Truth, lies and historical fiction: an interview with ‘The White Queen’ writer Philippa Gregory

Charlotte Hodgman caught up with the bestselling author in a bid to discover the secrets to turning history into good fiction

Elizabeth Woodville, the queen consort of the Yorkist king Edward IV, was a character in the BBC historical drama 'The White Queen'. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

This article’s first published in the May 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

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What do you think is the appeal of historical fiction?

It gets you straight to the things you want to know about: the people, their stories, and their lives. Readers love to know what happened in the past, but don’t necessarily want to get bogged down in the minutiae of the day, such as the economy and the types of crops that were being grown. Historical fiction, when written well, can teach you these things without you having to study it. It can bring history to life.

How do you turn historical facts into good fiction?

A great deal of research, worn very lightly. My job is to write coherent, well‑put-together novels that just happen to be set in the accurately researched past. I spend about two years researching my books – talking to people, visiting places, reading books about the subject – but I would never allow myself to put something in a novel just because I’ve found out about it and thought it was fascinating. It has to be relevant to the story and not simply included for the sake of it.

Is factual accuracy still important when writing historical fiction?

Absolutely! Historical fiction writers need to make the call as to whether to include certain ‘facts’ or not – based on whether they believe they can be justified – just like historians do when they’re writing non-fiction. For example, authors of histories relating to Richard III, writing before the recent excavations in Leicester, would have been well-advised not to suggest he had a crooked spine: there was just no real evidence for it. You might mention it as part of his reputation, but you wouldn’t put it down as historical fact.

How do you strike a balance between depicting the reality of the times with modern-day sensibilities?

No matter how much it goes against your own personal sensibilities, you have to accept the reality of the times – that’s the history bit in historical fiction. My book The Red Queen, for example, discusses the consummation of the marriage between 12-year-old Margaret Beaufort and her 26-year-old husband, Edmund Tudor, a union that resulted in Margaret giving birth, aged 13, to the future Henry VII. The whole episode is very uncomfortable for the reader, but I couldn’t write anything to suggest that it was morally repellent, as it wasn’t to people at the time. You have to write within the sensibilities of the period, especially if you’re writing in the first person.

Your books are written from a female perspective. Why is this?

Women’s history is, in my opinion, still a neglected area, and I’ve often been amazed at the previous lack of curiosity into the lives of some of the women I’ve studied. There is a wealth of information about women such as Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, yet I was astonished to find nothing published on the Duchess of Bedford, Lady Rivers, the heroine of my book The Lady of the Rivers. She was mother to Elizabeth Woodville, the queen of England, and such an interesting character. Yet I found myself doing original research on her.

How do you defend historical fiction to its critics?

I find I have to defend historical fiction less now than ever before. People have to understand that it isn’t bad history, and it’s not history written by people who are making it up. Everyone has a different view of certain events and characters, but because I depict mine in a novel people are often disturbed by it. What I do find surprising is that often only the history side of my novels is criticised. What people don’t do, and what they should, is also critique them as novels – neither side is primary.

How much input into the BBC TV series, The White Queen, did you have?

I was keen to have as much input as possible and ultimately worked as associate producer on the series. I read all the scripts, met the actors and visited the set; I am delighted with how it’s turned out. It looks absolutely wonderful, and people are going to find it very compelling to watch.

The series combines the stories of three of the four books in my Cousins’ War series, set against the backdrop of the Wars of the Roses: The White Queen, The Red Queen and The Kingmaker’s Daughter. So we see the period through the eyes of three very different women: Elizabeth Woodville, the Lancastrian-turned-Yorkist queen; Margaret Beaufort, founder of the Tudor dynasty; and Anne Neville, younger daughter of ‘the kingmaker’.

It was important to me that their stories weren’t told in isolation. The series doesn’t just look at one woman coping with the misogyny of the medieval world; it looks at all of them, as it should. They were all engaged in that struggle.

What do you think makes for good historical drama on TV?

If you’re going to make a historical drama, you’ve got to have some drama! That means well-defined, interesting characters. The White Queen, unlike many historical dramas, doesn’t depict women as passive recipients of the big sweep of history. That seems to me to be a far more interesting way to tell the story, and one that is far truer to life.

How important is authenticity when filming historical dramas?

Terribly important! You should see the notes I sent to the series producers waxing lyrical about the use of horses, clothes, how people travelled, and so on. That sort of thing really matters. However, there are a number of compromises you do have to make when working in film, which can be  very frustrating – that’s why I’m a novelist, I suppose.

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Philippa Gregory is author of a number of books, including The Cousins’ War series, which follows the lives of four powerful women during the Wars of the Roses. You can find out more about her work at www.philippagregory.com