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Philippa Gregory in Person

Writing.ie | Magazine | Special Guests | Women’s Fiction

By Hazel Gaynor

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Philippa Gregory is the best-selling author of over twenty novels and has been writing for thirty years. Her best-known novel The Other Boleyn Girl was adapted for both the big and small screen and she recently announced a ten-part serialisation of her Cousins’ War series of novels for the BBC. Her current novel, The Kingmaker’s Daughter, is the fourth book in that series.

Hazel Gaynor, a huge Philippa Gregory fan, met her while she was in Dublin for the recent Mountains to Sea Festival. Here’s what happened when Hazel met Philippa.


Meeting Philippa Gregory is, for me, a bit like meeting a member of the royal family, such is the command she has over historical fiction at the moment. What she doesn’t know about the Tudors – and now the Plantagenets – quite probably isn’t worth knowing! Elegant, witty and incredibly passionate about her writing and about history, Philippa Gregory is every inch the professional author. Currently promoting her new novel, The Kingmaker’s Daughter, which is the latest in the Cousins’ War Series, about the Wars of the Roses, there is much to learn from her.

The heroine of Philippa’s current novel is Anne Neville, the daughter of the Kingmaker, the Earl of Warwick. Philippa explains a little of the background to the novel. ‘Anne starts out in the novel as a pawn to her incredibly powerful, ambitious father who has plans for her to be crowned Queen of England. But his army are defeated in a terrible battle and Anne is essentially kidnapped and taken into the custody of her brother in law and her sister. Historical tradition states that Anne is rescued by Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who then marries her, but if you look at the timing and detail of her escape, it suggests that she might have done it herself. What I suggest in The Kingmaker’s Daughter is that Anne was a far more active, interesting, courageous, determined woman than history may have portrayed her as.’

Taking commonly-accepted historical opinion, particularly regarding the role of mediaeval women, and showing a different view of what might have happened, is something of a signature style to Philippa Gregory’s writing and is something which fascinates her. ‘In mediaeval history, women have no political right at all. Girls are in possession of their father who hand them over to their husband, usually for their own advantage. If you’re a woman who steps out of line at all, who tries to live her own life, you are a woman of exceptional courage. When you research you can find extraordinary stories of these amazing women. I find them incredibly interesting.’

It is, undoubtedly, Philippa’s rigorous research methods and her keen eye for a great story which have shed new light on relatively unknown historical figures, such as Mary Boleyn, the heroine of The Other Boleyn Girl. She explains, with a glint in her eye, how that particular story came about.

‘I was in the London Library looking up about the Tudor navy and came across a ship called Mary Boleyn. I thought, that’s funny, I’ve never heard of her! So, I looked her up. She actually appears in the footnotes of Henry VIII’s divorce papers, where she is named as a correspondent.’

So, how did she feel when she realised she had discovered this untold story?

‘At first you think, ‘what is this?’ and then you think, ‘why has no one else told this story?’ How can it be stuck in the archives for five hundred years until I think, ‘this is a phenomenal story!’ I think you have to have a little bit of a journalists training; an instinct for a story. Lots of male historians knew about Mary Boleyn, but they weren’t interested in her because she doesn’t do anything interesting if you have a certain viewpoint of history – she has no political power, doesn’t do anything military –she makes no difference to anything. Her story is the story of a private life. I’m a feminist and have a keen interest in women’s history. I’m a micro-historian, interested in private lives. You don’t have to be King of England for me to take an interest in you. I’m interested in ordinary people doing extraordinary things – that, to me, is what history is about. I also think you have to have a sense of family drama – two sisters and one takes the other’s boyfriend – now that’s a story: that’s a novel!’

As an established historian, her passion for history and commitment to historical accuracy are hallmarks of Philippa Gregory’s writing. As she explains, it is the research which provides the solid foundation to all her novels.

‘Research dictates the framework of the novel, so the fictionalisation of it has to be as good as the history. I have been doing this for thirty years now so I have a huge body of historical research behind me. I have an enormous library and notes for every book! With all of that background reading, I know a lot about the Tudors and the Plantagenets, even before I start researching for a specific novel.’

