Novelist Philippa Gregory On The Iconic Women Who Inspired Her Acclaimed Work

Anne and Mary Boleyn are just scratching the surface.

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Those familiar with Philippa Gregory’s extensive catalogue of historical fiction novels know her work to be riveting, informative, and often deliciously salacious. The English author has built her illustrious career telling the lesser known narratives of famous women throughout British history. Think the award-winning 2002 tale The Other Boleyn Girl, which spotlights Mary Boleyn, the sister of Henry VIII’s infamous second wife Anne, which was eventually reimagined for the big screen with an all-star cast that included Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, and Eric Bana. There’s also The White Queen, the story of Elizabeth Woodville, queen consort of King Edward IV, which eventually became a hit STARZ series starring Rebecca Ferguson. Even those who may not immediately know Gregory by name are likely familiar with her work in some form.

And while the Kenya-born author’s novels are technically categorized as fiction, it’s important to note that the 70-year-old is a historian at heart. The countless books she’s penned over the past 40 years are rooted in extensive research and a true passion for history. In fact, for her latest 500-page tome, Normal Women, Gregory flexes her historian muscle like never before, telling the real stories of English women over the course of 900 years, starting at 1066. As the writer’s first nonfiction book, it is the culmination of years of investigation and analysis to uncover the “highway women and beggars, murderers and brides, housewives and pirates” that were often overlooked or left out of history books.

“What we call Tyler's rebellion was actually led by four women, peasant ringleaders,” explains Gregory of her impetus to write Normal Women. “Well, [Wat] Tyler was there, but he let them out. He freed them from Canterbury jail before he marched on to London because he knew he needed them. He didn't stop at Canterbury jail for the fun of it. He had to have them at the forefront as they went into London. What we call the Buckingham Rebellion in the period of Richard III was actually organized by Margaret Beaufort. We have so many occasions where women's agency has been deliberately hidden, partly to protect their reputation, partly to [inflate] the reputation of the men who were working alongside them.”

Gregory continues, explaining that British history has been largely written and taught from the lens of men, all of which of have a preexisting belief of the “nature” of women. “They don't look for angry women, violent women, sexual women, powerful women, decisive women, political women, clever women,” says the author. “They don't look for them because they assume that women have a nature which is mild and loving and maternal and non-sexual and not very logical. Their bodies are weak and frail. And that Victorian image of the nature of women absolutely determines how they write women in history, which is what we inherit. When we read the work of a Victorian historian, we think we're reading history. What we don't realize is that we're also reading all of their prejudices.”

Ahead, the New York Times bestselling author discusses her latest book as well as her endless love and fascination for badass women.

Tell me about Normal Women. What inspired it?

I think, as the best things do, it came out of something else. For years and years, readers have come up to me at events and said, ‘How do you find these extraordinary women?’ And I’ve always given them the completely ridiculous answer of, ‘When I'm working on one extraordinary woman that makes me look at the life of another, a daughter or a mother or a sister or a rival. And then when I look at her in detail, I find loads about her that I didn't know was there. And then that leads me to tell a story about her.’ I must have been saying that for about five or six years before it occurred to me that it was nonsense and that the reason that I find these extraordinary women is because they're there and other people haven't discussed them, but the material is there, the lives were lived.

What's extraordinary is that [many are] not reported in history. That in order to write about them, I have to go and find them. And then I said, ‘Well, if that's the case, there are presumably hundreds, thousands, millions of women whose stories we simply don't read in the history books.’ And once the penny dropped on that, I went, well, let me think of a date and start there and look for the women [present in that time]. Immediately I started at 1066. You find this entire generation of Anglo-Saxon women living in England whose lives change dramatically as a result of the Norman invasion and whose loss of land, of legal rights, of religious freedom, of marital rights and marital freedom is completely ignored by people who tell the story of this event.

I went, OK, it's very clear to me that something extraordinary is happening here in the history, which is not being told in the regular historical accounts. You only find it in the specialist histories. And then I just kept working my way through and literally every century something cropped up to me that I had not even heard of before as a historian of many years.

What are some of your go-to resources when you're starting to dig into a project like this that explores various and specific periods of time?

There are fantastic historians, some from a long time ago, some of them writing centuries ago, some of them modern. But what they do is they tend to look at a specific period of time or they look at a specific area or they look at a specific class or they look at a specific set of records. What they have is intense, wonderful work in quite a narrow silo, which is the way history used to be written in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. I've taken these insights and put them together with all the other insights that I can find, and I literally go to their footnotes and see what they've looked at and they lead me to other authors and they lead me to other books. I couldn't have done this before the invention of the internet. Sitting in my study, I can call up almost everything, almost everything that's been published because so much of it is digitized now.

Is there a specific story in Normal Women that really was of particular interest to you or felt particularly important to talk about?

I mean, the reason that the book is so very big is because there were so many stories, and I couldn't bear to leave any of them out. It’s a story of lots of women in different trades to show that it's not just that women are working in the brewery business or the food business or the textile business, but there are also stone masons and there are also moneylenders and there are also criminals.

