A Woman’s Place
We speak to Philippa Gregory, the queen of historical fiction, about the importance of depicting strong female characters, and rewriting a history that defies stereotypes and reinserts powerful women into our past.
A Woman’s Place
Philippa Gregory is a name synonymous with historical fiction. Having penned nearly 30 books since 1987, her novels have sold over 10 million copies and been translated into many difference languages around the world.
Gregory writes women the way very few historical authors do – as powerful, courageous and cunning, and as such, has seen great success depicting the tumultuous, challenging and often overlooked and undervalued females of the Tudor era (most famously).
In her latest novel, Three Sisters, Three Queens, Gregory explores the lives of the three women who defied the tyrannical King Henry VIII. For those who are familiar with the King’s reign – this was an incredible feat.
The novel is told from the perspective of Margaret Tudor, the older sister of Henry VIII. Margaret went on to become the Queen of Scotland, and more importantly defied her brother and married for love (twice). The second Queen is Mary Tudor (the younger sister of Henry VIII) who became Queen of France and likewise defied her brother and also married for love. Catherine of Aragon, the third Queen, resisted the King’s orders and never accepted the annulment of her marriage, staying true to her loyalty till her dying day.
Gregory was instantly drawn to these women, the power they had over Henry and the steadfast morals they refused to give up: “They all had a strong sense of themselves, and pursued their own projects in life…” a quality that was rarely synonymous with female characters of that time. “None of them was willing to let Henry’s plan for their life overcome their own, and there was little even a king could do about that.”
A woman’s place in history, especially during this time, was frequently misrepresented – if at all, which resulted in history treating them “as aberrant when they are aspirational.” That history has largely ignored women, or diminished their role or influence is a commonplace that Gregory aims to counter with the depiction of strong and vibrant female characters.
Her novels explore a moment in time where women were forced to sacrifice their ‘womanliness’ to enact power, or were thought of as abnormal for veering from their “naturally passive” place in the history books, yet unfortunately, as Gregory laments, this is commonplace in today’s portrayal of women as well.
Gregory’s talent lies in her ability to bring to life these forgotten characters: “To write of any of these women as an authentic being with a rounded character and a credible psychology, working in a rational way for her own aims, is to reclaim a character from the shadows, and from slander, and to restore to history some really wonderful characters.”
This restoration, Gregory feels, is aligned with Historical Fiction in a way that non-fiction cannot offer, “The greatest insights I have into historical women are when I take off the misogynistic blinkers and filter out the opinions of historians and read the facts of a woman’s life and not the underlying message that if she is active she is unnatural and if she is successful she is de-sexed.”
Gregory proves time and again that her novels are anything but “wishful hindsight” and are a true encapsulation of remarkable women “striving for their lives, trying to satisfy their own needs” in a time when history denied them their place in the sun.
Three Sisiters, Three Queens is out now.