Innately not interesting

Here’s someone I’ve never read – the historical novelist Philippa Gregory. She has a history PhD but got it just in time for Thatcher’s cuts to university courses, when jobs teaching 18th century history became scarce. She wrote a novel for the fun of it and whoops it was a best-seller so the university job was no longer required.

Her nose for a good story continued to serve her well, however; when Gregory “discovered” Mary Boleyn, she had been all but forgotten.

“There wasn’t a single book or essay about her. She was in the footnotes of other, allegedly more interesting, lives and only very occasionally at that. It took an exjourno and a woman historian to spot that actually she was rather extraordinary.”

To this day, Gregory is amazed at the patchy recording of women’s history – “We don’t even have a birth date for someone as famous as Anne Boleyn!” – and has made it her “life’s work” to balance out the history books.

“Even now there’s a prejudice that women didn’t operate the levers of power, weren’t effective and are innately not interesting.”

The “are innately not interesting” is the real killer. It’s why almost all movies are about Men, with women in bit parts as the Men’s recreational objects, when they’re not entirely absent. It’s why so many male novelists are so bad at writing women characters. It’s part of why women just get shoved aside and overlooked.

While people will always disagree about the interpretation of historical characters – “If you and I had a mutual acquaintance it’s unlikely we’d hold exactly the same view of her and we’d both have evidence to support our views” – there is no place for historical anachronism in Gregory’s world.

“I remember years ago reading [Hugh] Walpole’s novel on Judith Paris and she escapes by opening a window and climbing down a drainpipe – before sanitation had been invented. I was loving the novel up until that point but it completely lost me then and I always hold it in my mind as the sort of thing I don’t want a reader of mine to experience.”

Somebody invented the drainpipe? They weren’t just there, like leaves?

Given her fascination with kings and queens of the past, it comes as some surprise to learn that Gregory is a republican whose interest in our current monarchy is about as great as her interest in reality TV family The Kardashians.

“I have no particular interest in the goings-on of a group of wealthy, privileged people… it seems to me most of what they do is just gossip.

“There isn’t any real power there. They’ve become celebrities more than anything else and that doesn’t interest me at all. I’m in favour of a reduced monarchy. I think the idea of a social structure that isn’t democratic or meritocratic has no real place in modern society.

“The Tudors are interesting to me because the personality of the monarch determined their political role and vice versa. The sort of person they were affected the whole kingdom. But that hasn’t been the case for a long time now.”

I never have figured out who the Kardashians actually are. I think they’re an invention, like drainpipes.


  1. Al Dente says

    The Tudors are interesting to me because the personality of the monarch determined their political role and vice versa. The sort of person they were affected the whole kingdom.

    That was certainly true of Henry VIII and both of his daughters.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    chigau @ # 2 – Even in older historic buildings, just try to find a drainpipe which could sustain an adult’s weight.

    Gregory’s gripe involves a structural impossibility, not a mere anachronism.

  3. Blanche Quizno says

    I think the older buildings would have had drain SPOUTS, possibly embellished to the point of gargoyles, rather than drainpipes one could climb down. Before sanitation, there was no need to direct the destination of the earthbound water, after all.

    A fascinating woman I’m tempted to write a book about is Diane de Poitiers. She was the favorite mistress of French King Francis I, and when his son Henry II succeeded him, she was HIS favorite as well! She apparently consumed a lot of gold in solution, which left her with very fine hair, very white skin, and enabled the later identification of her skeleton, as it had thinned her bones. She was athletic – she loved horseback riding and swam every day, it is said. She was King Henry II’s right arm and advised him on matters of state – truly a Renaissance woman!

  4. says

    I agree that Diane de Poitiers would be a fascinating subject, but gold does not do anything to the human body. Perhaps it was something else in the solution. I’ve worked with gold leaf as a gilder, and I’m quite certain that it’s harmless.

    I did a quick search on the internet to see if I could find a reference for that and I came across this short video.

  5. boadinum says

    I think the Kardashians were the villians in some episodes of Star Trek: TNG and DS9.

  6. says

    You didn’t need drainpipes until you had indoor plumbing. My 1906 house in California had drainpipes, because indoor plumbing was added some years later; the house didn’t originally have indoor plumbing. Now it’s been remodeled, and the drainpipes are inside the walls–so no drainpipes again!

  7. Trebuchet says

    I agree that the “drainpipe” reference refers to what we Americans would call downspouts, from the rain gutters.

    Even in older historic buildings, just try to find a drainpipe which could sustain an adult’s weight.

    I attempted to find one on my house about 16 months ago. That’s why I spent the next two months hospitalized with a broken back and leg.

    The difference between drainpipes and Kardashians is that drainpipes are actually good for something.

