Guilty pleasures: On reading Philippa Gregory

So yeah, I read Philippa Gregory’s latest, The Lady of the Rivers, over the weekend. It’s the third in her Cousins’ War series, after The White Queen and The Red Queen. All concern women who were involved in the Wars of the Roses — the battle over the English crown that was ultimately resolved with Henry VII’s establishment of the Tudor dynasty — and his wife, Elizabeth of York. Elizabeth of York’s mother, Elizabeth Woodville, is the White Queen of the first book. Henry VII’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, is the Red Queen of the second book (even though she was never queen). The new book is about Elizabeth Woodville’s mother, Jacquetta.

People who sound knowledgable on sites like LibraryThing sometimes knock Gregory for historical accuracy. I understand their frustration; if you notice details about certain things, inaccurate portrayals can ruin an otherwise well-done production. I have a hard time with any TV or movie  portrayal of newspaper journalism, or horse riding, for that reason. But even though I’m a history buff (in the sense of someone who likes popular histories and will watch almost any costume drama), I’m not an inaccuracy cop when it comes to historical fiction. If someone in pre-New World Contact Europe were eating a potato or a tomato I might not even notice. And I take popular works of fiction like Gregory’s as just that: fiction. I don’t assume that she’s got some kind of time capsule that gives her access to the definitive version of what happened. I assume that she’s done some research into her characters and their situations and come up with her own portrayals of the events and how her characters viewed them. If I wanted rock solid factually based referenced and sourced account of the events I’d read … nonfiction. Something like She-Wolves by Helen Castor, or the nonfiction works of Antonia Fraser or Alison Weir, whose new book on Mary Boleyn — you know, the Other Boleyn Girl? — is high on my TBR list at the moment.

In the meantime, I enjoyed this particular piece of brain candy. It’s not a work of history; I’m not going to claim from now on that the York-Lancaster-Tudor settlement was in fact based on the magical properties Jacquetta of Luxembourg inherited from the mermaid Melusina and passed on to her daughter and granddaughter. But I do have a better understanding of the various players in the Wars of the Roses, and their relationships to each other.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Guilty pleasures: On reading Philippa Gregory

  1. Her books that are total fiction are great too. The Queen’s Fool. She still packs a lot of actual history into them. The Red Queen was kind of a stretch. She was so unlikable.

  2. boneislandbooks

    I agree the Red Queen wasn’t much fun — Margaret Beaufort was unlikable and apparently miserable; didn’t make for a very engaging story.

  3. I’ve enjoyed several Philippa Gregory; great fun! I have thought a great deal (and blogged several times) on the concept of historical accuracy. Mostly I’m with you: it’s fiction; take it as such. But there are such fine lines! And there’s no escaping that there will always be a reader out there who thinks s/he knows history, from fiction. Is it the author’s responsibility to take care of this reader? I don’t know. It’s a topic that interests me. (You can read my ramblings on the concept of historical fiction, for example, here and here.) Have you ever read Sharon Kay Penman? She’s rather a different undertaking – her books are denser, longer – but she is painstakingly accurate; and before you think it gets dull, it doesn’t! She’s probably my favorite hist fict author, and serves as a counterpoint to PG. Both are great; but they’re doing two rather different things.

  4. boneislandbooks

    I’ve read Sharon Kay Penman’s Justin de Quincy series — they’re very good and they’re not gigantic tomes like most of her better known standalones. But I have been wanting to read her for some time and am glad to hear your endorsement. Just need to commit to the giant tome. Every time I look at When Christ and His Saints Slept on the library shelf, I see two weeks of my life disappearing. And that’s just the first book! She seems very cool — responded to a question I posted on her Goodreads blog and everything. I was wondering if there would be more Justin novels, which are historical crime set in the time of Richard I — apparently her publisher says her standalones sell better but I’m hoping the BBC Shardlake adaptations prompt more interest in British historical crime series. Especially by Americans — I’m on the hunt for good historical crime, fiction or non, if anyone has suggestions.

    • Nan, I had just finished a book and needed to pick another to read when I posted this, and went home and picked up a Penman! Thanks for prompting me! 🙂
      I have read one Justin de Quincy and enjoyed it very much, but have been more motivated to pick up the massive tomes. They are time-consuming but so pleasurable! I haven’t read that many of hers – just 3 or 4 maybe – and I have more than that sitting on my shelf, since I pick them up every time I find one. So thanks for the reminder, again!

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