Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Philippa Gregory and Good Historical Fiction

I recommend a lot of good historical fiction. However, I have some favorites that I don't feel I can write reviews about on this blog, because they contain sex scenes and I wouldn't want to encourage anyone to read that stuff if they're not already up for it.

In this instance, I'm talking specifically about the works of Phillipa Gregory. Although her earlier works ("Other Boleyn Girl" I'm looking at you) have some definite research flaws, her historical accuracy really is improving with each book. In fact, she recently wrote a non-fiction book on the women of the Wars of the Roses.

But that's besides the point because even when she gets the facts sort of kind of wrong, she still has a gift for getting the characters right. And that's what Historical Fiction does best - characters. Non-Fiction is about the facts, about different suppositions, about remaining as unbiased as possible. Historical Fiction gets to say, okay, I see your facts, I see your suppositions, how would they work in a narrative? If I string them all together, do they make a plausible person? A person we can believe in?

I just finished rereading Gregory's "The Boleyn Inheritance" which I think may be her finest work. Certainly she takes three women whom history usually passes by or only bothers to understand one dimension of, and makes them into living, breathing people. Anna of Cleves, Kathryn Howard, and Jane Rochford. Each women tells her chapter in her own voice, first person present. Normally this would be very hard to pull off, and yet Gregory does it with perfection. Each woman is so distinct, her voice so clearly her, that you almost don't need the chapter headings to identify the current narrator. It is very, very rare that any book has even one character so clearly developed, much less three, and far, far less in historical fiction.

The best part? It's believable  I speak as a long-time Tudor Enthusiast, and when I read the voices of these women, their words match up with the facts and pictures I have of them from other sources. And I like them. Okay, I don't like Jane Rochford, but I can stand to read in her voice, and that's saying a lot for one of the most despicable women to come out of that court. I also find Kitty Howard endearing, which again, is a challenge when our clearest picture of her is of a very stupid young woman. And yet we understand her. She isn't smart, but she has her own way of seeing the world and it is entertaining to read until it goes so horribly wrong.

Okay, this has turned into a review. Let me say again. I'm not telling you to go read this unless you're already okay with sex scenes. BUT, if you are, if history interests you, and if you are interested in a finely crafted historical novel (despite the sex scenes, which actually are all of vital historical importance so they're not nearly as gratuitous as they'd be in another setting), by all means, this is one to head the list.


Elora Shore said...

Thanks for sharing that. I have a couple Gregory books, but I haven't read them yet. (I have so many books, and I'm always going to the library--my "books to read" always gets shuffled around!)But reading what you put, I'll have to read them soon! And thanks for pointing out that they have some intimate scenes. I prefer to know that, going in, so I can watch out for them. (As in, being prepared to skip a couple pages!) Thanks!

Elizabeth Amy Hajek said...

Elora - oh good point - I guess I should be more apt to write about all the books I read precisely so I can make the objectionable stuff clear... only then I go "gosh it sounds like I read awful stuff..." but the thing is a) does it have a historical contextual purpose, b) is it skippable, c) is it tasteful or obscene? d) is it beautifully written and respectful of the sacredness, or just factual, or does it cause sinful thoughts in the reader - which also depends on the reader.

Wow. Long response. Anyhow, if you let me know which titles you have, I can let you know where they stand on the scale of those scenes - some of hers are worse than others, and a couple have nothing problematic.

Elora Shore said...

I have The Other Boleyn Girl and The White Queen.I figured your view on reading material was the same as mine--it needs to be taken in context, and the level of gratuity it is written. And I'm grateful for that! It's nice to meet someone else who takes such material seriously. I love good writing. And by the way, it's really awesome to meet a fellow home-schooler!

I'm also trying to carry on a blog about good writing, (or music/tv)but I've just started. Your entertaining posts have given me a good example. Thank you!

Elizabeth Amy Hajek said...

The Other Boleyn Girl has a few scenes that I've blacked out/torn out of my copy so that I don't have to reread them. The White Queen is fine, though.

And thank you so much for sharing those thoughts with me... I'm really glad that you're enjoying my blog, and good luck with yours!

Elarinya said...

I love Phillippa Gregory's books. I've read all of the Tudor ones so far... My favorites are definitely the War of the Roses books. The White Queen and Lady of the Rivers are my two favorites. The Red Queen is also very good. The Boleyn Inheritance, I thought, was written phenomenally. Especially at the ending, this was the one book that got to me emotionally. I think she does an excellent job with her writing.

Elarinya said...

I have read basically all of her books; at least the ones on the Tudors and the War of the Roses. I've loved them all, and she is one author who never fails to pull me into the story quickly. The White Queen and Lady of the Rivers are definitely my two favorites. The Red Queen is fabulous as is The Constant Princess, The Other Queen, and, like you said, The Boleyn Inheritance. At the ending of Boleyn Inheritance, particularly, it was the first of her books that really got to me, emotionally. I love her writing style, and have yet to read historical fiction that rivals it, in my mind.