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'It's not that I keep falling over exceptional women ... it's that most of the women were exceptional'

Novelist Philippa Gregory loves writing about strong female characters but, she reveals to Hannah Stephenson, is surprised that, centuries after those she writes about lived, we don't have more equality today


Making history: Philippa Gregory

Making history: Philippa Gregory

Actress Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn in the film adaptation of The Other Boleyn Girl

Actress Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn in the film adaptation of The Other Boleyn Girl


Making history: Philippa Gregory

Bestselling novelist Philippa Gregory has made a habit of focusing on strong women in history. Take The Other Boleyn Girl, her bestselling story about Anne Boleyn's sister, which was adapted for the big screen and starred Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman; or The King's Curse, which introduced us to Catherine of Aragon's lady-in-waiting, Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury.

She has sold more than 10 million books around the world, revealing the untold stories of women in history, focusing on the Tudors and Plantagenet dynasties of medieval England.

"Almost universally I focus on women in my books," she says. "Women's stories are less well-known. Some I've written about are almost completely unknown and don't have any published biography. Those are stories waiting to be told and the research is really interesting.

"Bringing their stories to life is important, because it enhances our view of women's capacities and women's histories."

Writing about strong women in history has come to the attention of two-time Man Booker prize-winning novelist Dame Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies.

She recently told a London audience that women writers must stop rewriting history to make their female characters falsely "empowered".

Earlier in the year, Dame Hilary also told an Oxford literary conference that she disapproves of historical novelists who flirt with real historian status, attacking writers who "try to burnish their credentials by affixing a bibliography", as Philippa is known to do.

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But Philippa doesn't want to pick a feud with Dame Hilary.

"Hilary and I have never met. We just haven't been to the same events at the same times.

"We've corresponded a couple of times by email, particularly when everybody said she was being critical of me. She very pleasantly emailed me and said, 'I wasn't talking about you', and I replied and said, 'I'm absolutely sure you weren't'."

She's clearly keen not to go further on this and says of Dame Hilary: "I read Wolf Hall when it first came out and absolutely loved it. I think Hilary's a great writer of historical fiction."

Philippa's latest novel, The Last Tudor, centres on the Grey Sisters - Lady Jane Grey, who reigned for just nine days, her sisters Katherine and Mary and their cousin Queen Elizabeth's brutal treatment of them, to ensure they would not produce any potential royal heirs.

"I give a very critical description of Elizabeth as a monster. It's written in the voices of the three Grey girls and it's very important to me that we see it from their point of view.

"Elizabeth is completely paranoid about her heirs, who are younger and prettier than her, and who are able to marry for love in a way that she never allowed herself.

"It's a negative, nightmarish picture of Elizabeth."

She has already had interest from film production companies about possible screen adaptations, but is treading carefully.

Many of her works, including The Other Boleyn Girl and her Cousins' War series (on which the BBC's The White Queen was based), have been turned into screen productions.

"I've been very lucky in the attention that's been paid to my novels.

"Each adaptation is different and brings a different writer and a different aesthetic.

"I much prefer it if they stay close to the history, which is truly what happened."

Usually, she sells the rights and then acts as consultant, although she has been executive producer on occasions.

She had no involvement in the making of The White Princess - the story of Elizabeth of York and her marriage to Henry VII - which was shown in the US and clearly wasn't too impressed with the final outcome.

"The scriptwriter says she wanted to make Game of Thrones with women. I didn't and I don't. And I didn't know that at the beginning.

"I always wanted something realistic and plausible about the past in my novels and some of them are literally biographies, especially of unknown people. I stay very close to the reality."

Now, she has a new contract with TV production companies specifying that they may not alter the history.

"To produce a historical drama which is unhistorical is not what it says on the tin. To me, it's a bit of a waste of time."

An adaptation of her first historical novel, Wideacre, which this year celebrates its 30th anniversary, is currently in production in the UK.

She has been on set during other productions. "Sometimes it's completely wonderful. Often you get attached to the actors and these set-based friendships, because often the actors are asking me a lot of detail about the backstory of the characters.

"Rebecca Ferguson and I have a genuine friendship after she was Elizabeth Woodville in The White Queen. She's a really nice person."

She intends to continue writing about women in history whose stories have not been greatly explored.

"It's not that I keep falling over exceptional women, it's simply that most of the women were exceptional. Normal women lived their lives struggling for power, struggling for survival, and in the course of that, they experience heroic endeavour. It just so happens that their stories aren't very much recorded, or selected by historians.

"None of the women I write about have legal, or political, rights and very few financial rights, or rights of safety. They are in an extraordinarily oppressive society and, despite this, they still manage to run a household, run a land, run industries, and sometimes run the country."

So, when asked if she'd have rather lived in the 16th century than today, she laughs.

"It's not a ridiculous question, but anybody would be mad to swap the rights and safety that we've won day-to-day for the incredible dangers women faced in earlier periods. It would be ridiculous to be disappointed about the life that we have."

The 63-year-old feminist lives on a 100-acre farm in north Yorkshire with her third husband, Anthony Mason (she has a son, a daughter and four stepchildren), and is working on a new novel, set in the 1640s, about a fictional character living in West Sussex.

There is also a non-fiction book on the general history of women, which she says will take her years.

However, she is quick to note that women still have some way to go to achieve equality: "I would have expected us to have got further on by now."

The Last Tudor by Philippa Gregory is published by Simon & Schuster, £20

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