It is a little unusual to train as a historian and then turn to writing historical novels, but when British novelist Philippa Gregory was ready to look for a post-doctoral fellowship, Great Britain’s universities had a freeze on these positions. So instead she wrote her first historical novel, “Wideacre,” set in the 18th century. “It was incredibly successful and a worldwide best seller,” she says.
Gregory was not a history buff in high school and intended to study English literature at the University of Sussex in Brighton. That was until she took a class in social history, which she discovered was not about politics and the passing of laws but concerned social trends and movements and the people affected by those. “It was more about the history of common people, of women, of ethnic minorities,” she says, explaining why she switched her major to history.
But when Gregory turned to novel writing, she focused not so much on the common folk as on the landed gentry, and she really came into her own with her seven-book series about the 16th-century Tudor royals.
Gregory’s brand-new book, “The White Queen,” moves one century earlier to begin a series on the 15th-century Plantagenets. In it Gregory treats the rise and fall of the beautiful Elizabeth Woodville, who married Edward IV, transforming Elizabeth from a footnote in the histories of kings into a strong female character.
Gregory speaks about her new book on Tuesday, September 15, at Nassau Presbyterian Church, in an event to benefit Princeton Public Library’s adult fiction collection.
After being widowed when her first husband is killed in battle, Elizabeth, originally of the House of Lancaster, seduces and marries King Edward IV of the House of York. The rivalries between these two families play out in the Wars of the Roses — civil wars with the throne of England as the prize. The intrigues and battles of the Wars of the Roses form the backdrop to Elizabeth’s story.
“The White Queen” follows Elizabeth through her triumphs as reigning queen interspersed with two periods where she has to retreat into sanctuary in fear of her life. After her husband, Edward, dies, her two sons are placed in the custody of his brother, Richard, who becomes King Richard III. He puts them in the Tower of London to keep them safe, but eventually they vanish, their fate unknown. Historians have developed various explanations of who might have been responsible for their disappearance, but none are conclusive.
As a historian treating their disappearance, Gregory had to present history fairly and accurately yet maintain the perspective of her character Elizabeth, which is, by definition, narrow and personal. “I start with the historical facts and stay inside them,” says Gregory in a telephone interview from England. “If I was writing history, I would fill them in with historical speculation and explain the three versions that account for what we know. But since I’m writing through Elizabeth Woodville’s eyes, these are things she has to know. I state what I think is the most likely event as fact and then try to adjust.”
While setting out what she thinks is the most likely scenario in her book, omniscient narrator Gregory shares with her readers Elizabeth’s thoughts as she weighs the events and the motivations of the central players, considering alternative possibilities. She also ends the novel with an author’s note about what is, is not, and might be true.
This novel also gives some support to the saying that fact is stranger than fiction. One aspect of the novel that may appear to the uninitiated to be more fictional than historical is a powerful myth that Gregory entwines in her story. The myth is of Melusina, a water goddess who is half fish and half human. Melusina falls in love with a knight, who does not know her true nature, and she marries him only after gaining his promise that he will not look at her when she takes her private bath. For this is time when she can rest from human travails and return for short periods to her essential mermaidness. Eventually, of course, the knight’s curiosity gets the better of him, he spies on her, and she disappears forever.
Before disappearing Melusina does have children, and “The White Queen” suggests that she bequeathed to some of her descendants the ability to foresee aspects of the future and, when necessary, do a little witchcraft. Elizabeth; her mother, Jacquetta; and her daughter, also named Elizabeth, all seem to have inherited the Sight.
Whereas moderns may be uncomfortable having a myth be such an integral part of a historical novel, the supernatural was part of people’s belief systems during the 15th century. Furthermore, Jacquetta’s ancestors were the counts of Luxembourg — whose actual family tree includes Melusine La Fee as an ancestress. In Gregory’s research for the book, she visited the crumbling ruins of the family’s chateau in Poitiers, whose fate, notes Gregory, fits an old proverb: “If you build a house with fairy workmen then it cannot stand.”
In the novel we also see spells cast by Elizabeth and her mother and daughter. At one point in the story, in an effort to trap the Duke of Buckingham and his conscripts in Wales during a rebellion, daughter Elizabeth apparently uses witchcraft to conjure up a rainstorm that produces a medieval version of Noah’s flood. While the modern reader may experience a disconnect, it turns out that the flood really happened. “The flood is history,” says Gregory, “an amazing flood that curbed and wiped out the rebellion.” Whether we as moderns deem the flood as natural or unnatural, Gregory thinks it likely that Elizabeth would have either cast a spell to bring on the storm or at least said a prayer for the same outcome.
