THE OTHER HISTORY GIRL; Philippa Gregory Tells Event She Is NOT Battling Hilary Mantelfor the Crown of Tudor Fiction. and Who Cares If David Starkey Says She's a Bit Mills & Boon? She'll Let History - and PS17m Sales - Be Her Judge

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), April 16, 2017 | Go to article overview

THE OTHER HISTORY GIRL; Philippa Gregory Tells Event She Is NOT Battling Hilary Mantelfor the Crown of Tudor Fiction. and Who Cares If David Starkey Says She's a Bit Mills & Boon? She'll Let History - and PS17m Sales - Be Her Judge


Byline: INTERVIEW BY MICHAEL HODGES

There are feuds aplenty in my literature,' says Philippa Gregory. 'But I don't feud.' And why should she? The author of 2001's The Other Boleyn Girl and many more novels set in the medieval and Tudor periods has seen her work translated into 70 languages. Her books took PS17.4 million at the tills in the UK alone between 2000 and 2009, and The Other Boleyn Girl became a Hollywood film starring Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman.

Gregory uses gripping firstperson present tense and, when appropriate, some pretty racy sex scenes - the television version of The White Queen, starring Rebecca Ferguson, was remarkably raunchy. Yet Gregory also includes bibliographies in her books. 'Historians know the work that I'm doing,' she says.

But now two literary giants, the novelist Hilary Mantel (author of Tudor-era novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies) and the historian David Starkey (responsible for five books about Henry VIII) have questioned the approach and techniques that have brought Gregory, 63, such huge acclaim.

Starkey denounced her work as 'good Mills & Boon', but Mantel has gone even further, telling an Oxford literary conference in April that she disapproves of historical novelists who flirt with real historian status. She didn't mention Gregory by name but when she attacked writers who 'try to burnish their credentials by affixing a bibliography,' it was clear who Mantel meant.

After her first book Wideacre, in 1987, Gregory went on to write 33 bestsellers and by the millennium she was the unchallenged queen of medieval and Tudor historical fiction. Unchallenged, that is, until 2009 when Mantel came along with Wolf Hall, her brilliant tale of the rise of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's chief minister.

How did Gregory feel when Wolf Hall planted Mantel's flag squarely on her hill? 'It's not my hill,' she says. 'It's not anybody's hill, it's our hill. These are our ancestors, literally our forefathers. Wolf Hall was fantastic. I loved it. It's so thrilling to read historical fiction that makes you just rock back in your shoes and go: "Wow!" Cromwell's advice to Henry is absolutely part of the story that I always want to tell, but the bit I'm interested in is not on that particular record.' After reading Wolf Hall Gregory wrote an email to Mantel. 'I sent it via her agent,' she says. 'It said: "This is just such a fantastic book." And it wasn't like "here I am, me - Philippa Gregory." It was like, "I'm a reader."' Did she get a response from Mantel? 'No. I don't think she ever got it.' Perhaps they could bury the hatchet over a glass of wine? 'I don't know Hilary Mantel,' Gregory says with almost icy precision. 'It happens that we've not been at the same place and met.' Perhaps not, then.

If Mantel's criticism gets to a writer who sets great importance by her historical accuracy, Gregory retains great confidence in her own originality. 'I've never written in a formulaic way,' she says. 'That's not how I imagine things and that's not how I work. What happens to me, thank God, is I know the start of the story and from there I get caught up in the telling.' David Starkey is taken a little less seriously. 'He has been very critical, to the point of rudeness,' Gregory says. 'I think that's because he doesn't like women historians. He said a little while ago that he doesn't like any historians whose names end in A. Since that is the female form of all names, you know, Antonia Fraser, Amanda Foreman, Philippa Gregory, he's basically saying he doesn't like women. He's a loose cannon. And it's ridiculous because I think he is still probably the pre-eminent Tudor historian.' Gregory didn't begin her literary career with the Tudors. Wideacre is set in 18th-century rural Sussex. It was written when Gregory was a postgraduate history student and it achieved almost instant success. Ask Gregory why and she says: 'Everybody else was writing chick-lit or books about sex and shopping. …

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