Jon Gower: Putting the story into history

Jon Gower: Putting the story into history

Ironically enough it was Margaret Thatcher who gave the hyper-successful historical novelist Philippa Gregory her big break.  As she explained to the Guardian´s man-in-Spain Giles Tremlett before a capacity crowd in Segovia it was all a matter of timing…At the same time that the Prime Minister and Iron Lady was taking on the mining unions she was also closing down academic opportunities for 18th century specialists.  This was of some concern to Philippa, who´d just gained a doctorate in 18th century studies and read her way through no fewer than 200 novels in the process.

With a job in academia seeming like a very remote prospect Philippa decided to try her hand at writing novels, initially just for her own amusement.  Yet she had the feeling that she had a good sense of what would make a good novel because of all the ones she´d had to read for her PhD.

Her first manuscript was initially rejected by agents and publishers,some of whom still curse that wrong call to this very day! But then good fortune came to call.  One day she picked up the phone and it was her agent saying that she´d managed to get 250,000 pounds in a bidding war between two publishers in the UK and three in the US.  It was the start of a tremendously successful career as a novelist, and it was a delight to hear about the happiness she derives from writing.  We heard about the forthcoming BBC blockbuster series based on one of her trilogies.  We know she´s been a New York Times bestseller.  History sells.

She has settled into a pattern of writing in the first person, and in the present tense, as this makes things somehow more vital and, in a sense “denies history.” She produces a very complicated timeline for each book, charting the main events of the time, from inclement weather to patterns of plague, and so her characters move and are propelled from one event, or what she calls a “bus stop” to another.

Like all good writers she is an avid reader and was shaped early on by the novels of Georgette Heyer, Jean Plaidy and the indefatigable Walter Scott.

For Philippa, sitting at her writer´s desk is certainly no torture. She maintains a positively Stakhanovite work rate, having produced pretty much a book a year for the past quarter of a century.

She writes about women because for too long history and its documents and indeed, latterly the teaching of history was a male preserve.  Women in history were invisible, needed only for child-bearing and dynastic strategies involving marriage.  She writes books about strong complicated women for an audience of female readers for as she very elegantly put it, “Women are very good on the emotional, inner life while men are going out and killing people.´

One of the most riveting parts of a throughly engaging session came when Tremlett asked her about one curious aspect of history, namely the age at which so many of history´s principal players stirred into action, with kings gaining thrones and queens producing heirs when they were twelve, thirteen, fourteen…

Philippa concentrated her answer on Margaret Beaufort, the subject of her latest novel,´The Red Queen´explaining how she was effectively raped at the age of thirteen and then found herself in a castle in the back of beyond in Wales. She produced a son at the age of fourteen. Childbirth in those days could be pretty horrific, especially if you consider that if a baby was trapped in any way the midwives answer would be to throw the birthing mother up and down in a blanket.

All in all a most entertaining and illuminating session by a women who seems to be powered by an engine of charm.  One who loves stories.

She maintains that if you met her at a bar she´d tell you stories.  She enjoys doing the same in books.  She tells stories about women´s lives five hundred years ago. And in so doing brings the past to vivid, pulsing life. Giving them breath again.