Along with the rise of the celebrity biography (you know, those things you buy for people at Christmas who don’t actually like books), the historical novel has been going through a massive boom in sales over the last ten years. And the most popular novelist of the lot has been Philippa Gregory. She’s written over twenty novels, had TV and film adaptations of several of her books (most famously The Other Boleyn Girl, turned into a TV series and a film starring Natalie Portman, Scarlet Johansson and Eric Bana), and sells books by the truckload to an army of loyal fans.
Many of those loyal fans turned up at the Broadway to hear her speak about the two new books she’s just released. The Lady Of The Rivers is the third in a series set in the 15th century about the War of the Roses, with each volume covering the life of a woman embroiled in the conflict. The second, The Women Of The Cousins’ War, written with David Baldwin and Michael Jones, is her first work of non-fiction, and covers much of the same ground, but from a purely historical perspective. The title neatly sums up the reason for Gregory’s massive success: women, and their hidden stories. Finding an untapped seam of stories like the one Philippa Gregory has made it her personal business to mine is the kind of break most writers would give their eyes for.
Historian Shelia Rowbotham has long argued that women, ‘hidden from history’, are as inextricably tied to the great events of history as their more famous male contemporaries, but have been sidelined, ignored or deemed ‘of no importance’. And yet, upon investigating the lives of these apparent non-entities, Gregory’s research has uncovered an untold wealth of information and helped open the way for more scholarly writers to produce serious works on these same women. Her latest novel, The Lady of the Rivers, covers the life of one of these hidden women: Jacquetta of Luxembourg. Good looking by reputation, though no picture of her exists, and descended, so the tales about her say, from a water goddess, she was centrally involved in the strife between the house of York and Lancaster, and accused of witchcraft and sorcery by allies of the Earl of Warwick.
Some scholars have criticised Gregory’s work for playing a trifle faster and looser with history than they would like. And on hearing Gregory reading at the event, I feel her style of writing isn’t on a par with Hilary Mantel, but since the number of children studying history at secondary school has plummeted by a fifth over the last decade, increasing the general interest in history, especially in history as yet unexamined, has to be a positive result. I came away from the event keen to learn more about the women in Gregory’s work, particularly those explored in her non-fiction title. I think Gregory has done history a tremendous service in her work. Since the The Other Boleyn Girl was released, Mary Boleyn has been the subject of two scholarly biographies. So it seems that Gregory may have the last laugh as she continues to gleefully uncover these hidden women, presenting a rich new seam of knowledge for both academia and popular fiction.
If you like your history strictly female and a little bit more local, then check out the work of playwright Rachael Pennell (Lucky Fin Productions) on our Writelion 7 podcast. For more information on future talks at the Broadway, check out their funky new website. Talking of which…
Word of Mouth Horror Night, Mon 31 Oct, 7.30pm
Word of Mouth hits the Broadway cafe/bar for Halloween as part of the Mayhem Festival. There'll be scary tales from Pete Davis, Megan Taylor, and Marty Ross, a performance of Andy Cattanach's SMS ghost script 'Sent/Received', Nicola Valentine will be reading from her new novel The Haunted, and graphic novelist Brick will be telling us about the history of horror, bicycles, and the year without a summer. Entrance free.