Philippa Gregory on the lost voices of women in history
Women in history are often sidelined. Not just by the society of their time but also by historians who often highlight the achievers and leave the lesser known voices of women who were instrumental in creating history, as in today’s textbooks, to fade away with time. But 57- year- old author Philippa Gregory chose to give them a voice. Sometimes magical, and mostly powerful, the characters in her books are the people who saw the scribes pen down events that are now glorified documents taught in schools. “I think the traditional view of history has overlooked many classes of people and many types of experiences,” says Gregory who believes that a good way to adjust this prejudice is by studying historical records and writing a piece of fiction from their point of view.
Best known for her interest in the Tudor dynasty, Gregory has been on the bestseller list almost since the time she began writing historical fiction. Her latest in the Cousin’s War series, Lady of the Rivers, tells the story of Jacquetta, the daughter of a French nobleman who later becomes the Duchess of Bedford, and first lady in waiting for Margaret of Anjou. Right from the age of 14, when she befriends Jaon of Arc and is forced to witness her execution, Jacquetta comes to terms with the reality of women’s lives. She understands that women who think freely will always threaten men who hold po-
sitions of power. Blessed with a power of clairvoyance, Jacquetta suppresses her gift and decides to carve her own destiny. Set in the time of Henry VI’S rule, Gregory tells an engaging story of the woman who witnesses one of the most important times of English history—the rise of Edward IV and the fall of Henry VI. “Jacquetta has this wonderful perspective on some of the most troubled times of the Cousins' War. She was present and sometimes participating in some of the most exciting moments. She also shows us the extraordinary shifts that the medieval people had to make,” says Gregory, explaining her fascination for this descendent of Melusina, the water goddess. “In her case the tradition of a water goddess myth and their relationship to European nobility was very significant. I started the book with a very clear idea of the woman that she would become, and my fictional version of the girl that she might have been and so I let the reader see her grow up,” she explains further.
As a woman and a historian, Gregory believes it is a natural connection that she shares with the women she chooses to write about. “But I’m also interested in the detective work of discovering people who are unknown,” she says. It was during her time as a student of PHD at Edinburgh University that she discovered her love for the Tudor dynasty. “I think it’s a period of dramatic change in which you can see the seeds of what is going to be modern England. And, of course, what fascinated me was the larger than life characters coping with great personal dramas,” she says.
One of her best known novels and also the most controversial, The Other Boleyn Girl, was adapted as a film with the same name in 2008. While Gregory insists that her novels are factually accurate, she faced flack from several historians on accounts of inaccurate documentation. “The issues that people have focused on were small facts where the evidence is unreliable. All historians have to make up their mind. There is no ‘true’ answer,” she defends her- self. And writing historical fiction can be tricky business. But Gregory created a set of rules for herself to follow. “If it is uncertain then I read all the historians available and make my mind up as to what might have happened,” she says. Sometimes, when there is little information or the subject is controversial, she prefers to make a choice and writes according what seems most congruent with the characters.
She began her career as an author during her time at Edinburgh University. “I did not intend to be a full time writer. I thought I was going to be an academic but I was published before I could get a job and I have been writing ever since,” she says. But writing is not the only job up her sleeve. She’s also a regular broadcaster with BBC Radio 4 and works in the capacity of a Tudor expert for Channel 4, a British public service television channel. “I love radio for its intimacy and its immediacy. Other media have great advantages but they need a lot of people to get a production on ai. But radio can be done by yourself,” she says.
In 1992, while she was writing A Respectable Trade, a book on the slave trade, she visited The Gambia to research for the book. It was here that she met a schoolmaster Ismaila Sisay who introduced her to the idea of digging rudimentary, low maintenance wells in schools. She instantly tied up with Sisay and started Gardens of The Gambia, a project that digs these wells in schools. The water from these wells are used for irrigation, the produce of which is used for feeding the poor children of the schools. In two decades, she has raised funds to dig 200 wells that have fed and provided water for thousands of hungry schoolchildren in the country.
From back-breaking research to writing, from radio to the television studio and then to dig wells in The Gambia, life looks like a long roller coaster ride for Gregory. But she’s not one to complain. Her way to unwind is simple, “I work on my farm, I ride my horse, I walk, and I try to persuade my hens to lay eggs,” she says.