“Almost by accident, I’ve spent my working life researching and writing the secret histories of virtually unknown women who appear as the wife, or the mother of a more famous man.”
In the huge and dynamic market of historical fiction, works can be so easily derided as pure fantasy and nonsense or applauded for realism and attention to detail. Philippa Gregory stands out as a writer whose work has been both celebrated and ridiculed. What can’t be denied about her and her work is the commitment and ambition that she has displayed towards her female characters, she has transformed herself into a champion of near-anonymous women, but this has sometimes come at the price of historical accuracy, plausibility and one-dimensional male characters.
Having ‘rebelled’ against her education whilst growing up in Bristol, Gregory spent the early years of her career flitting between the worlds of journalism, literature and history. Even her own PhD thesis on 18th century literature was overshadowed by the writing of her first novel, Wildacre, and this mixed professional record has left an imprint on her published works. She may have ultimately settled with becoming a student of history after much indecision, but her works carry a level of literary flare and sensationalism that has led to success within the saturated historical fiction market. The creativity that has been seen throughout her 25-year career has been marred with criticism however, especially from disgruntled history academics such as David Starkey.
“We really should stop taking historical novelists seriously as historians,” said Starkey in an interview for The Daily Telegraph, “the idea that they have authority is ludicrous. They are very good at imagining characters: that’s why the novels sell.”
Even though professional historians scoff at the imaginings of characters, this has proved to be one of Gregory’s strengths, for better and for worse. The setting of her latest grand five part series, the War of the Roses, has been the perfect era for her to work with because of it’s complicated family dynamics, the numerous women who were known to have involved within the conflicting sides and the lack of documentation within that time. In this essential stage of English history, Gregory has grasped the opportunity to refine her talent for developing controversial voices of women.
The individuality of each protagonist is the driving force within the Cousins War series. Their turbulent historical relationships with one another have fuelled Gregory’s penmanship, and she creates an intriguing web of deception, subtle hostilities and intrigues. The men of the books have relatively minor roles, and though it is their actions that have driven the plotlines of history, the women of her series act as both enablers and reactors to their actions.
The key to grasping a well-rounded character isn’t achieved by just reading each woman’s titular book. Instead, Gregory forces you to see the story from all angles, ultimately observing each character through multiple pairs of eyes. With this technique, Gregory takes away some of the bias that can come by staying in only one character’s head. Elizabeth Woodville, the beautiful queen of Edward IV changes between a hero in The White Queen, the villainess in The Kingmaker’s Daughter and the politically savvy matriarch in The White Princess. By retelling the same events from differing perspectives, which in itself risks repetition, female characters who are mere footnotes in larger histories become three-dimensional, and Gregory scoffs at the strict medieval ideals of pure saint or pure sinner, proving that no woman is perfect.
What Gregory doesn’t do, thankfully, is create characters that are all likeable in their own way. She creates flawed women, whose actions can infuriate the reader because of the added outside perspective. Anne Neville, the leading lady of The Kingmaker’s Daughter, is so blinded in her belief of witchcraft that she blames Elizabeth Woodville, the wife of Edward IV and protagonist of The White Queen, for all mishaps that befall her. And so, if the reader has followed the series in publication order, it becomes hard to sympathise with Anne because the story has already been told.
It’s clear from reading through the series that Gregory has rejected the Tudor propaganda machine that followed the end of the Plantagenet’s. And so in it’s not with a strange twist of irony that the most ‘saintly’ woman in the series and the ultimate winner of the war, Margaret Beaufort the mother of Henry VII, is by far the least likeable of all of Gregory’s protagonists. Even within her own novel, The Red Queen, Margaret is shown to be egotistical and proud, ridiculously attempting to draw some slight comparisons between her life and that of Joan of Arc, who the reader encounters during The Lady of the Rivers. Once again, the reader gains the extra truth of the story from the multiple perspectives, and in doing so, makes Margaret’s thoughts even more absurd. And though her house ultimately triumphs at the end of the series, with her son seemingly uniting the warring factions of York and Lancaster, her personal victory leaves a bittersweet note within the reader’s mouth because Gregory has crafted such an unlikeable character:
“I am My Lady, the King’s Mother, now, and you shall curtsey to me, as low as to a queen of royal blood. This was my destiny: to put my son on the throne of England, and those who laughed at my visions and doubted my vocation will call me My Lady, the King’s Mother, and I shall sign myself Margaret Regina: Margaret R.”
Despite her obvious talents for creating engaging and strong female characters, what Gregory fails to do is use this flair on her supporting male characters. The men of the cousins war series are, almost in a cruel twist of fate, assigned to be one of three things, a power hungry villain, a supportive but forgettable family member, or, such as with the cases of Edward IV and Richard III, Mills and Boon-esque romantic heroes.
The relationship between Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville was of course famously known to have passionate and thoughtless, with the accompanying legend of Elizabeth fending off Edward with a blade when rejecting the offer of being his mistress. But in The Kingmaker’s Daughter, you can’t help but feel as if Gregory is trying to inject the same level of passion into the marriage of Anne Neville and Richard III, which only produced one child versus the ten sired between Elizabeth and Edward.
“I close my eyes, I am longing for the sensation of his fingers brushing gently on the inside of my thigh. Then he takes the hem of my skirt and pulls it down to my ankles, as if he will defend my modesty, as if I can trust him.”
Unfortunately for Anne and Richard, and in spite of the numerous romantic scenes and daydreams within the book, their relationship feels flat and timid when compared to scenes in The White Queen. What doesn’t help their love story is the presence of the princess Elizabeth of York, who Richard sets out to use as a political pawn against Henry Tudor once he becomes king. In The White Princess, Gregory includes a physical romance between uncle and niece, creating and adding to the turbulence of the early Tudor years whilst simultaneously adding to the romantic image of Richard III, a direct opposition to the historical image of the last Plantagenet king.
The biggest gamble of the Cousins War series is the handling of the Princes in the Tower. History has of couse pointed the finger of blame at Richard III, but with her already well-known stance against Tudor propaganda, Gregory denies his involvement in the boy’s disappearance and accepted murder. But, instead of causing more controversy, as Gregory is so well known to do, she leaves it purposefully vague and for once doesn’t fill in a blank. Instead, she leaves it tantalisingly vague, keeping a sense of mystery to the bloody years of the Cousins War.
What’s always interesting is the inclusion of the author’s note at the end of each novel. She explicitly reiterates the fact that her stories are fictional, the product of her imagination filling in the gaps left behind by history. Following this though always comes the long list of historical research, a method that she swears by in order to gain a greater understanding of her protagonists, and therefore create a richer story.
Her apparent adherence to history is what critics have found hard to believe. The genre itself is tough to balance out, crafting readable and intriguing stories from events that were sometimes far from being so. Gregory certainly has never shied away from instilling extra drama into the already chaotic lives of her historical characters.
It is the determination to show events in a new light, going against the accepted historic grain, and presumably some of her historical sources that has led to the great criticism. Many critics have challenged the choices and personalities of her characters, such as the treatment of the princess Elizabeth of York by Henry VII in the fifth novel of the Cousins War series, The White Princess. Their relationship within the novel made for an uncomfortable read, but much like Gregory’s other works, it was readable nonetheless.