Philippa Gregory, the “queen of historical fiction” and bestselling author of “The Other Boleyn Girl,” held court today in the Morse College master’s house.
Gregory spoke about her new book “The Other Queen,” released this month, as well as her bestseller and the movie it inspired at a Master’s Tea on Wednesday afternoon. While “The Other Boleyn Girl” was about the famous second wife of Henry VIII and her sister, “The Other Queen” is a story based on Mary, Queen of Scots.
While a lot of the talk focused on her new novel, she spent much of her time expounding on her feminist take on history.
“Everything is set up in terms of male morality,” she said. “In my research, I try to get beyond that.”
Gregory’s feminist agenda became apparent when she introduced the characters and ideas behind her new novel. She had initially refused to do any research on Mary, whom she viewed as “a woman so vain, so silly, who picks up rubbish husbands!”
But once she relented, she said, she found that she had erred: “It turns out she wasn’t stupid at all!”
Gregory said she considers “The Other Queen” a collision between two female views of the world. The other main character, Bess of Hardwick, is a self-made woman who has come into tremendous power and wealth through her own means. Mary, on the other hand, believes that her sole claim to power as a woman is her own holiness, and that she was ordained by God to be Queen. Gregory further immersed the audience in her work by sharing the more subtle elements of her research, showing slides of tapestries made by the women, many with symbolism that would have been considered treasonous in their time.
Gregory was drawn to historical fiction because it does not limit her to recording a life from birth to death, as being a historian would, she said.
“Novelists can start where they like and stop where they like,” she said. “That’s the art of it.”
She also noted that she finds “the notion of female badness absolutely thrilling.”
As soon as Gregory finished speaking, hands shot up.
When one student asked about the author’s role in the cinematic reproduction of “The Other Boleyn Girl,” Gregory diplomatically responded that, although she had butted heads with the film’s creators, she thought that the performances were phenomenal. She was disappointed, however, that the film lacked the complexity and depth of her novel, reducing the story to a “cat fight … two women fighting over a bloke.”
Other students challenged Gregory, questioning her historical interpretations and her claims to feminism. Kate Maltby ’10 criticized Gregory’s depiction of Anne Boleyn.
“She’s basically taking a woman who was deeply involved in promoting an intellectual Renaissance, and condemning her for her political involvement as a woman in court,” Maltby said. “How is it feminist to perpetuate the absolute stereotype of a female politician as a b–ch?”
Maltby is a staff columnist for the News.
There was a very small male contingent at the predominantly female gathering, but Gregory managed to capture at least one of them. Amar Srivastava ’10 admitted that he attended the talk at his sister’s request to get the author’s signature. But he left with a different perspective, he said.
“I thought it was really fascinating,” Srivastava said. “I’ve always been interested in English history, and after hearing her talk about the depth and personality of her characters, I’d definitely consider reading a book.”
The film version of “The Other Boleyn Girl” was released in February.