Philippa Gregory on her new YA series Order of Darkness and more…

Jenny Barden

Philippa Gregory is an iconic writer best known for her massively successful Tudor Court series, which began with The Other Boleyn Girl, since adapted for TV and film, and the on-going Cousins’ War series, set amid the intrigue of the Wars of the Roses, now scheduled to be a major TV production. Yet she has written much more than superb fictionalised biographies about key women of the Tudor and Plantagenet eras. She has covered subjects from the slave trade (in A Respectable Trade and its award-winning dramatisation) to gardening during the English Civil War (in Earthly Joys and Virgin Earth), and she has written for children. Her most recent novel Changeling, released on 24 May, represents a further development – the first in a new sequence for Young Adults: Order of Darkness

Philippa Gregory will be opening our Historical Novel Society London 2012 Conference on 29th September. Jenny Barden is Conference Co-ordinator and programme director.

JB: Your Cousins’ War series is not yet complete; the fourth book, The Kingmaker’s Daughter, is due out on 16 August, and there are two more books to follow. But with Changeling you have chosen to switch from fifteenth century England to Italy and from real historical characters to fictional ones in a world of vision, superstition and miracles. What inspired you to make that change – and why Italy?

PG: 1453 was the year of the fall of Constantinople to the victorious armies of the Ottoman Turks who went on to dominate north Africa and penetrate Europe. At the time, people thought it was the end of the world, and so it was a dramatic starting point for an exploration of the signs of the ‘end of days’ commissioned by a secret Papal order – and so Italy – by my hero.

JB: You have described writing Changeling as a liberating experience, but were there any particular challenges you encountered in writing a story aimed at Young Adults, and what did you find most rewarding about the creative journey behind the book?

PG: It was wonderfully freeing because with fictional characters and a fictional story line I was able to write purely as a novelist. The events that they encounter are historically realistic, in that each event is reported happening somewhere in medieval Europe, but the exact events and the response of my Changeling characters is fictional. This meant it was really fast to write and really enjoyable. I didn’t alter my style or in any way fit the story to a young adult reader – I think that would be condescending – I wrote the story that I wanted to write without thinking about the readers, as I always do.

JB: There are several powerful universal themes that thread through Changeling: the conflict between good and evil, sanity and madness, the search for truth and the fear of Armageddon, all against the context of a clash of cultures between Christian and Muslim as Renaissance Europe emerges from the Middle Ages. Heady stuff for YAs! Do you see these themes continuing in future books in the series – and will Luca and Isolde reappear?

PG: This is what the series is about, and is the underpinning reason that I found the novels so interesting to write. The four main characters will go through the series finding their own destiny.

JB: Though Changeling is described as YA, and the Cousins’ War series is patently aimed at an adult readership, there are strong elements of witchcraft present in both, particularly in The White Queen and The Lady of the Rivers of the latter series. Witchcraft seems to hold a special fascination for you as an author – it’s been the springboard behind some of your most beautiful, rich and compelling writing. Can you explain how this fascination or affinity has come about? This is particularly intriguing given the juxtaposition between the bedrock of hard historical fact in much of your fiction and the untrammelled freedom that the introduction of witchcraft allows. Has there been any personal experience which has made witchcraft especially significant to you – and has it been difficult to research?

PG: It’s easy to research witchcraft in the sense that historically there have been a lot of witchcraft trials and accusations, and the church has written against it at length. It’s harder to know what really happened in the villages and in the courts, because these were secret practices. When people are accused and confess under torture, they confess to what the church believes is going on. Like many historians I think what was actually going on was probably different. Witchcraft is a central preoccupation to the medieval world so of course I am bound to write about it and think about it, and in the sense that it covers intuitive thought, unconscious thought, coincidences, synchronicity and wishing, it’s present in every day life. I think every writer of fiction is aware of the working of the unconscious mind and the unseen world – because that is where we do our work.

JB: There’s another potentially controversial and dangerous element which appears again and again in your work – one which must have taken great courage to address – and that’s incest. The issue is integral to some of your most successful work: your first bestselling Wideacre trilogy and the hit novel, adapted for TV and film, The Other Boleyn Girl. Is this daring to engage with a taboo subject one which has come about deliberately or co-incidentally – and why has it, in your view, so caught the public imagination?

That’s an interesting question, I hadn’t put the two books together – but it’s true they both have an incest scene. Wideacre was partly a response to the 18th century novel obsession with incest which I had been thinking about while writing Wideacre as I was completing my PhD in the18th century novel and society. I thought then that the combination of an older brother who was going to be head of the family, and the most important man in a woman’s life, the fact that they were separated at childhood as he went away for his education, the fact that she was encouraged to think about falling in love and yet could meet young men in the most restricted circumstances, but she could be intimate only with a brother (think of the Jane Austen heroines who see the men they are going to marry so seldom and so formally and yet are escorted everywhere by a brother like the Tilneys) all these elements meant that the idea of a lover and a brother came together in the novels – of course we don’t know about real life – but there are some examples of scandalous incestuous affairs. The incest possibility in The Other Boleyn Girl which is only suggested in the novel came from the trial itself when Anne and George were accused of being lovers explicitly, and the witness was Lady Rochford, George’s own wife. So – in both cases – it’s there in the history. It’s not something that troubles me very much, or actually interests me very much – except in the sense that all sins are interesting – I don’t have a brother, so the idea has never occurred personally!

