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Them’s Fightin’ Words

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June 27, 2013 by kristin

harperlee2

The Saturday night banquet at the Historical Novel Society conference was a mostly uneventful affair – mahi mahi, scrumptious cheesecake, costume pageant, sex scene reading. You know, your average Saturday night.

But there was one prolonged moment of controversy that continued to echo the next day in the lobby, airport, and on Twitter as we all traveled home.

The keynote speaker at the banquet was Steve Berry, a historical thriller author with a newly released book on Queen Elizabeth I. He said he got the idea from a legend that Elizabeth actually died at age 12 and was replaced with a boy in drag so the king wouldn’t get mad her caretakers had let Elizabeth kick the bucket. Little did they know, Elizabeth would become queen and they’d have to keep up the ruse FOREVER. 

Now, this theory makes zero sense in about seven million different ways. A. Why would they pick a girl and not a boy if they were doing to do this? MAKES NO SENSE. B. Royal kids died all the time. Why would this time be so different and require a cover-up? C. Since when do royals have ANY privacy whatsoever, especially in the 16th century? How would they have kept her supposed male gender secret all that time? D. I’m not even bothering to list any more reasons, because duh.

Still, I get why such legends intrigue people. And I don’t fault Steve Berry for writing about it. He’ll probably be successful, especially with our current conspiracy theory-lovin’ culture.

But where he lost me was when he listed “she was a good ruler” as one of the pieces of “evidence” Elizabeth was a man. Oh really? No wait, oh REALLY? Dude, you’re talking to a room of writers and history buffs, 90 percent of whom are women. This is the wrong place to try that assertion.

Some of the women at my table got up and left. The ones at the next table rolled their eyes dramatically with every statement and slipped out two at a time. I followed after, curious to hear the scuttlebutt in the lobby. Out there, a contingent stood in a huddle and vehemently discussed why it was all a lot of nonsense, and why Steve Berry’s “let me educate you poor naive saps” delivery was a smidge (or a lot, depending on who you asked) offensive.

Now, I wasn’t particularly angry at ol’ Steve. He was wearing his persona and trying to sell his theory and therefore his book. Whatev. And when I questioned other writers about it the next day, most were a bit mystified that there’d even been a controversy.

But I completely understand why certain writers among us were up in arms about it. I feel similar ire when people bring up the rumor that Truman Capote actually wrote Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s essentially the same story as the Elizabeth legend – take a woman who accomplished something huge, and claim a man did it instead.

The only supposed “evidence” of this is that Harper Lee and Truman Capote were friends; he was a well-known writer, and she wasn’t; and Harper Lee never wrote another novel.

Lame, lame, and more lame. A. Don’t all writers have writer friends? Does that mean we’re all letting each other claim our work as their own, especially if it’s Pulitzer quality work? B. Debut novelists are published every day. C. Harper Lee is a deeply private individual who didn’t enjoy the storm of attention her book’s success brought. Also, maybe she felt too much pressure to create another “great” novel. How does one follow To Kill a Mockingbird, for goodness sake? I’d be terrified.

Now for me, as a Southern woman writer, born and raised (mostly) in Alabama, Harper Lee is MY Elizabeth I. I’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird more times than I can count and watched the movie several times, too, and I cry every time Scout realizes it’s Boo Radley in the corner.

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the books that helped make me who I am, a person who makes a point to talk to the Boo Radleys of the world, and believes girls don’t have to wear dresses to be girls, and knows doing the right thing is worth doing even if you’re going to lose.

So if you try to tell me Harper Lee didn’t write To Kill a Mockingbird, just know “them’s fightin’ words,” just like if you tell a Tudor buff Elizabeth I was a man. I’m a sweet li’l Southern girl, but attack one of my own, and you might end up like Bob Ewell, shanked with your own knife … verbally, of course.


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About Kristin

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Kristin L. Walters is the author of YA historical novel THE GIRL IN LILAC AND GRAY. She blogs about writing, Southern women's history, Victorian photographs, old houses and vintage fashion.

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