Queen of the historical novel

PHILIPPA GREGORY is best known for The Other Boleyn Girl, her Tudor novel that spawned both a TV series and the 2008 film starring Scarlett Johansson.

It’s a surprise to learn that when that novel appeared in 2002, Philippa had 12 novels under her belt. Five books on, the 55-year-old has now left the Tudors and is tackling the Wars of the Roses. Her first in a planned series, The White Queen, tells of Elizabeth Woodville, a widow from the House of Lancaster who seduces, then marries Edward IV, the reigning king from the House of York.

It speculates on what happened to the princes in the Tower. But that wasn’t the starting point for Philippa.

“I thought of it when I was working on the Other Boleyn Girl,” she says. “I became interested in Catherine of Aragon. So I later wrote The Constant Princess featuring Catherine as a young woman. She arrived in England and was greeted by Henry VII. That made me wonder about his wife, the Princess of York, who was Elizabeth Woodville’s daughter.

“I remember reading that the princess has been engaged to marry her uncle, Richard III, and I thought, ‘that can’t be right’. I couldn’t believe that a princess of England was allowed to get involved in a relationship that was so scandalous at the time, because they were lovers. And Richard had been accused of murdering her brothers, the princes. I thought ‘either she was perverse, or history can’t be right about Richard’. That led to lots of questions.”

It’s a sumptuous and rewarding read, but the history of the time is extraordinarily complex. There are plots and counter-plots, rebellions and battles, with brothers and cousins changing sides causing constant conflict.

“It is the most complicated historical period I have ever set myself,” agrees Gregory. “But that was good fun in a way.

“To bring it alive to me, and I hope, to the reader, it isn’t, in a sense the king and his brother, but it is Edward who you have a picture of, and who you care about. The book is political, but it becomes very personal too.”

Gregory’s study is like an operations room. There’s a map on the wall charting all the battles; there are family trees of all the Plantagenets; there’s a list of all the birthdays, and remainder notes posted everywhere.

“It’s very detailed work. It’s only when I have the research very clear in my mind that it is possible for me to treat the story lightly. It means I can set off on the journey of writing the novel.”

Gregory was an established historian before she began to write.

“I did a PhD in 18th century English literature, and that was the research for the first three novels. It was while I was working on that that I learned how to put novels together. I saw how they worked.”

She has practised journalism too.

“And that’s an excellent training for a writer. It takes off that pretentious view that writing is an art form that comes only from inspiration. You learn, quickly, as a journalist that turning your thoughts into words, and getting them onto the page is an ordinary occurrence. You can do it anytime.

“Writing is a craft. It can be learned and you can train yourself to do it really well. I am conscious, in my novels, of trying to do it better every time.”

It’s a joy, Gregory says, to be writing about history at a time when the emphasis has turned away from men and important events, to show what was happening to women, to working and to marginalised people.

“The women were exerting their own power, behind the scenes.” They certainly were. In Elizabeth Woodville’s case, that involved witchcraft and love potions, along with excessive plotting.

Gregory has a hectic life. She lives on the edge of the north York moors with her third husband, a clutch of step-children and the youngest of her own two children.

Passionate about gardening, she keeps a horse, and spends a lot of time riding and walking. She also runs a charity in Gambia and to date has supplied 140 wells to schools there.

“I hardly ever watch TV,” she says. “I like to work in the evenings and in the early mornings.” Is she easy to live with? “Probably not, because I am obsessive about my work. I never switch off. I can’t cook because I drift off.”

Gregory never envisages her readers.

“For me, the thing is having the material and turning it into the most lively novel that I can write. It is only on publication day when I go out and meet readers that I realise they are there and how many of them there are. Then I realise how much the books mean to them.”


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