The Queen of Historical Fiction: Philippa Gregoryby Stephanie Naylor
The past fascinates Philippa Gregory. An historian and a writer, Gregory is most famous for The Other Boleyn Girl, which became a TV drama and a movie, and her interest in the Tudor period has spawned seven novels in total.
Gregory’s writing has now spread to the family that preceded the Tudors, the Plantagenets. Her latest novel, The White Queen, is the first in a new series about the Cousins’ War and the complex family drama that fuelled this period of unrest in England. Her next book in the series will be The Red Queen, featuring the mother of Henry Tudor (who later became Henry VII), Margaret Beaufort.
The White Queen chronicles the adult life of Elizabeth Woodville in a time when the York and Lancaster houses were fighting for the English throne. Elizabeth and Edward IV had two sons, Edward and Richard. These two princes became the main characters in one of the most famous unsolved historical mysteries of all time - the princes supposedly murdered in the Tower of London. Gregory deftly weaves history and fiction together in a vivid picture of warring families through Elizabeth’s struggles as a mother, daughter, wife, and queen.
(Spoiler warning – some plot is revealed)
AbeBooks - Regarding the death of the princes, my interpretation is that you don’t think King Richard was to blame. Is that accurate?
Philippa Gregory – “In the novel, that question is answered in fiction, as a novelist, but there is also the historian side of the answer. In historical fiction, you have to imagine conversations that may have happened, based on the historical facts. The fact Elizabeth emerged from sanctuary and allowed her girls to go to Richard, indicates that she did not think he was guilty of the death of the boys. So, I create a conversation that may have happened to explain these events. Richard comes to Elizabeth in sanctuary to ask if she has the boys with her as he is not sure where they are. In this fictional version, Richard is not guilty of the murder of the boys.
“As an historian, Richard was already on the throne when the boys were reported missing. He had no need to kill the boys. In fact, when his own son dies, it would be more to his benefit to have the boys alive as his heirs.”
Abe – I enjoyed your use of magic in the story, especially the curse Elizabeth and her daughter put on whomever is responsible for the death of the princes. The curse states the firstborn of the man who is responsible should die, as should his grandson. Although King Richard’s son dies, the course of history points more to Henry Tudor as the guilty party. (Editor’s note - Henry VII’s first son Arthur dies, his second son becomes Henry VIII and we all know his trouble producing male heirs).
Philippa Gregory – “I enjoyed the irony that since Henry Tudor married Elizabeth’s daughter (also called Elizabeth), she had in fact cursed her own daughter’s first born son. The curse fitted nicely into the course of historical events.”
Abe – What makes this murder mystery so enduring?
Philippa Gregory – “The secrecy of it; it is an historical unsolved mystery. Also, during the Victorian era, the story became a “sentimental emblem” and was often depicted in art, notably by Walter Scott. Of course, we also have a multitude of literature written about it, from modern writers to Shakespeare..”
Abe - In the author notes of The Other Boleyn Girl, you reference The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn by Retha M. Warnicke as one of your most helpful resources. What was your favorite resource for The White Queen?
Philippa Gregory – “Well, Elizabeth Woodville is an oft neglected character in history. So, there was really only one important book that I favoured. In fact, I believe that it is out-of-print in the UK and may never have been printed in Canada and the USA. That book is David Baldwin’s biography of Elizabeth Woodville, called Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower.
Abe - Do you have a favorite place to conduct research?
Philippa Gregory – “Actually, most of the original documents and resources have been edited and transcribed so many times that the local libraries and historical sites often have thorough and helpful information. For The White Queen, the Richard III Society proved to be a great resource.”
Abe - What is your favorite book that you’ve written based on the travel you did for it?
Philippa Gregory – “I would have to say The Constant Princess. The contrast between locations like Granada, Spain and Ludlow Castle on the border of England and Wales is one of the most impressive and stark changes I have experienced.”
Abe - Do you read other historical fiction novels?
Philippa Gregory – “No, I never. I find that it can too easily become fact in my mind. I only read historical fact. One of my favorite authors is Alison Weir. She is wonderful because she does not get intimidated by, or ignore, women of power in history. There is a ‘traditional prejudice against ambitious or successful women’ but Weir simply reports fact. I also read modern fiction and classic literature. Some of my favorite authors for classic literature are George Eliot, Jane Austen, and E.M. Forster.”
Abe - What books did you take on your book tour?