Even with the solid framework of her historical background, Philippa then takes twelve to eighteen months to research each new novel; each new subject. ‘I need to do new research to cover the new characters in each book,’ she explains. ‘People get born in my books – the next generation, which I might not know yet. I need to know, when I am describing them as children, what they go on to do, because I’m going to want to know about them later on. Part of writing a series such as the Cousins’ War Series is building up the cast; the layers of generations.’

Sometimes there is a vast amount of source material available on the subject of Philippa’s novels – Elizabeth I for example. But with her current novel, there was very little source material available on Anne Neville. So how does she craft such an authentic historical novel about an individual there is virtually no historical record of?

‘There was almost nothing, in fact, written about Anne Neville. I always start with the research to understand the life of the individual I am writing about. I realised I would need to know about Anne’s mother and father, the men she married – Edward of Lancaster, of whom there is not much historical record as he died young, and Richard III, for whom there is tonnes of information. I know about Richard’s brothers already because I’ve written about them in my previous novels, so there are some overlaps between my novels.’

‘If there is a period where there is no historical record at all, I research what I think is the most likely thing to have happened. You can speculate about what your characters are doing at that time because every life has its routines. For example, the family might always spend Christmas at Westminster, so I can suggest that they are most likely to be there, even if there isn’t any specific record for a particular year. From years of researching this period of history, I know generally what a mediaeval woman and wife would be doing – and that’s how I fill in the gaps. That’s historical speculation, which every historian does. The only difference is that when you speculate in a historical novel it is called historical fiction.’

Philippa Gregory’s books are known for being full of drama, human dilemma and human emotion. It is therefore interesting to learn that there is very little historical record of how her historical figures actually thought or felt.

‘The real fiction in my writing is how my characters feel; their secrets and their psychological development. We don’t know their actual feelings and thoughts because in that period of history no personal diaries were kept and contemporary historians simply are not interested in people’s inner lives. You won’t get a contemporary historian saying ‘clearly the Queen was unhappy.’ The most you get on someone like Anne Boleyn, for example, is a record that ‘the King and the Queen went hunting and they were merry’. This sums up six months of their relationship where they disagreed, had affairs and fell in love again! It was of no interest, to historians, whether someone was personally happy or not – what really matters, in terms of history, is the progress of an individual’s House or their family’s ambitions to the throne.’

It is the combination of Philippa’s love of history with her gift as a novelist, as a story-teller, which produces such wonderful novels, and really brings the history and the characters to life. ‘You’ve really got a lot of challenges as a novelist to take this true story and make sense of it in such a way that you don’t just tell it, but you shape it,’ she explains. ‘So you decide where you begin and what the novel is about. That’s the essence of ‘historical fiction’ – it is called that because it is both. You have the history, which may be easy or not to research depending on the character, but when the novel really takes off is when you talk about the real person, the person that I imagine is doing all these things. You have the record of what they do, but what they feel is the fiction.’

For many authors writing historical fiction, the biggest challenge is in getting the balance right between the historical information and the need to tell a story. In a fascinating distinction between the history and the fiction in her own writing, Philippa asks the question: ‘What is it about?’

‘If I say I’ve written a history and you ask what it’s about, I say it’s about Anne Neville. If I say I’ve written a novel, one of the answers to ‘what is it about?’ is, Anne Neville, because you want to know the subject, but it is probably about how a woman can define her own life, how she can overcome her circumstances and impose her will upon it, and how she goes about doing that. In a sense, the novel is about something other than the subject.’

Interestingly, for all her success and international acclaim, Philippa Gregory is an author who still aspires to write better.

‘I always want to write like Jane Austen and EM Forster. Every time I start out, I have an ideal that this novel is going to achieve, and I never ever get it exactly how I dream it will be. If I am lucky, I will write a very, very good Philippa Gregory novel. The pleasure of writing is that it gives you something to keep working at. I’m never going to write a Jane Austen novel because I’m not Jane Austen, but I am going to write a Philippa Gregory novel and I can try and make that the best one each time.’

(c) Hazel Gaynor September 2012

Read Part 2 of this interview here.

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