White Queen author Philippa Gregory: I didn’t set out to be a feminist writer

The White Queen author on Henry VIII's "surprising" sixth wife, history's mistreatment of women and why she can't get enough of trashy TV...

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Philippa Gregory – author of The Other Boleyn Girl, The White Queen and countless other bestsellers – might have forged a career publishing books about strong, surprising or misrepresented women from history, but she “didn’t set out to be a woman’s historian or a feminist historian.” 

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“It’s how it turned out, really. I was those things, but I didn’t think my work would reflect that as closely as it has,” Gregory, who has a PhD in 18th century history, tells us. “The books which really mean a lot to me and that have sold hugely worldwide do tend to be those ones where I’m looking at women who have been previously either totally ignored or really neglected – or else it’s a new view of a woman we know well.

“The temptation to see women in stereotypical forms is obviously part of the way history has approached women,” Gregory continues.”It’s only in the last 30 or 40 years that people have started saying, ‘There must be more to them than this. There must be more to women’s history than just who gives birth and who marries whom.'” 

Telling that story is something that is “very inspirational” for Gregory and “incredibly gratifying” when it also inspires readers: “It’s extraordinary. Since the publication of The Other Boleyn Girl there have been three scholarly biographies of Mary Boleyn. You now don’t see an account of the court without her in it. She’s in Hilary Mantel’s Tudor books.

“I’ve actually put her into the pages of history and that’s an extraordinary thing to do,” Gregory says, quickly adding: “It, of course, makes no difference to her. Except you might think that 500 years from now it’d be nice to have your name remembered.”

The Other Boleyn Girl, like her Cousins War series, has now been adapted for TV and film. Not that she watches much historical drama herself.

“Most of the television I do watch is really shamefully trash TV, like really ridiculous reality shows,” she admits. “I always look at historical dramas because I have a kind of professional interest in what they are doing with the written material. But very often it’s hard to watch them without going, ‘well I wouldn’t do it like that’ or ‘that bit’s wrong.’ You can’t really leave your craft, or your knowledge, at the door.”

Her trash TV of choice? “I’m a big fan of Dance Moms,” Gregory laughs. “Not only have I seen all of Dance Moms, I saw Dance Mums, the UK version and indeed Dance Moms Australia. I used to watch Come Dine With Me. Of course it’s an entirely repetitive format, but there came a time when that was too much even for me. And I like Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. Easy, easy watching.”

Happily for viewers with more refined tastes, a sequel to BBC1’s The White Queen is finally in the pipeline; American producers Starz are making it based on the next three novels in the series. In the meantime, Gregory’s latest novel The Taming of the Queen is poised to hit bookshop shelves. It’s the seventh in her Tudor Court series and follows Henry VIII’s last wife Catherine – or Kateryn – Parr.

“One of the reasons I am surprised by her, and I think other people are going to be surprised by her, is that the reputation she has in history is not particularly interesting. People still repeat the old fashioned view of her as Henry’s nurse and wife in his declining years. But in fact she was incredibly influential,” says Gregory.

“Henry made her regent of England when he went abroad to France for his last campaign. She was a major leader of the reformation in England. She was really a great scholar and she was the first woman to be published in the English language under her own name, writing original material, which is extraordinary.” 

However “unbelievably interesting” her subject matter, Gregory never writes with adaptation in mind. “When I’m writing, I’m writing and all I can really think about is how to make a scene come alive and base it on the historical facts. That’s enough for anyone to do in a working day!” Even so, it sounds like TV producers would do well to bag an early copy.

“It’s a fantastic part, not just for Kateryn Parr, but for her sister who’s a lady at court and who has been at court for every single one of Henry’s wives,” Gregory says.

“There are these massive, heroic drama scenes which are great for a novel and I think they’d be great for television as well. We’ll just have to see.”

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The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory is published by Simon & Schuster priced £20, out now

 

 

Philippa Gregory will be at the Radio Times Festival this September. Tickets are available here.



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