JB: Of your seventeen published historical novels, nine are concerned predominantly with real women of influence in the Plantagenet and Tudor eras whose lives and contributions were (with the possible exception of Elizabeth I) arguably relatively little documented when compared with the powerful men of the period. This focus on significant women of the past is particularly apparent in your most recent books, with The White Queen, The Red Queen and The Lady of the Rivers being about Elizabeth Woodville, Lady Margaret Beaufort and Jacquetta of Luxembourg respectively. Do you see yourself as writing women back into history?

PG: Yes, I do. One of the extraordinary things which has happened since the success of The Other Boleyn Girl is the publication of four biographies of Mary Boleyn who was previously mentioned only as a footnote in the most detailed histories of the Henry divorce. Other biographies of Anne have come back into print, and biographies of Margaret Beaufort and Elizabeth Woodville are available since the success of the novels. In a direct way I think I restore the women to their place in the narrative of history: we should know their names and something of their courageous and extraordinary lives. And by retelling the known stories of other women – like showing Margaret of Anjou or Catherine Howard and Anne of Cleves as sympathetic rounded characters – I think I am restoring their reputations.

JB: The Kingmaker’s Daughter, due out very soon, is the story of Anne Neville and her sister Isabelle, the daughters of ‘the Kingmaker’, Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, who fought first on the Yorkist side (helping Edward IV to gain the throne) and then for the Lancastrians (briefly restoring Henry VI to power). Without a male heir, Warwick’s daughters were ruthlessly exploited as pawns in his power struggles, yet you have portrayed these women as resourceful and much more than tragic victims; could you give some insight as to how you have managed to do that?

PG: It’s been an interesting process. There’s one biography of Anne Neville by historian Michael Hicks which was central to the research, but there’s nothing published about Isabel Neville and not even very much on her husband George. I had to track them through the accounts of the time to even know where they were when important historical events happened, and sometimes I just had to guess that they were at court, or at home. Then, once I had the outline of their lives, I could see women who endured much and persevered, so I thought of them not as victims but as people in their own right who, no doubt, had opinions and ambitions and fears of their own. Both of them were married by their father to men who tried for the throne of England, they must have had an opinion about the chances of becoming queen, they must have been hopeful of victory and frightened in defeat – I can’t know that they felt as I suggest in the novel, but we know that as real people,they must have felt something more complex than simple victimhood. In the case of Anne, I thought it was quite impossible that she should be under house arrest by her sister and then kidnapped and married by Richard without her doing something to bring such an event about. I don’t think he could have stolen her away and then held her for some time without her at least colluding – so that gave me a new version of Anne which differed from the traditional histories and Shakespeare’s Anne as someone who was a simple pawn in Richard’s power struggle. We also have a record of her intense grief at the death of her son, and that she never brought him to court so I conclude that she was a fiercely protective and loving mother – so a passionate woman as well as an active one. From these little clues I built up the character of Anne in my novel and I find it convincing, but of course I can’t say that it is true to life. We don’t have enough documents or accounts of her to know the answer to that.

JB: The next two books in the Cousins’ War series are The White Princess and The Last Rose. The former is said to be about Elizabeth of York, wife of Henry VII and mother of Henry VIII – a fascinating subject. But who will take the lead in The Last Rose – and will there be another series after that?

PG: The White Princess is indeed Elizabeth of York and it opens where The White Queen and The Red Queen left off at the battle of Bosworth – the moment that the world changed for England, and especially for Elizabeth. Of course she goes on to be wife to Henry VII and so mother to Henry VIII. She has an extraordinary life but again there is little written about her personally though she was born a princess and became a queen.

JB: The dramatisation of The Other Boleyn Girl both for TV and major feature film must have contributed to making the novel universally familiar, but there must also have been concerns on your part about the liberties that could be taken in interpretation and the inevitable loss of detail and depth. Did you have any safeguards in place to try and ensure the quality of the adaptations – and how much involvement will you have with the forthcoming TV series based on the Cousins’ War books?

PG: I think the first safeguard is to option the book to a reputable company that shares my view of the importance of the history and fidelity to the novel, and that has been true of all the books that have been adapted. I am very glad to be very close to the making of the new tv series and work on the scripts with the producers and writers. The Other Boleyn Girl tv and cinema release films were made with me as a consultant but not close to the process and of course, in any case a script is a different art form to a novel, and naturally watching a film is going to be a different experience to reading a book. I think that is the nature of an adaptation; but if you are a bookish sort of person (as I am) you almost always prefer the book to the film. Having said that, I think all of the adaptations of my work have been good films and I have enjoyed them – but the book for me is where I can tell the story in my own way, without compromise to anything other than the rules of the novel form, and bring my own particular vision to bear on the history that I have researched.

JB: The HNS is honoured that you will be appearing as Special Guest at the Conference devoted to historical fiction to be held in London, Regent Street, over the last weekend of September at which you will be giving the opening address. Are there any observations you would like to make in conclusion, perhaps with reference to the topics you might touch upon in your talk at the Conference?

PG: I’m very glad that HNS invited me, and very pleased to be there. As I am at the moment writing historical fiction which is dominated by the history, and at the same time writing the Changeling series which is more fiction than history, I have been thinking about the balance of the two and the way that they can both address reality and truth – so I imagine that I will bring these thoughts to the conference.

The Historical Novel Society is grateful to Philippa Gregory for her time spent answering these questions and her support of HNSLondon12.

The questions were put by Jenny Barden (who still has her treasured copy of The Other Boleyn Girl, signed by Philippa Gregory at the preview of the feature film). Jenny’s debut novel (from Ebury, Random House), Mistress of the Sea, will be launched at the conference.

For more about Philippa Gregory please visit her website.

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