Phillipa Gregory, an author who spends her days tucked away in North Yorkshire, arrived at her Norwich launch on Thursday to a staggering crowd of people, including guests both young and old – although, less surprisingly, consisting predominantly of women. Her gift with historical fiction has meant she has held her ground firmly in the charts for decades, a rare feat for any novelist. Add to that her confident self-assurance and glamorous peach-coloured ensemble, and you might start to suspect she would be great company polishing off a couple of bottles of wine.
Phillipa has made it her personal vocation to give voice to those women who are perhaps misrepresented or underrepresented in history as “written by the winners” through her best-selling first person narratives, which enable her to speak through the eyes of her characters without the “curse of hindsight”. She said: “You see things as they happen from the character’s perspective. It’s very different to forensic biological research to imagine yourself as someone’s friend.” Phillipa imagines, for example, Catherine of Aragon as seen by the little-researched Margaret Pole as she faces lonely confinement as “curled up, clenched around her grief.”
Phillipa decries the internet searches which depict such powerful or militant women Margaret of Anjou, or more recently Hillary Clinton, as she-wolves. “If a woman talks too much or is too educated some people still revert to the views of medieval monks,” she explains. She derides history books that so often cite female irrationality as a cause where facts are not available.
She explains that her novels are more an art form than a vehicle for facts and figures, but grounds her fiction in extensive historical research. “I know I’m ready when I hear a character’s voice in my mind, but I’m still crafting a journey in the sense that I don’t know what the mood of the scene will be or how she will feel. We’ll never know whether Anne Boleyn was adulterous or involved in witchcraft – we just know the facts as generally agreed.”
The “absurd Cinderella story” of Elizabeth Woodville would be hard to make up. “She stands by the road to get her land back. The King falls in love with her and then she owns everything. Her love is instantaneous and seems to last forever, in the true spirit of tropes of romantic love. She had a baby every year – which was a sign of love in Tudor times, although it might be a sign of thoughtlessness these days!”
Throughout her talk, Phillipa acknowledged her close relationship with the historical characters she constructs from biological information – despite the fact that they died 500 years ago. “Terrible things happen to you when you finish a novel – you lose your constant companions. I sometimes cry,” she reveals.
Her latest novel grew from a “long acquaintance” with Henry VIII and his personal journey from sporty golden boy to utter despotism. She warns of the dangers of ignoring his tyranny and abuse. Usually I disapprove of audience participation except in purposefully terrible pantomimes, but Phillipa asked us to participate in an online psychopath test as Henry. Even taking into account the testosterone-filled culture of Tudor times, Henry comes up as a definite high percentile psycho.
Phillipa reaches back to folk literature, contemporary literature, songs and legends to portray a Henry touched by madness and cursed with infertility and barren daughters, crafting a tale of a curse on Margaret Beaufort and her descendents cast by Elizabeth Woodville, to avenge the murder of her sons. It’s not all doom and gloom, though. “People still fall in love, have babies, have triumphs,” said Phillipa.
Phillipa also divulged that the character she finds the most inspiring of all is Catherine of Aragon. “As the daughter of a queen militant, she had remarkable courage. She stuck it out, and stuck it out again, with principles. Although I bet she lied her head off about the consummation of her first marriage to Arthur!” she quipped.
Of her previous book, The Boleyn Inheritance, which features not one but three narrators, Phillipa admits unusual circumstances in the process of writing. “I’d broken my back falling of my horse and wrote the entire book whilst virtually immobile with the laptop resting on my cast. The drugs – which were great by the way – left me in a drug-fuelled haze. It’s sort of my Coleridge book,” she joked.
Controversially as a result of questioning by the audience, Phillipa also revealed her personal preference that Richard III be buried in York rather than Leicester.
Her recent novel, The King’s Curse, is now available to buy.