Historical novelist Philippa Gregory on feminism, social media and how grandchildren have changed her life

Imagine a fairytale where the princess doesn’t wear a pink ballgown and sparkling shoes, in a world where a handsome prince doesn’t necessarily rescue the beautiful helpless heroine from the tower.

Novelist Philippa Gregory.
Novelist Philippa Gregory.

This is the stereotype that ardent feminist and bestselling historical novelist Philippa Gregory wants to curb, and a subject she pursues in her latest children’s book The Princess Rules – first published as three books from 1988-1992 and now re-imagined in the present day.

Set in a classic fairytale world, in which princesses are expected to follow the ‘Princess Rules’ – which predominantly involve looking beautiful and eating next to nothing – it centres on Princess Florizella, a sassy, forthright character who deliberately flouts those rules, refusing to follow fashion or marry the first prince who asks her, preferring to go off on thrill-seeking adventures.

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The book is a thinly-veiled satire highlighting the female stereotypes created in so many fairytales over the years, countered by Gregory’s ‘anthem to independence’.

Gregory's latest children's book, The Princess Rules, is out now.

The original had been out of print for 10 years but was an unusual book for its time, notes the bestselling author, best known for her historical novels such as The Other Boleyn Girl, which was adapted into a film starring Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman, and The White Queen.

Jewellery belonging to Yorkshire novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford sells for almost £250,000“The heroine is a princess who is very active and self-willed. I’d have called her a feminist then and I call her a feminist now,” says Gregory, 65, who lives on a farm on the North York Moors with third husband Anthony Mason, who is also her agent. “When it came to be republished there were many things I wanted to address, because the times have changed so much and the world has moved on. My views have changed a lot as well, so I rewrote it. It’s much more explicitly against the convention of female passivity than the previous one.”

So, how have Gregory’s views changed? “Pleasingly, I think I’ve become more radical. I think society has caught up with some of the views I had then, so most people think it’s good that women are agents of their own lives,” she says. “In recent years, we’ve had this enormous change in climate with the #MeToo movement.

“When I first wrote it, all the Disney heroines were passive recipients of events, and now every Disney heroine is active in her own right. I’ve become clearer about how women are socialised into their roles and how that starts really young.”

There are many references to physical appearance in The Princess Rules – the expectations that princesses should look pretty, be svelte, and aspire to marry a handsome prince – but it’s clear that Florizella isn’t remotely interested in that. Gregory believes there’s more pressure than ever on young girls to look a certain way, thanks to social media. “The culture of the visual, from social media, is very much based on image. It’s terribly oppressive for young women.”

Big interview: Author Matt Haig on our anxious worldShe worries about young people aspiring to idealised pictures, which have been Photoshopped, stretched and edited.

“You see these absurdly impossibly perfect images of extremely beautiful women and it’s impossible for any young woman raised in our society not to feel that is something to which she should aspire, and to be disappointed that she will never achieve that look unless she also undergoes, in many cases, surgery and then photo-editing.

“It’s a very heavy burden that women have colluded in putting on themselves. That’s because we live in a society where women are encouraged to compete, as opposed to being sisterly to each other.”

A former journalist, Gregory read English literature at Sussex University, where she took a taster course in history and fell in love with the subject, changing her degree option. She later attended the University of Edinburgh to study 18th century literature and while there wrote her debut novel, Wideacre, the first in a bestselling trilogy. “I thought I’d write a couple of novels and then go back to journalism, but I’ve never stopped writing novels,” she says.

A talk by Gentleman Jack creator Sally Wainwright at Halifax Minster has sold out faster than GlastonburyShe now writes in her study at her home. She has two old ponies, a barn owl and ducks, goes riding, walking and generally keeps herself fit. She has two children, four stepchildren and two grandsons –Freddie, eight, and four-year-old Sebastian – on whom she clearly dotes. “Having grandchildren has changed my life completely,” she says. “In many ways, it’s a much easier role than being a mother because you have a lot of the joy of raising a child but you don’t have that agonising responsibility, which means that you are going to be sleepless for the rest of your life.”

She agrees the strong female characters in her books lend themselves to adaptations. The Other Boleyn Girl was adapted for both the big screen and TV.

But Gregory hasn’t always been happy with the finished results. “One of the difficulties is that when you hand your book over for film production, you literally sell it. So it very much depends on the people who are buying it as to what they then do with it.”

However, she has written the screenplay for, and is co-producer of, a movie adaptation of her novel The Taming Of The Queen, which is now in the planning stages and which she hopes will be filmed next year. She’s also meeting film companies about a TV series adaptation of her latest novel, Tidelands.

“I’m going to make sure before we start that we have a shared vision which is guaranteed, and that we don’t find half way through that they want to take it in a different direction. It’s a learning curve for me.”

The Princess Rules by Philippa Gregory is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books, priced £12.99.