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Genre Kryptonite: Philippa Gregory’s Royal Novels

Brenna Clarke Gray

Staff Writer

Part muppet and part college faculty member, Brenna Clarke Gray holds a PhD in Canadian Literature while simultaneously holding two cats named Chaucer and Swift. It's a juggling act. Raised in small-town Ontario, Brenna has since been transported by school to the Atlantic provinces and by work to the Vancouver area, where she now lives with her stylish cyclist/webgeek husband and the aforementioned cats. When not posing by day as a forserious academic, she can be found painting her nails and watching Degrassi (through the critical lens of awesomeness). She posts about graphic narratives at Graphixia, and occasionally she remembers to update her own blog, Not That Kind of Doctor. Blog: Not That Kind of Doctor Twitter: @brennacgray

GENRE KRYPTONITE is a regular feature about genres we have an inexplicable weak spot for. Check out previous entries here.

If you haven’t gathered by my Book Riot posting history, I’m not what you would call a literary snob.  I read widely and don’t believe in the concept of guilty pleasures when it comes to reading.  If it gives me pleasure, there is no guilt.  (This life philosophy also applies to TV shows and nail polish.)

So it’s not because of snobbery that I don’t typically read a lot of popular women-targeted historical fiction.  You know the genre: there’s a lot of bodice-ripping and sighing and royal impostors and courtly sleeping around and so forth.  For whatever reason, this is not a place I go for my pleasure reading, though I know it’s an exceedingly popular genre.  Every time I try to read a work in this area, though, I’m bored.  I tend to privilege Canadian and literary writers when it comes to historical fiction (Michael Crummey and Lawrence Hill, let’s hang!), and my interest in bestsellers that are aggressively marketed to women is non-existent on principle.

However.  Every rule has an exception.

Enter Philippa Gregory.  She has a PhD in English.  She wrote The Other Boelyn Girl.  I want to marry her and live in an awesome castle where she tells me half-true stories of British royalty for the rest of my days.

Indeed, even this exception has an exception: I only like her royal books.  Her Tudor series and her War of the Roses series.  I’m aware that she writes other books; I’ve tried reading them but they don’t capture my interest.  This makes my genre kryptonite very very specific: I like Philippa Gregory’s Royal Novels.  And I like them as much or more than any other books I come across.

People who don’t like Philippa Gregory’s novels spend an awful lot of time and energy explaining to me how historically inaccurate her novels are, which it turns out I don’t care about even a little bit, as I am not using these novels to inform my total sense of British royal history.  (Next you’re going to tell me that Community isn’t an accurate representation of life in a community college.  No you won’t, because it’s exactly like life in a community college.  I’m basically Professor P. Professorson.  Wait, where was I?)

In preparation for this post, I thought a lot about what I do like about Philippa Gregory, since the historical nuances don’t really phase me — fiction is fiction, bro.  Here’s what I came up with:

  1. Strong female characters. It is consistently surprising and upsetting to me to think about how few strong female protagonists actually feature in writing that is aggressively marketed to women. Gregory’s characters are limited by the circumstances of their historical moment, but they work within those bounds to find immense inner strength and agency in their own lives. No doubt the historical record gets manipulated to make this possible, on occasion, but the payoff is a series of books about women I can actually find a connection to. (And very little literal bodice ripping.)
  • High stakes. The novels typically take place in times of great flux, so like most popular fiction they feature not one simple moment of crisis but many — but each of these moments could topple the royal family and upset greater world order. The high stakes (and Gregory’s adept skill at pacing) keep the novels moving at breakneck speed.
  • Passion and intrigue. The characters are motivated by greed and love, desire and power, gluttony and honour. When you read the machinations of history, it’s easy to forget that the actual actors were actual human being with needs and desires — the honourable don’t always act honourably, and sometimes the bad guy makes a good point. Gregory lets her characters breathe with humanity, for better or for worse, and it makes the novels more compelling as a result.
    So, having just finished Gregory’s latest, The Lady of the Rivers, I’m left waiting for her next novel with an infuriating TBD date attached to it. In the meantime, I’ll do what I always do: dip in and out of other royal historical fictions, find it terribly wanting, and wait to pre-order the iBook of Gregory’s next title. (Actually, this time I also have her non-fictional The Women of the Cousin’s War to tide me over — it remains to be seen if I find her historically accurate approach as compelling as her fictional one.)

    Brenna Clarke Gray holds a PhD in Canadian Literature and teaches in the Vancouver area.  She posts about graphic narratives at Graphixia, and occasionally she remembers to update her own blog, Not That Kind of Doctor. Follow her on Twitter: @mittenstrings