Sunday, October 05, 2008

Question from Antonia - Opinions of Phillipa Gregory's Tudor novels


I have been fascinated by the Tudors for as long as I can remember, and was delighted to discover the Tudor court novels by Phillipa Gregory (The Constant Princess, The Other Boleyn Girl, The Boleyn Inheritance, The Queen's Fool, The Virgin's Lover and The Other Queen). I was just wondering what the general opinion is of these books among the history community? Obviously there is some ficticious licence but I've yet to notice any actual "inaccuracies" as such, and think the books are thoroughly researched - but I'd like to know how others feel?

Many thanks, Antonia Kelly.

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Bearded Lady said...

Hi Antoinia, Interesting question. I have a feeling some of the historians on this site are going to have a far more negative assessment of Gregory’s novels.

I think Phillipa Gregory’s novels are so lampooned by historians because she so grossly warps events and historical characters that it starts to get a little campy. (Anne Boleyn having an affair with her brother comes to mind.) History is dramatic enough without these distortions.

I am probably going to get ostracized from these boards for admitting this but…I enjoy her novels. Despite her “colorful” interpretations of history, she is still a good writer. Definitely not one of my favorites, but still good.

But with that said, I do worry sometimes about young people. Gregory has a huge following in the teen market. I am THRILLED that they are actually reading history. I just wish they would get their facts from nonfiction first.

Anonymous said...

I was not originally going to respond to this question, but Bearded Lady stimulated (in a good way) me to do so. She is very much correct that historians like myself do not think highly of ANY novelized versions of "history."

The issue is not that the novels are so "grossly warped," but rather that the American reading public, both teenage and adult, tends to interpret promo lines such as "Based On Actual Events" to mean that the books are historically accurate in their entirety. Too many readers come away from these books thinking they have "learned the facts." And that leaves educators to grapple with the misperceptions that students bring to their history classes directly from these books. You'd be stunned how many students regard Gregory's novels as factual histories.

Like you, Bearded Lady, I am delighted when anyone is interested enough in the past to actually be willing to sit down and READ anything about it. I only wish that they would supplement that interest by reading non-fiction histories as well, whether they do so first or after.

And as a corollary, I wish that more academic historians could and would write history in a way that is accessible and at least minimally entertaining to a wider reading public, beyond simply other academics. Too much factual history is written with such a dry style and such specialized lingo that the majority of the reading public finds it impenetrable. It is no wonder that they turn to works of fiction that are meant solely as entertainment, rather than being bored to death by badly written factual history. Snooty academics writing solely to impress each other and thinking the public is beneath their dignity are my pet peeve!

Anonymous said...

In my case, I had to learn about the Tudors from 'hys'terical fiction. Reading a non-fiction book in my teens would have been equal to reading a textbook...and I'd had enough of that in school!

The subject matter caught my attention in such a thorough way that biographies soon came to be my main source of information.

Mind you...I still enjoy fictionalized accounts. And, IMO, Gregory is an excellent author for the genre. However, if any fiction author has their subjects do something way out of line I will throw the book down in disgust and immediately grab a historian's account to get the bad taste out of my brain.

I have felt this way with some of Gregory's work..."Queen's Fool" comes immediately to mind. Not that Mary or Elizabeth were so badly treated, but the main character of the fool was bit much.

Truthfully...I'd rather see people get their history lesson from a novel rather than from a television series. Yes...I'm talking about "The Tudors".


Bearded Lady said...

Heehee…Phd historian, I was hoping to lure you into answering this one! I think we are basically in agreement about Gregory’s work.

I can only speak about the YA market because I don’t have a clue about the adult market, but some kids simply will never pick up a nonfiction book about Tudor history…even if it is written in an approachable manner. Sometimes fiction can be a gateway drug to nonfiction, but it also can leave those same readers with too many dead brain cells to learn the real truth. Thus, there lies the problem.

Tracey, I have not read the Queen’s Fool, but it seems like such a rip off of Jane Yolen’s The Queen’s Own Fool. This story is told from the viewpoint of La Jardiniere who was the favorite fool at Catherine de Medici’s court. I highly recommend it. Yolen is a REAL talent and she always explains the discrepancies between fact and fiction in her author forward.

Anonymous said...

I understand your feelings about young adults being unwilling to pick up non-fiction histories, but I have to think that it is a conditioned response. For too long they have had too little access to well-written non-fiction. The vast majority of it is dry as the desert I live in. So they've learned not to bother even trying. Until a reasonable supply of readable non-fiction is made available, and until young adults have been exposed to that readable non-fiction enough to accept that it really does exist, they will certainly retreat to friendlier fiction.

It's all a matter of retraining the young adult market ... though I admit that that is a massive challenge. The first step is convincing historians to amend their writing style, another massive challenge.

kb said...

I am between classes as I write this post and still getting over my rant to my European History Survey students who hadn't done the assigned reading. So I am turning to this group of intelligent, well-informed 'conversationalists' for solace.

I have read 2 Gregory books; The Other Boleyn Girl, and The Boleyn Inheritance. Leaving aside issues of historical accuracy or distortion I have to say that I am always intrigued by the first 25% of the book and then I lose interest halfway through. As a writer, she delivers a good hook but I fear she doesn't sustain the level throughout the story.

On the other hand, I would STRONGLY recommend the Lymond series by Dorothy Dunnett. While still fiction, the writing is astounding in it's historical accuracy, especially in details. Clearly the conversations are fiction and the hero too dreamy to ever be real, nevertheless the amount of research evident in these novels will knock your socks off. (yes I am a rabid Dunnett fan)

Given the level of research and the length of each novel - there are 6 in the series - they can be complex and probably will not appeal to the young adult market. I first read them when I was twenty. The series starts in Scotland in the aftermath of the 'rough wooings' and continues to November 1558.

Time for my next class. Hopefully they've done the reading. Thanks for the break.

Anonymous said...

I think Philippa Gregory is not only a terrible writer, but a bad influence on the minds of readers. I'm writing a graduate paper on The Other Boleyn Girl for this reason. In fact, not long ago I had a (normally quite intelligent) friend maintain that Anne Boleyn probably did commit incest, since she was so determined to become pregnant... and yes, she did admit that she believed this due to reading The Other Boleyn Girl. This kind of invidious influence needs to be reduced, with larger warning labels about just what the author did fictionalize (in Gregory's case, it felt like nearly everything). Of course, I was just one of those children who picked up Tudor History books for fun.

Incidentally, I do think that Gregory has a Catholic agenda in her novels. Relatively all her Catholic characters are saints, while her Protestant characters are fools at best, devilish at worst.

kb said...

are you writing a paper on the novel or the historical person Mary Boleyn Carey?

Unknown said...

I have read a few fact books based on the Tudor era, most historians try really hard to base their writing on what is known and what is logical. Some fiction writers do the same. Gregory us not one of them. She seems to grasp hold of the most salacious and unlikely and tries to use history as a conduit for controversies that will sell her next book and support a personal agenda I grow increasingly suspicious about. I had thought me noting her tendency to portray protestant historical figures as monsters and Catholics as almost saintly was just coincidence. Perhaps it is but it appears others have noticed this too. Well she and other fuctiib wrurees can of course write what they want but when they try to suggest their fiction is fact I find myself frankly unimpressed.