You can’t just read one book by Philippa Gregory. You simply have to follow it up hungrily with a sequel, to know what happens to its protagonist queen. Gregory, a UK-based historian, has managed to generate much popular interest in the royal tales of an England gone past – her novel The Other Boleyn Girl was even made into a film. We speak to her about her latest, The Lady of the Rivers (Simon and Schuster), which dwells on the life of Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford.
What attracts you to the Tudor period of British history?
I think it is a period of great change and opportunity in which we see the rulers, almost all men, taking decisions that make England a capitalist, imperialist Protestant country. This really sets the tone for the rest of English history – it’s a most important time and a most important series of decisions. Also, it is filled with extraordinary characters and women of courage and determination at a time when they have no rights at all.
Is there anything in common between the queens then and female political heads of state now?
I imagine that female heads of state now know very well the loneliness and stubborn endeavour that women have always had to draw on, if they are going to command.
You seem to enjoy adding that little magical touch to your stories and characters, which of course is very engaging for the reader. Do you yourself believe in foretelling and magic?
I don’t think anyone born after the 18th century could simple “believe” in a way that someone before the rise of science could believe. So – no, I don’t; but at the same time I am aware of the power of myth and imagination in day-to-day life, and as a novelist I find it tremendously inspiring and fruitful.
Luxury in the fifteenth century was very different from that of the technological era we now live in. What would be a few major differences in luxurious, regal lifestyles then and now?
The answer would take us pages and pages! The most important developments for me would be the Internet, the telephone, the car, central-heating, waterproof clothing, the railway, of course air transport, electric blankets, flush toilets, refrigeration of food (which makes eating a range of products possible) obstetrics (more women died in childbirth than the men died in battle) vaccination, antiseptics, social discipline, religious tolerance (sometimes applied), education for women (I wish it were applied everywhere). Things we have lost would be fur as cloth (for aristocrats only), fantastic amounts of game and wildlife, a wild landscape, no pollution, no drainage and banking of the Thames so “frost fairs” in the mini Ice Age, beautiful monasteries and nunneries in England, glorious pageants, fantastic wealth for the wealthy. It’s a different world not just an earlier time.
What inspired your charity The Gardens of Gambia? How did it come about?
I started this charity with one Gambian partner who is a headmaster in a small Gambian primary school. He wanted to put a well in the schoolyard to teach the children sustainable agriculture. I paid for that first well and have since then raised money and paid my own money to digging wells in schools around The Gambia. We have done wonderful additional projects like a well for a trial rice crop, pottery workshops, and honeybee hives, and now I am paying for a feeding programme in one, very poor school. I am keen to do more: there are 250 primary schools in The Gambia and my partner and I have dug 160 wells. If anyone wants to donate to my charity they can find out how to do so at PhilippaGregory.com.
Your characters have all lived at some time in history. How do you draw the line between fact and fiction?
I start with the research, and every event that happens in a character’s life is the basis of the novel. But, of course, there are gaps that the fiction can fill, and all of the conversations, private times and secrets have to be speculation – we simply don’t know what people said in secret or privately thought. So the historical novel is a mixture of history and fiction – as it should be.
Your heroine Jacquetta has several kids, almost unimaginable in this day and age. Yet she seems to travel all over the country and even abroad all through her life. How did these women manage?
In practical terms – they had wet nurses and they were not expected to directly raise their own children so they were able to leave their babies a few months after birth. They had no effective contraception so they were bound to give birth often if they were in a loving or regular contact with their husband. Her travels and adventures are based on the history of her life, as far as it is known, so we have to assume that she was very courageous, determined, and energetic. She was also a real survivor – many women died in childbirth.
What attracted you to Jacquetta’s story?
What attracted me to Jacquetta was the fantastic span of her life, from her childhood when she may have met Joan of Arc when her uncle captured the French heroine, through her young womanhood when she was Margaret of Anjou’s dearest friend and lady-in-waiting, till the extraordinary time when her daughter Elizabeth married the king of England. It’s an extraordinary life illuminated by her own family myth – their descent from the water goddess Melusina. Myth, history, and a powerful woman: she is an ideal subject for my sort of novel.
Your protagonists are mostly women. Why so?
As a woman writer, I am interested and drawn to women’s stories, as a feminist I think it important to put women into the historical record from which they have been excluded, and as an historian I think women’s stories are neglected and interesting in their own right. I am glad and proud to research and write about them in fiction and history.