historical record and filling in the blanks that aren’t known. In Vienna Waltz, I imagined what might have happened behind closed doors between Tsarina Elisabeth and her former lover Adam Czartoryski. They may well have actually resumed their affair, as they do in my novel. They certainly weren’t embroiled in the investigation into the murder of my fictional Princess Tatiana Kirsanova, as they also are in the book.
I recently wrote a blog for the Merola Opera Program about the historical reality (and unreality) behind Gaetano Donizetti’s opera Anna Bolena. It’s a history post as much as an opera post, so I thought it would be fun to rework it here, with a bit more emphasis on m perspective as an historical novelist. Anna Bolena, which premiered in 1830 tells the story of Anne Boleyn. Every historical novelist has to decide at what point in the historical tapestry of events to begin the story. The opera’s libretto by Felice Romani, based on Ippolito Pindemonte’s Enrico VIII ossia Anna Bolena and Alessandro Pepoli’s Anna Bolena, begins with Enrico (Henry) and Anna already married and glosses over Henry’s desperation for a male heir which led to him divorcing his first wife Catherine of Aragon (not to mention breaking away from the Catholic Church) and the political machinations of Anne’s family which also played a role in throwing the two of them together.
When the opera opens, Enrico’s interest has already turned to Giovanna (Jane) Seymour, one of Anna’s ladies-in-waiting in the opera, as she was in real life. Anne’s former betrothed was named Henry (Harry) Percy, not Ricardo (Richard) Percy as in the opera. The change was perhaps to avoid confusion with King Henry. The tendency of a name to be used over and over in an historical era can cause all sorts of problems for the historical novelist. I’ve never actually changed a name, but I have used nicknames to help differentiate.
In real life, Percy and Anne wanted to marry and may have had a pre-contract. In the opera Percy claims they did, saying he and Anna were married in the sight of God. In the opera, Enrico pushes Anna and Percy together and Anna’s downfall comes about when she and Percy are caught in a seemingly compromising situation. In reality, though Henry or at least his agents may well have manipulated the accusations of infidelity against Anne to bring about her downfall, Percy was actually not one of the men with whom she was accused of adultery.
Musician Mark Smeaton was accused of adultery with Anne, as in the opera, and falsely confessed to the crime. In the opera he does so in the mistaken belief it will save Anna’s life. In reality, Smeaton probably confessed under torture. He was executed in real life, as he is in the opera. Anne was also accused of infidelity with her brother George, Lord Rochefort, as she is in the opera. In the opera. Rochefort and Percy are pardoned but choose to die with Anna. In reality, Rochefort was executed. Percy in fact, served on the jury at Anne’s trial, though he is said to have collapsed at the guilty verdict or perhaps before the vote was taken.
The opera ends with Anna going mad and going to her execution as Henry VIII and Giovanna Seymour are married. Henry and Jane Seymour’s marriage actually took place 11 days after Anne was beheaded, and the historical Anne was in fact remarkably stoic through out her trial and execution. Of all the changes, this one probably bothers me the most, because to me it weakens the strength the historical Anne displayed through crisis and tragedy. As an historical novelist, I will change a date here and here and put historical figures in fictional situations, but I try to stay true to the spirit of the actual person. I embroiled Talleyrand in fictional intrigues in Vienna Waltz, but I thought carefully about how far I thought it might go given his many real life intrigues.
How much does historical accuracy matter to you? What are some changes in historical fiction that you find particularly memorable for good or ill? Writers, how do you approach fictionalizing historical events?