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.