The Friday Slot - author Philippa Gregory




There can be few people who don't know the name Philippa Gregory by now - she is the woman who made the Tudors fresh again and spawned a minor industry in Tudor novels, by way of her superb 2001 novel about Mary Boleyn, sister of Anne, in The Other Boleyn Girl.
I first met Philippa in 2005, when I was asked to interview her for the Herald newspaper. She is a real force of nature - forthright, energetic, curious, hard-working, impeccably researched, passionate about her work. She picked me up from the train station in her blue Porsche and within minutes was quizzing me about my earnings. Not as nosey as it sounds - she used to freelance too, and she told me I had to set down an appropriate rate-per-hour (when she asked me what my hourly rate was, I had no idea...), as she was worried about me and my finances!
She was right to be worried - freelancing is a hard business and money is always tight. Philippa had enough of that struggle early on in her career, and she has worked hard for her success. Another writer I admire just as much is Kate Mosse, another incredibly hard-working writer who manages to fit a million things into her life before breakfast. They're a great example to the rest of us, of what can be achieved beyond writing, too - in 1993, Philippa founded 'Gardens of Gambia', a project providing water for wells in the gardens of rural schools in the Gambia (you can find out more about it here, on her official website: http://www.philippagregory.com/)
But it's Philippa's books I love - I grew up on Jean Plaidy novels, starting them when I was eleven years old, with The Young Elizabeth and The Young Mary Queen of Scots. I recently returned to one of Plaidy's novels and was disappointed by the standard of the writing - perfect for an eleven-year-old, not so much now I'm an adult! Which is where Philippa comes in for me - she is that rare thing, a popular writer who is also a high quality writer, too. Her prose is as clear as Maggie O'Farrell's; her understanding of narrative superb.
Her latest novel, The Kingmaker's Daughter, is the fourth in the 'Cousins War' series that started with The White Queen, continuing through with The Red Queen and The Lady of the Rivers. The series moves away from the Tudor court to the earlier era of the Plantagenets, a family with as much scheming and treachery as the Tudors ever had. It's just been announced that the BBC will be making a ten-part series of The White Queen, which is superb news.

But nothing quite beats the books themselves.  So, with no more preamble, I shall hand over to Philippa to tell us more about them!



LM: How do the Plantagenet women compare to the Tudor women, in terms of power and personality? Why should they have been so forgotten by history when the Tudor women are not? Is there something about their stories that has been harder for us to become involved in?

PG: The Plantagenet women are often commoners, compared to the Tudor princesses, so often they are more exposed to danger and have to work hard to gain or maintain their position. Someone like Elizabeth Woodville makes a tremendous leap upwards to become Queen of England having been the daughter of a country family who supported the defeated House, and the widow of a defeated Lancastrian cavalry commander. Someone like Margaret Beaufort is the daughter of a disgraced war hero and is then married to a man who is half-brother to the king of England - but then finds herself on the losing side. These are two women, that I describe in my novels The White Queen and the Red Queen who challenge the popular conception of what a woman can do and be.

As to the historical record, I think it is very unfavourable to women in almost any period prior to modern times. We know very little about Jane Seymour, for example, and until I wrote about her, we knew almost nothing about Mary Boleyn, and very little about Jacquetta Duchess of Bedford, because at the time, although people could see they had risen to positions of influence, they were never people of power - power was exclusively male - and the historians were exclusively male too.

I think when the lives of these distant women are researched and presented in a lively way they become very accessible to the modern reader - certainly I see my Plantagenet books attracting a readership quite as numerous as my Tudor novels.



LM: Do you find it easier to write about a royal life from the point of view of an outsider, like Hannah in The Queens Fool? Or do you prefer to relate the tale straight from the royal's mouth (as it were!), like Katharine of Aragon in The Constant Princess?

PG: The choice of a fictional character (though she is loosely based on a real person) for Hannah was a way to get across three reigns from the point of view of one observer. She also gave me a character that I came to love, and an amazing insight into Elizabethan Jewish history which, when I was researching for the book, was all-but unknown. Only one historian had researched the history of the Jews in Elizabethan England, and his book was published by a specialist house and had been long out of print. So by creating a character it happened that I gave myself great difficulties of research, and this made creating Hannah far harder than writing about someone like Katherine of Aragon.

Katherine was born a princess and as such at least history has her birth dates and an outline of her early life and there is a lot of research on her parents and her circumstances. Her arrival in England is well recorded, and her life thereafter was controversial so there are a lot of documents about her. But with both her and Hannah, the art of the novelist is taking the outline of a life (whether fictional or historical) and imagining it so vividly that it can come to life for the reader. This is the same work whether the outline of the character is dictated by history or has been created by me - in both instances I have to make a character - either imagined or recorded - come alive.


LM: I learned history when I was young, not from school, but from reading Jean Plaidy novels. There must be a generation of young girls now getting their history lessons from Philippa Gregory books. Are you mindful of this? Does it make you want to skew the history for their benefit, give out a certain message that they can relate to? Do you find historical characters that we have less information about, easier to conjure up on the page?

PG: I am very well aware that many young readers are getting most if not all of their history of this period from my novels, they come up to me at reader events and tell me this! I am very happy to be the means that people come to study. An amazing number of people (mature and young) tell me that they have gone on from my books to read literature, or to read history, and some of them have even gone on to study history at college or university.

This prompts me to make sure that my books are based on history and that I cite my sources at the back of the books so people can easily read the history books that I have consulted. I also write and publish historical essays. It makes me write an author's note for every book explaining where the fiction or the historical speculation has to fill in the gaps of the known history, but I don't 'skew the history' to interest the readers. For me, one of the strengths of what I study is that it is hugely interesting to me and, I hope, to the readers also, without any tweaking. The history is often far more interesting than anything that I would invent.

If there is a message from all the books it would only be my view of the world: that the stories of women are of interest, that courageous and able women can be our role models.


LM: Where do you plan to go after the Plantagenets? Would the Georgian era appeal to you (thinking of all their wives and mistresses!)?

PG: My PhD covers the years 1760 to 1801 so it's a period that I know and love, and of course my first book Wideacre was set in this period. I think it an extraordinarily interesting time but I can't predict what I want to write next. I will continue writing my series Order of Darkness which is set in Europe in 1493, but more than that, I don't know yet.

 

Comments

  1. It's nice to see another author with a PhD writing novels. I had to check where is Gambia. A little country in Western Africa. It's really nice that Philippa Gregory is raising money for people there to have fresh watet. Best wishes with all her novels.

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