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Turning the world inside out: Philippa Gregory and the art of historic fiction

Last night, I attended an evening with Philippa Gregory and have a new appreciation for the author who has made the historic novel her own.

The event took place at Newcastle’s Tyneside Cinema. It’s an independent picture house with a bar and perfectly formed cafe on the side, one of the city’s true gems. Gregory took to the stage in the cinema’s classic screen, a vintage, 40s-style auditorium with ivory pillars and red velvet curtains framing the screen. Beautiful.

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You must visit this place when you’re in town.

The hour-long session was tailored to this fabulous setting. Gregory stood at the side of the stage behind a lamp-lit podium, with slides and pre-filmed readings in the grounds of a ruined Northumberland castle playing on the big screen.

Gregory was in town to talk about her latest novel Three Sisters, Three Queens which tells the story of Katherine of Aragon and her two sisters in their attempts to navigate the Tudor web of marriages, royalty, court and power.

She started her lecture with a brief outline of the compartmentalisation of women in literature and history. The virgin or the whore; innocent or lusty; virtuous mother or fallen women, categories that still exist in contemporary culture. Does this image look familiar?

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The image of the virgin and the whore in musical form.

This categorisation acutely affected the real-life characters Gregory explores in her novel. Whether it was the contemporary enemies who painted the sisters as harlots to gain political advantage, or the Victorian male scholars who exhumed their records and repainted them as manly and aggressive, the female lives have been misinterpreted by men for centuries.

Silence in history fuels imagination

It was fascinating and inspiring to hear about Gregory’s love for the genre she has defined. She believes that historical fiction turns the world inside out: history is the outside, fiction the inside and combining the two allows the author to explore these stories beyond the parameters of historic record.

Nothing personal remains about these characters in the history books. We know when they were born, where they lived and the events they were part of but we know very little about their personalities or private lives. It is these gaps – the silence in history – that captures Gregory’s imagination and fuels her storytelling.

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Philippa Gregory retells women’s stories through historic fiction.

Gregory’s appetite for research was huge. She effortlessly reeled off historic facts and unravelled the complexities of Tudor royalty with ease. The first phase of any of her novels is an investigation into mayor historic events, which had a huge and tragic impact on their participants, and the identification of the women who played a key part in them. Her fictional accounts consider the impact of those events on the protagonists, and speculate about the role of women in them.

The author’s distinctive first person narrative is unique in this genre, and something Gregory feels defines her work. She uses it not only to give her female characters a strong voice but to encourage the reader to forget that they already know the ending. It works. It is quite the achievement to have your reader enthralled in a plot twist they are aware of from their earliest history lessons.

Gregory is a master of this genre and her prowess was evident during this hour-long lecture. Her passion and commitment to redefining the women of our medieval history is admirable, and something that will fuel many more books to come.

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