If you’re a reader of historical fiction, a lover of history, or know someone who’s either one of those things, I can pretty much guarantee you’ve heard all about how most people with a cursory knowledge of the areas in which she writes, have a sort of love/hate relationship with her. I’m not here to discuss that, it’s all over the web – what I’m here to discuss is the fact that i do consider Philippa Gregory an integral (if not the integral) influence in my work.
To really understand, we’re going to have to go back to the late 90s. I was a wee pipsqueak when I first picked up an adult historical fiction novel. I had grown up reading pretty much any sort of “historical” children’s novel I could: Little Women, Little House on the Prairie, the Dear America series… But at that time, the Royal Diaries series wasn’t out yet, and like most young girls, I was very much into princesses and chivalry, and like so many writers, I was a rather precocious reader. I had picked up an ‘older’ (1960s or 1970s?) novel about Anne Boleyn, written by an author whose name I cannot recall.
I was so excited. Of course I knew the story of Henry VIII and his many wives; like so many children, I had learned the little nursery rhyme of “Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived”. I expected intrigue, flirtateousness, and life-or-death situations, but what I hadn’t expected was how dragging the novel could be. I didn’t care about Anne’s flirtations with Thomas Wyatt, or the “weird” way in which she interacted with her brother; I didn’t care about “ye olde hystorycally accurayte dyalog” and narration written in 5pt. font, that I would be required to decipher. I didn’t get the ribald humor of the time, sexual jokes went straight over my head, and that first taste of adult HF really soured me toward the genre. I ended up putting the book down and diving head-first into Harry Potter and the Royal Diaries. Ultimately, I would refuse to even consider a story set in an era that wasn’t considered the present or close to it.
Then, in 2005, my whole world changed with a simple trip to Sam’s Club. For those of you unfamiliar with Sam’s Club, it’s one of those bulk warehouse stores, like Costco, Makro, PriceSmart, or SourceClub (if anyone remembers those). I remember we had taken my grandparents to Sam’s Club with us, because at the time the closest Sam’s Club to their house was about a 6hr round trip, and my mother, grandmother, and I were browsing the books. I had just received my allowance, and I was looking for a book to read on the ride home so I wouldn’t have to be subjected to the awkward questions most teenagers get (“How’s your boyfriend?” “How’s school?” “What classes are you taking?” “Have you decided what you want to do for the rest of your life, even though you’re only 14 and hardly considered old enough to pee on your own?” Okay, that last one’s a slight exaggeration. Slight). On a whim, I ended up picking up “The Other Boleyn Girl”, having recently become enamored with RenFaires due to my association with my school’s theatre group. Perhaps, I thought with a melodramatic sigh, Historical Fiction won’t be so awful now that I’ll understand the sexual things.
I can’t express how glad I am that I saw TOBG on that table. It opened my eyes.
Historical Fiction doesn’t have to be stuffy. The narrator doesn’t have to be written “tru to peryod”, the dialogue doesn’t have to be the stilted and overly-formal kind. This Henry VIII wasn’t constantly talking about his sexual proclivity in veiled ways, this Anne wasn’t a whore, this Katherine of Aragon wasn’t a poor abused milksop. The book opened my eyes, and suddenly I was searching everywhere for similarly written books, gobbling up everything I could about the Tudors, then the Plantagenets, and even farther back. If it hadn’t been for Philippa Gregory, I would have never decided to give HF another go. I would’ve never taken an interest in the Habsburg, Valois, Borgia, or any other family; I would have barely heard of Isabel the Catholic or Eleanor of Aquitaine. I would’ve never been confused as to why Spain is almost always considered “the Big Bad” even though England and France are quite often enemies throughout history, and why there doesn’t seem to be a major English-speaking, mainstream interest in historical Iberia. I would have never thought, “You know, it’s time to have another part of the story. It’s time to talk about Spain.”
So you see, without Philippa Gregory, La Bastarda would not exist, my WIP would not exist, all of these stories bouncing around in my head wouldn’t have been planted there, and I would not be a writer.