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.

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