Philippa Gregory

History as fiction and as history

by Nick Owchar

Los Angeles Times (MCT)

10 January 2012


LOS ANGELES — The publication of two books this season by Philippa Gregory gives us not only two more fascinating portraits of the English Wars of the Roses, it also opens a window onto the way the bestselling author of “The Other Boleyn Girl” applies her craft. “The Women of the Cousins’ War” (Touchstone: 342 pp., $26) — written with historians David Baldwin and Michael Jones — is a work of nonfiction about the lives of Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV; Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII; and Elizabeth’s mother, Jacquetta, duchess of Bedford (the section on Jacquetta is written by Gregory).

Gregory’s other book, “The Lady of the Rivers” (Touchstone: 453 pp., $27.99), is a novel about Jacquetta’s early life.

I caught up with Gregory during her book tour in the following email exchange:

Q. “The Lady of the Rivers” and “The Women of the Cousins’ War” comment on each other in a fascinating way. Did you intend to show readers how writing history and historical fiction differ?

A. I didn’t have anything like a grand idea of demonstrating how the two are different, though as I was writing them alongside each other, I found I was thinking about the differences all the time as I was experiencing them. Of course, now that you say it, I see that the reader will have a parallel experience to mine as they move from the factual to the fictional and perhaps back again.

Q. What did you learn in the process of writing about the same life twice?

A. What became really clear to me was how much the history (just like a novel) is a process of selection of facts based on the interest and prejudices of the historian. We all know that history is subjective, but it was a very powerful experience for me to see how the material that struck me as important for understanding the historical character was exactly the material that struck me as interesting as a novelist.

The other thing that really struck me is the difference in the language used by the author. Often the scenes in the history and the fiction are identical but the descriptions are different. The fictional scene uses far more active, interesting verbs, and is designed to evoke emotion in the reader. It’s written with an eye to lyricism of language, and even how the paragraphs look on the page. Ideally, the novel is a thing of beauty. The history is more restrained and dry. I suspect that as readers we confuse coolness with accuracy and that we all think that detachment is “scientific.”

Q. An absence of specific historical information allows you to place your 15th century heroine Jacquetta in “Lady” in the company of Joan of Arc. It must have been thrilling to realize they may have met.

A. I had a bit of a hurrah moment when I discovered that the man who arrested Joan of Arc and released her to her death at the hands of the English was Jacquetta’s uncle. At the time of Joan’s arrest, we don’t know where Jacquetta was living, but she may well have been staying at her uncle’s chateau. We have sound historical accounts of the women of Jacquetta’s family befriending Joan; Jacquetta’s aunt and great-aunt were named by Joan at her trial as women who had befriended her. So there is a terrific connection there.

Q. The spirit of Joan of Arc hovers over Jacquetta’s entire life. Not just the accusations of witchcraft that both faced, but also Joan’s belief in the Wheel of Fortune. How did you come to find that this symbol applied to Jacquetta’s life?

A. In Jacquetta’s lifetime all playing cards carried the symbols that we now think of as belonging to the Tarot pack, so I knew she would have been familiar with them. She stood trial as a witch and evidence was produced of her “charming” the marriage of her daughter and son-in-law. I think it very likely that she tried to influence events by what she would have thought was magic. I studied the Tarot and thought that the Wheel of Fortune was a magnificent symbol for her but even more for Margaret of Anjou, who was Queen of England and France and died penniless in exile.

Q. You’re trained as a historian with a doctorate from the University of Edinburgh. What made you decide to be a novelist?

A. This is one of those serendipitous turns in the road. I wanted to be an academic but when I finished my PhD in 1984 there had been terrible cuts to 18th century courses in the English universities and I could not get a job. As I applied for posts, I wrote my first novel, almost as entertainment for myself. I sent it to an agent, she sent it out to publishers, they held an auction and it became a bestseller: “Wideacre.” It’s an extraordinary story of luck, timing and the right book.

Q. Why do audiences never tire of reading about the Tudors?

A. I think there is something pleasurable about the retelling of material that one knows. It’s familiar and yet each time it’s fresh. There are elements in the Tudor period which speak to so many people: those who are fascinated by Elizabeth or in love with Mary Queen of Scots, those who have an interest in the complex woman who was Anne Boleyn, not to mention her less-known sister Mary. Then there is the period itself, a time when England was becoming England and making the myths that we now recognize. For historians, it’s a wonderful period of change; for the general reader, it’s very rich; and for the novelist, there is so much to discover. I am working on the Plantagenet family who preceded the Tudors for the next few novels, but I feel certain that I will return to the Tudors at some time. They go on fascinating me as well as everyone else.

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