Rescuing heroines

2010-11-10 00:00

A RECENT visitor to KZN to promote her latest novel The Red Queen, was Philippa Gregory, who seems to have cornered the market in popular, intelligent, historical fiction. Her The Other Boleyn Girl was made into a successful film and is one of six of her novels dealing with the Tudors. Gregory is one of those responsible for making the Tudors such a sexy subject for film, television and fiction in the past few years.

But now she has turned her attention to the earlier period of the Wars of the Roses, once again focusing her attention on strong, if not always likeable, women. The White Queen looked at Elizabeth Woodville, and The Red Queen centres on Margaret Beaufort, mother (at the age of 13) of Henry Tudor, founder of the Tudor dynasty. Gregory plans at least another four books set around this time, all looking at women and the roles they played in a male-dominated society in a time of war.

She spoke to Margaret von Klemperer.

You have chosen one of history’s nasty women as a central character this time. And you also pin the murder of the Princes in the Tower onto her. Why an anti-heroine?

Well, I like her. She’s not endearing, but she is interesting. Yes, she was manipulative, but to her credit she was a woman with no chance of political power in her own right and she was absolutely determined to see her son on the throne. And as regards to the Princes in the Tower — a lot of modern scholarship doubts that Richard III was the killer, though he’s probably still the prime suspect. He had nothing to gain from their death. Henry Tudor couldn’t inherit the throne if they were alive — and later history shows he wasn’t bothered by killing children. So Richard apart, Margaret, Henry and the Duke of Buckingham are the other suspects.

We live in a secular age, but you are writing about a time when religion was not questioned and witchcraft was believed in. How easy is it to take your readers along with you?

It’s central to what I’m doing. A lot of traditional historians don’t write about witchcraft because they know it’s not true. They are rationalists, and are uncomfortable with it. My job is to write a story as people would have seen it at the time. They were immensely religious — we would say credulous — and I have to recreate that world. Readers like it: this may be a secular age, but we are a spiritually seeking society. All magic is a belief that you can change things by an act of will, and even now people hold to those medieval, superstitious beliefs.

In The White Queen, Elizabeth Woodville and her mother believe they can make a difference to the weather. Edward [Edward IV, Elizabeth’s husband] was amazingly lucky with weather in his battles and with storms that frustrated his enemies’ plans. At the time, everybody believed it was witchcraft, and Elizabeth would think she had done it.

Her mother Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford, will be the subject of my next book, and she was tried for witchcraft — that is documented. At her trial, clay figures she was said to have made were produced in evidence. She never admitted it, and got her name cleared, but it was believed at the time.

By focusing on women in your novels, are you redressing the balance of formal history?

Yes. Women in Tudor and Plantagenet times were not just marginalised and excluded by their society, but by the historical record as well. So I’m sort of rescuing them from oblivion. There are a slew of biographies of Richard III, a society dedicated to him, and a journal. And only one biography of Margaret Beaufort, and that’s out of print. It’s a sexist bias, and part of my role as a novelist, historian and feminist is rescuing women from obscurity. The women of the Wars of the Roses are genuinely important figures who have been neglected.

Do you have a specific target audience in mind when you are writing?

I don’t think about a readership, just the enormous task of taking history and shaping it to make a good novel. But I have a diverse readership: at the launch in Johannesburg, the audience was mixed in age, gender and race. A group of black and Asian schoolgirls asked to be photographed with me — you would have thought I was Beyoncé! Young readers do like historical fiction .

Did you read historical fiction as a girl?

Oh yes — Georgette Heyer, Anya Seton, Jean Plaidy. It’s interesting: historical fiction gives away the period when it was written. A lot of those authors were right-wing, snobby, interested in women’s supporting roles. I’m left-wing and feminist. But maybe in 2060, my work will have dated too. Other issues will be at the forefront.

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