Author Philippa Gregory will visit Wilton Library

Award-winning historical novelist Philippa Gregory will come to the  Wilton Library on Tuesday, Sept. 16, for a question and answer session. Best known for The Other Boleyn Girl, Ms. Gregory will discuss her newest novel, The King’s Curse.

Released on Sept. 9, The King’s Curse is the eagerly anticipated next volume of Ms. Gregory’s Cousins’ War novels, the basis for the critically acclaimed Starz/BBC One series The White Queen.

Ms. Gregory prepared answers to a set of questions composed by The Bulletin last week.

One could almost say the Tudor period is your muse. What appeals to you about this particular time period in history? What makes it so exciting to write about? 

The Tudors and the English royal family that preceded them — the Plantagenets — represent generations of outstanding individuals. Because almost all of them come to the throne or have to defend it militarily they are decisive, courageous and active people — men as well as women. In addition to this they often have wonderfully rich and complicated personal lives which is the very stuff of novels, and they are living at a time of dramatic political religious and social change. This makes their society very interesting to a historian; it is really the time that England is forged out of a collection of medieval lordships into one nation with a new religion and a distinct identity and borders.

Especially for me the Plantagenet and Tudor women are of great interest — often they are highly educated (which is unusual for medieval women) and often they are active and powerful. Most of the conspiracies of the period have a woman plotter as their secret head. Also, in a world that is violently patriarchal these women are challenged from the moment that they are born: all the laws and customs of the land are against them, and yet they fight to become the people that they want to be, with power and family, religion and wealth.

Why use a woman as the narrator of your novels? 

It is natural to me, as a woman, as a feminist and as a historian who has worked for so long in women’s history to use a woman as a narrator and chief character of all the novels. I have confidence that I understand how women think and feel, even in this very different society. In what ways does a women offer a unique view of the historical setting and plot line?

The advantage of having a female narrator is that I am able to tell the inner stories of the period as well as the better known accounts of political change and battles. So much of the struggles were based around dynasty and family that the women are key in my understanding of the time.

It’s a tremendously confusing period in terms of alliances and battles — but it is much clearer when you see that it is family history often headed by these very strong, very active women. In addition to this, I believe that the novel is almost always at its heart about personal development and I think tracing the change and growth of a relatively unknown woman is particularly interesting.

What kind of records do you rely on to correctly portray the personality of your characters?

As you see there are more than a hundred history books and journal essays listed as the research for The King’s Curse alone — every novel I have ever written in this series takes months of reading. One of the ways that I achieve a rounded character for the fiction is by reading not just one but many accounts of the principal characters so that I understand how different historians see the characters differently

Some characters (especially women) don’t have biographies written yet, and one of the interesting things is when I do the primary research from other histories and sometimes from local records or chronicles of the time to find them — and then later historians become interested and write the biography.

This happened with Mary Boleyn of The Other Boleyn Girl who now has four biographies to her name, whereas before my novel there was nothing individually on her. I do as much research for the novel as I would do for a biography.

Where do you find yourself taking the most artistic liberty relative to the historic accuracy of your novels?

The writing of an historical fiction has to be the melding of two distinct crafts — the research of history and the writing of a novel. I really enjoy writing fiction and I never see the novel as in any sense “tampering” with good history or taking liberties with history. The historical fiction is supposed to be both fictional and historical. Of course I never alter the setting for the benefit of the story because that would make no sense! If we happen to know where a character was when a scene took place then of course I draw on the description of that place. If we happen to know what was said in that scene then I use that account, sometimes quite directly.

Where the fiction supplements or replaces the history is when we simply don’t know what took place. If there is no historical record of a scene but we know that it happened then that is where I have to write pure fiction — since there is no history to make a base for the fictional account.

For instance, we don’t really know what illness killed Prince Arthur of Wales or what were the exact circumstances of his death. We don’t know if Richard III or someone else killed the princes in the Tower. We don’t even know if they were killed by anyone. So my account of such things is bound to be wholly fictional.

Similarly, for some characters we know almost nothing about them personally because people did not record their impressions of them. We have plenty of descriptions of Elizabeth I and my novels that describe her are very much based on those descriptions. But a character like Margaret Pole is hardly mentioned except in terms of what she does — not in terms of her character. So I draw my description of her character from what I know that she does, and extrapolate from that.

Some characters are described in detail but most historians would doubt the description — we have Henry VIII’s description of Anne of Cleeves as so ugly that he cannot bear to make love to her. Then we have the enchanting Holbein portrait. Someone is creating a fiction here before I even get to her!

Of course all dialogue is invented, all private scenes are invented, all inner thoughts are invented because they simply weren’t recorded so they are not in the historical record. But what I think of as the craft and joy of historical fiction is making these as life-like as possible — even though the life was lived 500 years ago.

Though your characters lived in a time period so different than our own, contemporary readers seem to make strong personal connections to them. Is there a piece of the human experience that resounds regardless of experience?

I think there are many features of modern life which are similar to medieval experiences — the great issues of life and death, love and loyalty, betrayal, spirituality fear and courage are timeless human experiences — but in the medieval world you would experience those emotions in different structures than modern ones.

I am always touched when readers find my heroines have been an inspiration to them in modern world difficulties. I think that the struggle of women to live their lives, to gain their freedom, is one that was very hard in the medieval world and is still going on today. I find the medieval women an inspiration and I know that my readers do too.

What’s the first bit of research you always undertake before beginning a new novel? 

People often want a secret trick here and I have to say that the research for all my historical novels is always reading, reading, reading. I start with all the good contemporary histories of the character and the period, then I read the older histories that are mostly out of print — especially the Victorian historians who are very strong on the Tudors. I read out-of-the way scholarly essays, I get diverted and read detailed histories of things like saddlery and agriculture. It’s almost all reading. Then I go to museums and to the locations of the stories and I read local histories and sometimes talk to curators and local historians. But most of the time — the first year — it’s reading.