  8. Blanche Quizno says

    @5 fourth of july: I think I’ll be passing on your link! I guess I don’t go out of my way to identify myself as a douche O_O

    Per my comment on the gold poisoning:

    In 16th century France, there lived a king with a beautiful and somewhat mysterious mistress. Diane de Poitiers was almost 20 years older than Henri II but she looked like one of his contemporaries. She had skin of a near porcelain white and auburn hair as fine as silk thread.

    Her body was laid to rest near the castle’s chapel and it stayed there until the French Revolution (1787-1799) when revolutionaries dug it up and threw it into a ditch used for pauper burials.

    And there they stayed until a few years ago, when the burial pit was uncovered and Diane de Portiers skeleton was identified (matching it through facial reconstruction and through a break in one leg, that she had sustained in a fall from a horse).

    But the archeologists also noted that her bones were unusually thin and fragile-looking, especially for a woman famed in her time as an athletic woman who swam daily and enjoyed vigorous horseback rides.

    Suspecting a heavy metal poisoning of some kind and remembering that some locks of her hair were preserved at Chateau d’Anet, they requested a toxicology screen. The analysis came back showing the hair loaded with metal, but definitely not one of the usual suspects: de Poitiers’ hair contained the precious metal gold at 500 times above normal levels.

    “Her hair was much finer than normal, which is a secondary effect of chronic gold poisoning,” reported French researcher Philippe Charlier.”It gives you white skin (from anemia) and very fragile hair, bones and teeth. She was in this fragile state when she died.”

    But why would de Portiers’s body contain such high levels of a precious metal? It was unlikely that she dined on her jewelry. Further research discovered that she was in the habit of drinking a gold elixir, prescribed by apothecaries of the time as a means of preserving youthfulness. The elixir contained gold chloride (AuCl3, one atom of gold for every three of chlorine) dissolved into a solvent.

    We’ll look more specifically at gold and its poisonous properties tomorrow. For today, it’s worth noting that, given our current understanding, Diane de Portiers’ youthful vigor could well have been due to her health exercise habits. Her famously pale skin, though, was undoubtedly due to gold poisoning.

    And although she lived a reasonably long life – 66 was definite elder status in the 1500s – the conclusion of the French researchers who dug up her bones is that she probably would have lived even longer, if she hadn’t poisoned herself with gold.

    I know gold is said to be non-reactive (doesn’t tarnish, etc.), but, well, there it is ^.

    I’m reminded of that Radithor craze:!E8xBP

    So watch your gilding!

  9. Blanche Quizno says

    @8 Trebuchet, why were you seeking a drainpipe? And what did you do with it when you found it and why?

  10. Lori Turnbull says

    There are so many influential women to write about that were not Royals or Courtesans, such as the Pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, Deborah Sampson the Revolutionary War soldier, Phillis Wheatly the Slave that became the first published African American Author, Laura Bullion who was the female member of the Wild Bunch Gang, etc…

  11. shari says

    I would have guessed it was the chlorine, not the gold! Then again, I am a chemistry fail 😉 That much chlorine couldn’t have been healthy either…..i thought it kills just about everything….

  12. rq says

    Looks like I’ll have to read more of her. I read her book The Red Queen and was rather pleased with it, though I’m not one for historical books at all. Definitely worth the effort for me, and thanks for the reminder to look into more of her work (if only for the educational factor!).

  13. shari says

    I’ve read the Other Boleyn girl, which is best viewed as historical fiction – although she did her homework! I enjoyed it. I thought the Boleyn Legacy was lazy as literature (how many times in 4 pages can you read ‘a Smithtown Whore’ before it’s inneffective!!). I did like how it at least tried to tell the story of Henry’s wives. The White Queen series on Showtime was really good so I may go back and read those (the red Queen, the White queen.)

  14. Sili says

    I would have guessed it was the chlorine, not the gold! Then again, I am a chemistry fail That much chlorine couldn’t have been healthy either…..i thought it kills just about everything….

    It’s not chlorine – it’s chloride. As in table salt.

    The problem is that once gold has been turned into an ion it can easily get into the body’s metabolism. Something it can’t as the metal, because there isn’t any part of the metabolism that can convert it to ions. So guilding (without mercury) is harmless.

    It’s like the exaggerated fears of mercury in vaccines. It depends a lot on what state it’s in (but it’s not exactly harmless in any of them – unlike gold).

  15. lynnebatik says

    Chiming in here on the gold issue, gold salts have been extensively used in the 20th C. in medicine. On the good side, they can significantly reduce pain and inflammation, which is why they were used both orally and as injection for rheumatoid arthritis. On the bad side, this comes with the price of significant later osteoporosis. I can confirm from personal experience that long-term use of gold salts thins the bones.

  16. shari says

    Thanks! – i ‘know’ gold is inert, and yes if something is going to mess it up, salt sounds about right. I know I still don’t have a great picture of how it poisons, but I appreciate the technical education effort anyway. Thanks so much, lynne and sili!

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