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Transcript: Tracy Chevalier on Finding The Story Inside The Painting at TED Conference

This painting made me stop in my tracks for three reasons: One is the disconnection between his mouth that’s smiling and his eyes that are wistful. He’s not happy, and why isn’t he happy? The second thing that really attracted me were his bright red cheeks. He is blushing. He’s blushing for his portrait being made! This must be a guy who blushes all the time. What is he thinking about that’s making him blush? The third thing that made me stop in my tracks is his absolutely gorgeous doublet — silk, gray, those beautiful buttons. And you know what it makes me think of, is it’s sort of snug and puffy; it’s like a duvet spread over a bed.

I kept thinking of beds and red cheeks, and of course I kept thinking of sex when I looked at him, and I thought, is that what he’s thinking about? And I thought, if I’m going to make a story, what’s the last thing I’m going to put in there? Well, what would a Tudor gentleman be preoccupied with? And I thought, well, Henry VIII, okay. He’d be preoccupied with his inheritance, with his heir. Who is going to inherit his name and his fortune? You put all those together, and you’ve got your story to fill in that gap that makes you keep coming back.

Now, here’s the story. It’s short.


I am still wearing the white brocade doublet Caroline gave me. It has a plain high collar, detachable sleeves and intricate buttons of twisted silk thread, set close together so that the fit is snug. The doublet makes me think of a coverlet on the vast bed. Perhaps that was the intention. I first wore it at an elaborate dinner her parents held in our honor. I knew even before I stood up to speak that my cheeks were inflamed. I have always flushed easily, from physical exertion, from wine, from high emotion.

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As a boy, I was teased by my sisters and by schoolboys, but not by George. Only George could call me Rosy. I would not allow anyone else. He managed to make the word tender. When I made the announcement, George did not turn rosy, but went pale as my doublet. He should not have been surprised. It has been a common assumption that I would one day marry his cousin. But it is difficult to hear the words aloud. I know, I could barely utter them.

Afterwards, I found George on the terrace overlooking the kitchen garden. Despite drinking steadily all afternoon, he was still pale. We stood together and watched the maids cut lettuces. “What do you think of my doublet?” I asked.

He glanced at me. “That collar looks to be strangling you.”

“We will still see each other,” I insisted. “We can still hunt and play cards and attend court. Nothing need change.” George did not speak. “I am 23 years old. It is time for me to marry and produce an heir. It is expected of me.”

George drained another glass of claret and turned to me. “Congratulations on your upcoming nuptials, James. I’m sure you’ll be content together.” He never used my nickname again.

Thank you.

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