I love history that’s so well-told it leads you on to hope for a different ending. Alison Weir is one of my favourite authors, because she’s a master at refashioning dry, historical fact into fallible, fascinating human activity. For history to matter it needs to live all over again in front of you. Reading Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII, these long-dead Tudor royals drew me in with their messy, extravagant, emotional lives – intriguing both in their difference from me and in their recognisable human similarity. I spent a couple of days in knots about the net closing around Katharine of Aragon, and a few more days outraged and miserable when her fate was decided, but I hoped, too, that somehow the King’s mind would be changed, or someone would intervene to restore her to favour. Weir describes Anne Boleyn on Tower Green, looking back towards the palace for a last-minute reprieve, and I thought perhaps a messenger would arrive after all. And then I remembered that this is history, not an invention, and these events weren’t alterable in the slightest by my wishing or by Weir’s telling.
The same went for Jane Campion’s beautiful film about John Keats’ love affair with Fanny Brawne, Bright Star. A rather melodramatic, intense love affair it may have been (he was a twenty-five-year-old Romantic poet with consumption, for heaven’s sake: I think melodrama was a given) but the film itself is quiet and unshowy, letting the story unspool itself without any unnecessary flourishes or intrusive soundtrack. The gorgeous landscape speaks for itself too: there’s an awe-inspiring scene where Fanny (Abbie Cornish) reads a letter in a field of blue flowers that made me want to pause the film to stare and keep staring. And the closing credit sequence, as Ben Whishaw recites the Ode to a Nightingale over a lilting male voice choir, is so captivating I felt there was not room in my head to take in its loveliness. So when Keats dies (off-screen, which is typical of the film’s restraint), and Fanny receives the news and sobs, I sobbed too: angrily, with a fresh raw sense of betrayal that he should have died with such greatness in him, and when they could have been happy together. Silly, really, because pretty much anything to do with Keats’ life was over and done with quite a while ago, and he probably doesn’t mind the dying much now anyway, so what on earth was I crying for. Ah, but it’s all in the telling. Let historians (and directors of period films, of which there are many, and not all of them as good as Campion (Lark Rise to Candleford, I’m looking at you)) take note.