Philippa Gregory offers a novel take on history

Phillipa Gregory is coming to Sheffield next week to talk about her work. (photo credit:REX Shutterstock).
Phillipa Gregory is coming to Sheffield next week to talk about her work. (photo credit:REX Shutterstock).
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Philippa Gregory is one of our best known historical novelists. She talks to Chris Bond about our fascination with the Tudors and why she doesn’t see Hilary Mantel as a rival.

“DIVORCED, beheaded, died; beheaded, divorced, survived.”

Many of you will no doubt remember this old rhyme from your school days to help you remember what happened to the wives of Henry VIII.

For some, like Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, it didn’t end well, in fact you could probably argue that none of them fared too well at the hands of the volatile Tudor king.

Of all Henry’s wives, though, Kateryn Parr is perhaps the least well known. She doesn’t have the same kind of historical box office allure as Anne Boleyn or Catherine of Aragon, although that could be about to change.

Henry’s sixth and final wife is the subject of Philippa Gregory’s new novel The Taming Of The Queen, published today, which tells her intriguing and colourful story.

Her book takes Parr and shows how she united the royal family, became a leader of religious reform and created a radical study circle at the heart of the court.

Gregory has developed a penchant for putting the spotlight on those women who have been pushed to the margins of history, something she has done with great aplomb throughout her career, perhaps most notably in The Other Boleyn Girl, which became an international bestseller.

“I’d already written about Henry’s other wives and she was the one I felt I hadn’t really written anything on,” she says, explaining why she turned her attention to Parr.

The more she found out about her the more she admired this intelligent, independent woman. “I had a great respect for her because she was incredibly significant in terms of the history of women.

“In my view she was the most significant queen of the lot. Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn get most of the attention but Kateryn was the first woman to write a book in English under her own name, she was an extraordinary character.”

Parr had twice been widowed by the time Henry’s gaze turned on her. By this time his health was failing but as Gregory points out she had little choice but to marry the king of England.

Her book shows that Parr was anything but the nondescript wallflower many people might assume. She was not only a scholar but was smart enough, when her enemies began circling, to know how to save herself and avoid the dreaded walk to the scaffold.

The Tudors have long fascinated people and in recent times there have been a raft of books, films and TV series that have attempted to lift the lid on this tumultuous period of English history.

So what’s behind this surge of interest in the Tudors? “I think a big part of this revival is because they were very different from us,” says Gregory. “It’s like describing another world, a fantasy kingdom from Game of Thrones, it has violence but at the same time the glamour of the court.

“These were the people who created England as we know it, it’s the start of an imperialist country, the start of a Protestant country and a centralized country with power residing in London and with the king.”

Gregory herself grew up in Bristol and did a BA in history at Sussex University. She worked as a journalist and then as a producer for BBC radio for a while, before going to Edinburgh to do a PhD in 18th century literature.

She says her background in journalism helped in the early stages of her writing career because it gave her a disciplined attitude towards reading and research.

“I wanted to know things and I think being a journalist for a time satisfied that particular curiosity.”

The work she did for her doctorate led to her writing her first novel, Wideacre, which she says was “burning a hole in my pocket.” It proved to be an instant best seller and she has been writing full-time ever since.

She enjoyed huge success with The Other Boleyn Girl, now published in 26 countries, which was adapted by the BBC as a one-off drama and later given a Hollywood makeover with Scarlett Johansson in the lead role. Her Cousins’ war novels also proved a big hit and formed the basis for the glossy TV series, The White Queen.

All of which have helped make her a household name. She might have been tempted to swan off to the United States but instead she has made her home on a small farm on the North Yorkshire Moors where she lives with her family.

Gregory, along with Hilary Mantel, is one of the country’s leading historical fiction writers. Like Mantel, whose fictional depiction of the life of Thomas Cromwell has led to her being showered with awards and plaudits, Gregory is fascinated by the Tudor period.

Not that she views the Wolf Hall author as a rival. “I’ve not actually met her,” she says. As far as Gregory is concerned the more people writing about the Tudors, or indeed any other historical period, the better.

“It helps open up the field and the more books there are, the more interest there is likely to be, so we’re not competing against each other.”

She points to the success of The Other Boleyn Girl as an example. “That was the first time a novel had taken real interest in Mary Boleyn. Before then she had been like a footnote in history, but after my book came out there were a couple of biographies and it generates more interest.”

The whole genre of so-called “historical fiction” has grown in popularity in recent years, although in the past Gregory felt she had to defend its artistic merits. “I used to always be apologetic and point out that it’s not written as a historian would write, but actually there is an art to it.

“Anyone who writes a novel should be really proud because it’s an extraordinary achievement and I have been lucky to have both the gift and the time to learn the craft.”

So does it get easier to write as you get older? “It gets easier in the sense that you know how to deal with the technical problems, you learn how to incorporate facts and the writing gets smoother. So my last novel is certainly better than my first,” she says.

It’s almost since 30 years since Gregory’s debut was published and she now has more than 20 novels under her belt. Not that she envisages running out of people to write about.

“When I started looking at women in history there were just so many lives that have not been properly explored yet. There’s so many stories of gossip and slander and the more I research the more I find.

“There are enough women to keep me going for another 30 years easily.”

Waterstones is hosting an evening with Philippa Gregory at the Pennine Lecture Theatre, Sheffield Hallam University, August 18 from 7pm. Tickets are priced £5. For more information call 0114 2728971.

The novelist is also appearing at Ilkley’s King’s Hall for a special one-off event on August 19. The event begins at 7.30pm & tickets are priced £10 (or £8 concessions). For more details go to http://www.ilkleyliteraturefestival.org.uk/whats-on/.

The Taming Of The Queen, published by Simon and Schuster, is out now priced £20.