MNC Book Report: Hampton Court, Simon Thurley

I slacked off on the research reading while moving, and then ended up halfway through several books at once, but I’ve finished the relevant portion of this one, so back we go to the book reports.

I picked it up on the recommendation of Alden Gregory, who gave me a tour of Hampton Court Palace; he called it the definitive book on the place, and I believe it. Which means that it really isn’t the sort of thing you want to read unless you have a specific need; the detail is fabulous, but only when there’s a specific application for it. (Even I ignored some of the information, like how much was spent on renovations and upkeep in a given year, except insofar as it helps give me a better sense of what a pound was worth back then.)

Alden photocopied for me the chapters that covered Elizabeth’s time, but I ended up checking the entire book out so I could read the preceding chapters. Hampton Court is one of those buildings that has been added to and remodeled and restored over a period of hundreds of years; my notes from my tour are a confusing jumble of details I couldn’t build into a coherent picture. (Frex, though I remembered where Alden said Elizabeth had most likely stayed when using the palace, I didn’t know why she was there, or what it meant when the photocopied chapters said she probably used the same quarters her father did, but that they don’t know what she did with the queen’s side; which bits of the building were that?) So I started more or less at the beginning, with Daubeney’s small manor house, and followed it through Cardinal Wolsey’s modifications, then the extended building spree of Henry VIII, and then finally the few changes made in Elizabeth’s time.

This took quite a while, because I was constantly flipping back and forth between the architectural plans of the different stages, making sure I was oriented, keeping track of where the new stuff went in and where things were rebuilt. But the end result is that now I can look at the Elizabethan floorplan and know what everything is, more or less, which I couldn’t do when it was presented to me as a finished product. The building is a palimpsest of earlier periods; I had to go through it chronologically to understand.

And this is relevant because, even when I’m writing scenes not at Hampton Court, my understanding of the architecture there affects my understanding of the period in general. I now grok the pattern of watching chamber, presence chamber, chamber of estate, privy chamber, bedchamber, and so on, and what those meant for how court life functioned; I know the function of galleries, and the processional route to the chapel; I have an idea of how much living space would be granted to courtiers high-ranking enough to be in residence. Even if I don’t know the precise details of how these things were laid out at Greenwich or Richmond or Whitehall, the important thing is that I understand how that stuff worked.

Which means that I’m less likely to write the Elizabethan period as if it were the modern era in ruffs. And that, ultimately, is the goal.

0 Responses to “MNC Book Report: Hampton Court, Simon Thurley”

  1. strangerian

    That sounds like a lot of work in the reading, but definitely worth it. The feel for the period in that kind of detail is priceless.

    I think Dunnett may have taken it *too* far in a few instances, but if you take her as a lodestar, you will be drawn true…

    • Marie Brennan

      Yet at the same time, I can spot a few places where she’s being anachronistic. Someone — I forget who — has already argued in comments that her characters have more of an Enlightenment-era mindset, and she uses words/concepts (e.g. “genetics,” “sadism”) that won’t exist for another few hundred years.

      Don’t get me wrong; she’s damn good with her period detail. But it’s reassuring to know she isn’t perfect.

      • strangerian

        Too true, that nobody’s really perfect. I’d agree that there’s some slippage toward 20th-century thinking, by way of 18th on occasion. Some passages in Pawn struck me as very noticeable even on first reading, but specifics escape me at the moment. It may be something to discuss later.

        Good luck with the manuscripting, in any case.

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