Philippa Gregory is both a recognised authority on women’s history and a highly acclaimed bestselling novelist. Fans will be thrilled that her brand new novel, Three Sisters, Three Queens, tells the story of Henry VIII’s older sister Margaret Tudor, the formidable woman who ruled Scotland and raised a King – James V – and was sister to Mary Tudor, Queen of France, and sister-in-law to Catherine of Aragon. Philippa joined the Edinburgh Book Festival to chat.
The dichotomy of historical women.
What Philippa does is resurrect women from anonymity, though she’s increasingly become attracted to those whose reputations are poor or unknown. Those of dichotomy. There’s the whore, or the Madonna – an enduring image of dichotomy is Eve the Temptress or the Virgin Mary – and there’s the shewolf and the dolt.
She shows quotes about history, one in which a woman is smart, savvy and talented – “all manly qualities”, the text notes. This is how women were often portrayed – all good qualities were manly – if at all.
Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s wife – was killed – history paints her as an idiot who deserved it. Many men died at the hand or command of Henry and none of them are painted as mindless. It’s petty trivialities of history, offhand comments, that now shape her entire history.
“I look at historical facts and start looking at the psychology of it,” explains Philippa. “That’s how I write historical fiction.” She writes first person present tense to describe the experience and sweep people in the immediate story and forget they know how it ends. Avoid the terrible hindsight of history.
“When we have a gap in the record we have to fill it with imagination.”
She wanted to get inside Margaret and her multiple marriages, of which there’s little record. When it comes to her writing, “the inner world explains the outer facts.” It turns it inside out to show the plot of history.
“When we have a gap in the record we have to fill it with imagination,” she continues. Get to the point where your writing has a smack of truth to your character and you’re there. Margaret was particularly interesting, there was some unfortunate happenings – the castle she was gifted for a wedding was home to her husband’s many bastard children – and she’d ask herself, “What would Catherine do?”
Philippa would get into the setting too – she retraced her steps where she would have ridden horseback across the border, eight months pregnant, though admittedly in an Audi. She drives in areas she writes about to see things like the colour of the ground, a detail that you forget changes across the country.
“She’s really tough,” she continues, but falls foul of hypocrisy. Henry was furious that she wanted to divorce – he, the royal defender of marriage – but gave way over time when it suited him.
“British history is often English history.”
She thinks that the fact Margaret was Queen of Scotland has been part of the reason history has at times skipped her – “British history is often English history.” There’s a strangeness to Scotland – Margaret seems to hit the thistle ceiling. But she’s a shewolf, a dolt and a whore according to history; she suffers from being so slightly recorded that no one knows what she does. She breaks alliances not because she’s savvy or it’s right and everyone does it, but because “no woman can keep her word”.
“The Victorians are not keen on woman who are ambitious,” continues Philippa, noting that while they were the age of translating and editing, much can be lost through their personal preferences. For the three sisters, there’s many similarities – married, widowed, they married someone of their own choice, they all lost children, they fell from Henry’s favour, and more. As one sister rose in the world, another fell, and these links were fascinating to delve into.
After an hour of exploring history and screening atmospheric readings from her book, she gives the last word to Mary, reading a quote that concludes, “What is the point of being sisters if we do not guard each other?”