Philippa Gregory: A recipe for good historical fiction

I first came upon Philippa Gregory through the popularity of “The Other Boleyn Girl”, which then prompted me to want to read the other books in the series about Henry VIII’s six wives. And like the author, I became fascinated with this time period. I’ve never been able to find anyone who can capture my attention with historical fiction the way that Philippa Gregory can. She paints a vivid picture of the time period through the description of clothing, landscape, and cultural expectations without bogging the reader down in too much detail. Sometimes she passes through months in a few pages, giving a general date (Winter 1484) and a brief synopsis of the important (interesting) details through the eyes of the character. Just enough to keep the reader informed about what is going on without making us wait for pages while letters are being delivered or troops are waiting to sail in less choppy waters. Luckily, there’s isn’t a lot of sitting around and waiting for something to happen because in this time frame in history, there is a lot going on in England (and France).

I also appreciate the fictional flare Philippa Gregory gives to the characters and plots. She takes a historical detail like the leg wound of Henry VIII and describes the smell it would have caused due to infection, how that would have affected him as a lover to his young mistress, and how that may have affected the actions of his court while he is ill. And there is always a love story in the middle of all of the political intrigue, which makes these books all the more entertaining to me.

I am realizing something new about Philippa Gregory’s books as I’m reading through her Plantagenet and Tudor series (revisiting some old favourites and discovering new books in the series). Gregory writes these books not just because the storylines offer something juicy to sink her imaginative writing skills into, but because she is fascinated by the important women in this time period and the very little that has been written about them. Each book is told from the perspective of a woman (or two) that played a role in the significant events of the Plantagenet and Tudor battles for the English throne or in other events that changed how England functioned as a country, but these women are largely unrecognized. These are women whom Gregory may only have a picture and a few mentions in the historical books, and she delves into studying all she can find on these women, the lives they lived, and the historical events they shaped. She even wrote a historical book with two historians called “The Women of the Cousins’ War” to tell more of the history of these women separate from her fictional flourishes of their narratives. I love that she is giving voice to these women and giving a readers a picture into what it was like to be a high status woman during this time period.

If you’re looking for a good place to start to see if Philippa Gregory’s books are for you, then I recommend “The Constant Princess”, which is the story of Katherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII. This will set you off into the saga that is Henry VII with his many wives and his country-altering decisions about England and the Church. From this novel, you can read through the rest in the Tudor series and see how each of the six wives fare with Henry VIII and the effect they have on the kingdom. Or you can be really ambitious like me and start at the first book (chronologically) in the Gregory’s series, “The Lady of the Rivers”, which will take you back to the beginning of the battle to be the ruling royal family begins. There are 13 books in this series (so far) and the final book, “The Last Tudor”, was just released. And then there are the two following books that look into the reigns of Queen Mary and her sister, Queen Elizabeth. I’m just finishing up “The White Queen” and I’m hoping to finish the series before the end of the year. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Let me know where you plan to start in the series and what your thoughts are once you’ve read through a Philippa Gregory novel. Also, I would love to hear about your favourite author of historical fiction. Perhaps there is another series I can simmer in through the cold winter months.

Happy reading!

5/5 bacon strips for Philippa Gregory (just in general, her books are awesome!)


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