The next book in the planned six-book Plantagenet series will focus on another strong woman, Lady Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII’s mother, who plays a more minor role in “The White Queen.”
Gregory was born in Kenya, where her father flew for Commercial East African Airways as a navigator. At age two she moved to England with her family. She went to high school in Bristol and also attended the National Council for the Training of Journalists course in Cardiff. After high school Gregory worked as a journalist for the Portsmouth News and the BBC, entered the university as a somewhat older student. After getting a bachelor’s degree in history, she moved to the University of Edinburgh to get her doctorate.
For her doctoral dissertation, Gregory set out to prove a thesis by reading 200 18th-century novels. “The theory was that what people read creates an imaginary world — it tells you what they think about the real world and what they want to think about the real world,” she says.
Coming up with a booklist for this project was in itself no mean feat. During the 18th century readers other than the very wealthy usually did not buy books but rather borrowed them from commercial circulating libraries where people paid a fee. Gregory’s first task, therefore, was to find catalogs of these circulating libraries. When she got started only 11 catalogs were known, but she managed to find another 20, and she used them to compile her booklist. She actually based her first novel on this research.
To write “A Respectable Trade,” a novel about the slave trade in the 18th century, Gregory did research in the Gambia, a country in western Africa. While she was there, a chance encounter with the headmaster of a primary school resulted in a long-time social-action commitment for Gregory. He wanted to put in a well and grow vegetables so that the poor children at his school would have something to eat for lunch. “I paid for it,” says Gregory, adding that today Gardens for the Gambia has put in about 140 wells. “It’s made a huge difference,” she says. “With about 600 kids in each school, we’re feeding and teaching agriculture to a lot of kids.”
Gregory got started writing about the English monarchy through her fascination with a 16th-century woman who had an affair with Henry VIII. Thinking she would like to write a novel about the Tudor navy, Gregory had begun doing research when she attended the launch of a ship with the name of Mary Boleyn. Although she had heard of Anne Boleyn, she had no knowledge of Mary. “I started detailed research and discovered an extraordinary character,” she says. “She was Henry VIII’s lover before her sister arrived in court and had two children who were probably his. But she was virtually unknown to history — at most her history was in the footnotes.”
Moved by what she had learned, she decided to write a novel about Mary Boleyn. Gregory observes ironically that Mary’s son was probably fathered by Henry VIII, whose greatest problem in life was producing a son and heir. Her son was even named Henry and might have been Henry IX had things gone differently. Mary was Henry’s lover for five years, but while she was spending the required six weeks in isolation awaiting childbirth, Henry became interested in her sister, Anne Boleyn. The book explores the rivalry between the two sisters and how they had to support each other as well as the rivalry in the court that revolved around the king.
Gregory notes that her Tudor series heightened popular interest in the period, and she hopes her new series will do the same for the Plantagenets. She says she heard recently from a couple of the beefeaters who “guard” the Tower of London and needed to check some facts with her so that they could answer tourists’ questions about her books.
Gregory lives with her family on a small farm in Yorkshire where she keeps horses, hens, and ducks. She has taught at the University of Durham, the Open University, and Teeside Polytechnic.
As a feminist Gregory is interested in women’s history and strong female role models. She is particularly drawn to the women in medieval England who exhibited personal strength despite living in a society that denied them all rights. “Men were absolutely triumphant in living their lives and carving out their lives in this society,” she says.
Gregory freely admits to identifying with some of her characters. “Any writer will say the characters they create always reflect some aspects of themselves,” she says. “It is probably an exaggeration of a characteristic that you have or an imagining of a characteristic that you don’t have.”
Gregory claims that her readers could open any of her novels and recognize a heroine who reflects her interests and prejudices. Her identification with Elizabeth Woodville, she says, is two-fold. “It is her love of her children that I feel and wrote out through her,” says Gregory, “and I like her courage and her determination. When things go disastrously wrong, she is still fighting.”
Women have often been either left out of history, footnoted, or presented in shallow ways. “Some of these women are absolute heroines who are either excluded from history or are turned into stereotypes,” says Gregory, offering as examples two of Henry VIII’s wives, Katherine of Aragon, who historians present as the well-behaved woman who lived a spiritual life, and Catherine Howard, who is written off as a promiscuous girl. Gregory, however, takes a different stance toward these previously slighted women. “I’m looking at them with an opposite prejudice,” she says, “that there is more to them than this.”
Benefit Evening, Princeton Public Library, Nassau Presbyterian Church, 61 Nassau Street. Tuesday, September 15, 7 p.m. Philippa Gregory, author of “The White Queen,” talks about her works of historical fiction. Proceeds benefit the library’s adult fiction collection. Register. $10. 609-924-9529. www.princetonlibrary.org.