Author Philippa Gregory. (Johnny Ring / Simon and Schuster )
The publication of two books this season by Philippa Gregory gives us not only two more fascinating portraits of a fascinating period in English history, it also opens an unexpected window into the way the bestselling author of "The Other Boleyn Girl" plies her craft.
"The Women of the Cousins' War" (Touchstone: 342 pp., $26) — written with historians David Baldwin and Michael Jones — is a work of nonfiction that presents the lives of three Wars of the Roses figures: Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV; Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII; and Elizabeth's mother, Jacquetta, duchess of Bedford (the section on Jacquetta is written by Gregory). Gregory's other new book, "The Lady of the Rivers" (Touchstone: 453 pp., $27.99), is a novel about Jacquetta's early life.
Taken together, the books give readers some idea how a novelist can take the merest thread of historical detail and invent a scene that feels faithful to that historical figure's circumstances. I caught up with Gregory in between segments of her author's tour in the following email exchange:
"The Lady of the Rivers" and "The Women of the Cousins' War" seem to comment on each other in a fascinating way. Was it your intention that the two books would show readers how writing history and writing historical fiction are different?
I didn't have anything like a grand idea of demonstrating how the two are different, though as I was writing them alongside each other, I found I was thinking about the differences all the time as I was experiencing them. Of course, now you say it, I see that the reader will have a parallel experience to mine as they move from the factual to the fictional and perhaps back again.
My intention was to provide the readers of the fictions with three factual essays to serve as "companions" to the novels. So many people ask me where the history ends and the fiction begins that I now provide a bibliography of history books at the end of every novel so people can discover for themselves. In the case of Jacquetta, there is nothing in general publication at all. My research on Jacquetta produced files and files of notes, so I thought that I might as well write an essay on her for readers to study, if they so wished.
Did you learn anything in the process of writing about the same life twice?
What became really clear to me was how much the history (just like a novel) is a process of selection of facts based on the interest and prejudices of the historian. We all know that history is subjective, but it was a very powerful experience for me to see how the material that struck me as important for understanding the historical character was exactly the material that struck me as interesting as a novelist. What is revealed in both the novel and the history is the life of Jacquetta and, of course, the interests of the author.
The other thing that really struck me — and this is rather technical — is the difference in language. Often the scenes in the history and the fiction are almost identical but the descriptions are totally different. The fictional scene uses far more active and interesting verbs, and is designed to evoke emotion in the reader. It is also written with an eye to lyricism of language, and even how the paragraphs look on the page. Ideally, the novel is a thing of beauty. The history is more restrained and dry. I suspect that as readers we confuse coolness with accuracy and that we all think that detachment is "scientific."
Gaps in historical records seem less problematic for a novelist. In "Lady," an absence of specific information allows you to take your 15th century heroine Jacquetta — whose daughter Elizabeth Woodville is caught at the center of the War of the Roses — and reasonably place her in the company of Joan of Arc. It must have been thrilling to discover that their two lives overlapped.
I had a bit of a hurrah moment when I discovered that the man who arrested Joan of Arc and released her to her death at the hands of the English was Jacquetta's uncle. At the time of Joan's arrest, we don't know where Jacquetta was living, but she may well have been staying at her uncle's chateau. We know that her brother lived there during his boyhood and married his uncle's ward. We have sound historical accounts of the women of Jacquetta's family befriending Joan and trying to persuade her to avoid charges of heresy by changing into women's clothes. Jacquetta's aunt and great-aunt were named by Joan at her trial as women who had befriended her. So there is a terrific connection there.
Jacquetta's world is far less familiar to us than the Tudor era. I had no idea, for instance, that the alchemical quest was used by some not for occult reasons but to create gold to pay armies. Were there any special research challenges that you had to overcome to make such discoveries?