I think the standout fact for me probably was that women had equal pay in 1349 in England and we haven't had equal pay since. Isn't that extraordinary that in the middle of the 14th century, women were paid equally for equal work and since then, because of deliberate legislation to depress women's wages, because of the advantage to the economy of depressing women's wages and creating a reserve army of women [that has not been the case]. Equal pay was made law in the ‘60s and we still don't have it in England. The average woman's pay is three quarters of a man's wage, and the last time we had equal pay was 1349. That's the kind of fact that I found very striking.

You’ve written about both truly iconic women and those who are not as well-known over the years. What’s been your process in selecting a subject to write about?

The novels, they literally fall into my lap in the most inspiring sort of way. I mean, I'm always reading history. I'm always reading nonfiction books. In those books, there will be a little mention of somebody and it will just pique my interest — almost like if you were at a party and you looked across a room and you went, ‘Well, that's an interesting face. I wonder what she's like?’ Because it's in books, it's perfectly OK to then stalk them through research.


Some of the stories, like the mother of Elizabeth Woodville, who I wrote about under the title Lady of the Rivers. [Her name is] Jacquetta and she was married to the Regent of France. When he died, she then married for love. She was then the mother of Elizabeth Woodville and present at that York court. She had the most extraordinary life. She was put on trial and found guilty of witchcraft. I think she probably was practicing witchcraft. She's descended from the water goddess Melusina, and she traces her family tree literally to a water goddess.

This is a woman that you've simply got to find out more about and there is nothing published on her at all [...] And I found her because I was working on her daughter, Elizabeth Woodville. Then you go, ‘This is extraordinary. I have to find out more about this woman.’ And most of them come to me as a result of being connected to somebody else.

Speaking of Elizabeth Woodville, I loved how you captured her story — I also enjoyed the novel’s interpretation in The White Queen series for STARZ. How did you like that TV interpretation?

I have to say I love Elizabeth Woodville. As a historian, you're supposed to be at least a bit objective, but I literally adore Elizabeth Woodville and she was such a lovely character to research. And then when we did the television series, Rebecca Ferguson plays her and she played her so beautifully.

That said, so much of your work has obviously been translated to film and to TV. How involved are you in that to ensure that it honors your work?

The difficulty with film and television, for writers, is that once the production starts rolling and it's so incredibly expensive and it's got so many people involved in it and so many of them have rights on it, you can't expect to see your novel and your favorite scenes just get on the screen. You've got to accept that the cast and crew will bring to it their skills, which are not my skills and which ideally I'm really, really delighted about. And every single project has been completely different. Some of them I've absolutely loved. Some of them have been really terrible.

Was there a project that you were particularly pleased with?

I did like the way The White Queen came out, and I liked the way The Other Boleyn Girl came out. There were things in [the latter that] the writer and I argued about, but I thought it was a sumptuous production. And there is something about seeing what film and television bring to a story, which is a revitalizing sort of element. And it's very, very exciting as an author. I mean, I proceed with adaptations. And I just try and establish from the very, very beginning the boundaries that we all agree we're going to stick to.

I try not to be precious about my work because everything that I write is a view that I take on a historical character. I'm not saying this is the only way to see it. I have to accept that when someone comes on, they will have different views and different opinions, and I respect that. And on a good day I really, really like it. But there are some things that I can't bear if it's changing the historical. If it's changing the known historical record, it's got to be really clearly flagged for me and it's got to be really clear why you're doing that. With my fiction, I like to stay on the historical record wherever we know it.

How do you keep the fictional story respectful to the true story while also taking creative liberties?

I don't take many liberties and when I do take a liberty, I write about it. There's an author's note at the back of every book. If somebody wants to know what's made up and what's historically sourced, I'm very, very clear about what that is. Like the little historian I am, I also do a bibliography at the back of every book. If you want to know where I got my facts from, you can literally go to the history books I was reading.

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Where I invent is when I have a historical record of somebody being somewhere, but the chronicler at the time has not noted how they looked or how they seemed to feel. And so I take it as a fiction writer to imagine how they felt given that I know historically what else is going on for them. I think my job is to breathe life into the historical facts and the fiction is sort of the animating force in the historical facts.

Are there any other well-known women in history that you really want to write about or that you have your eye on for a future story?

I would say one of them is The Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

What about more modern, prominent women in history, even those from the past 50 years?

I'm a real historian. I'm not really interested in anybody born after 1900. There's a great historian named Eric Hobsbawm and somebody asked him what he thought about the result of the English Civil War, which happened in 1660, and he said it was too soon to tell. And I think, for some of the really iconic women of today, you need a hundred years or so to see what seems interesting about them. We know what's interesting about them now, but did they genuinely make a difference or were they just sensational at the time? And you really see their reputation changing so dramatically according to the circumstances of their life. Whereas, to put it brutally, when they're dead, that's when you look back at the entire life of someone and you see if anything mattered very much at all.