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Elizabeth I in pop culture, Uncategorized

Did Elizabeth have more than just “the heart and stomach of a king”? Part III, or “The Danger of (Only) Supposing in Non-Fiction”

Famous Imposters, by Bram Stoker

Famous Imposters, by Bram Stoker

By 1909, Bram Stoker was twelve years removed from the publication of Dracula. In the time in-between, he wrote numerous fictional and non-fiction works. Both of these genres influenced his writing of Famous Imposters, a fact he readily admitted in his preface:

The author…whose largest experience has lain the field of fiction, has aimed at dealing with his material as with the material for a novel, except that all the facts given are real and authentic. (v)

The disclaimer made, Stoker moved into tales of pretenders and magicians, witches and clairvoyants, women who posed as men, and other hoaxes. The best, however, he saved for last: the legend of “the Bisley Boy,” a young boy who was supposedly tapped to play the Princess Elizabeth when, as a young child, she died of a sudden illness. Wishing to avoid Henry VIII’s wrath, Elizabeth’s protectors could only find a boy to serve as her decoy, and it was a role he fulfilled until the end of his life. Stoker clearly meant for the theory that Elizabeth I was really a man to take precedence within the book. The first page cover art was an image of Elizabeth as a princess, and Stoker took care in his preface to note that if the rumor was true, “its investigation will tend to disclose the greatest imposture known to history; and to this end no honest means should be neglected” (ix). From here, Stoker faced the task of making a case where “the difficulty of proof is almost insuperable” (297). He took comfort in the fact, however, that he was “dealing with a point not of law but of history” (297). “Proof,” he explained, “is not in the first instance required, but only surmise, to be followed by an argument of probability” (297). Stoker also conceded, that “Our risk is that if we err….we reverse our position and become ourselves the object of attack” (298). Yet he continued onward to theorize about the date the Bisley boy replaced Elizabeth, careful to note that the first part of his study was only written

to consider possibilities. Later on the time may come – as it surely will; if the story can in the least be accepted – for the consideration of probabilities. Both of these tentative examinations will lead to the final examination of possibility, of probability, and of proof pro or contra. (310)

From this point, however, Stoker’s work began to be colored by his experience in writing novels. The invitation to the reader to “let us suppose” became an ever-present conjecture – which is an excellent way to write a novel. Indeed, all good fiction rests on those three words – it propels the story, gives characters depth, and, in a compelling work of fiction, leaves its readers weeping when injustice is foisted upon the protagonist and cheering when the hero stands victorious over her enemies.

In the fictional world, the comfort of supposing is seldom interfered with. For example, let us suppose that Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, had sex with her brother. Let us suppose she had an opportunity to be alone with him. Let us suppose she had to produce a child with someone (anyone!) or she was in very possible danger of losing her head. If we keep on supposing, it is easy to never stop the process of supposing – supposing is like a can of Pringles potato chips: once you pop, you can’t stop. Except…at some point, if what you are writing is truly a piece of non-fiction, you must ask, “I have supposed that x could have happened. But what evidence is there that makes what I have supposed improbable?”

We can’t and shouldn’t fault fictional authors for supposing – what a dreary literary world that would be! But as readers, when we have been told by the author that what we are reading is meant to be a non-fictional argument, we should be wary of the attraction of “let us suppose” unless the attractive and unattractive qualities of what have been supposed have also been weighed by the author. And for those of us who do write fiction, we should be careful that our desire to sell books doesn’t allow us to present what we suppose as clear fact.

Work cited: Stoker, Bram. Famous Imposters. New York: Sturgis and Walton Company, 1910.


3 thoughts on “Did Elizabeth have more than just “the heart and stomach of a king”? Part III, or “The Danger of (Only) Supposing in Non-Fiction”

  1. Excellent piece. The points about Stoker are right on target. After all, we are talking about a man who was keenly alive to drama — who took the historical figure of V;lad the Impaler and turned him into a Very Gothic Vampire who could turn into a wolf, scale walls, etc.

    Posted by T. J. Banks | June 26, 2013, 8:54 am
  2. I have not yet read the latest Steve Berry novel “The King’s Deceit”, but it’s mentioned rather strongly in reviews that much of the plot revolves around the ‘Bisley Boy’ legend. I find it a very exciting prospect reading this book, but also the interview that Elaine Charles host of the Book report radio show has lined up with Steve Berry this weekend. Reason being that I listened in on an interview she had with Berry almost a year ago regarding his then new book “The Columbus Affair”, in which there were also many startling historical reflections. To catch the interview, or like me, the archived version, go to the show’s site; bookreportradio dotcom.

    Posted by Rosie | July 18, 2013, 11:24 am

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