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Book Talk: Philippa Gregory's royal women find vast audience

books Updated: Aug 08, 2013 14:19 IST

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British author Philippa Gregory's portraits of royal women from the Middle Ages have propelled her novels to the top of bestseller lists and her characters on to the big screen.

Her 2001 book, "The Other Boleyn Girl," was adapted into a film starring Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson. "The White Queen," a drama based on her series "The Cousins' War," will premier on the Starz television channel on August 10.

The latest book in the series, "The White Princess," turns attention to a new leading lady, Elizabeth of York, the daughter of King Edward IV, whose 1486 marriage to Henry VII united the warring houses of Lancaster and York.

Gregory, 59, spoke to Reuters about her approach to historical dramas and her fascination with royal families.

How different was your approach to this story than to your previous 24 books?

What's different about this one is the story of the psychological development of this woman, Elizabeth of York, and Henry VII.

At the time the king was identified with the health of the nation, and Henry VII is very aware of that. Elizabeth is the daughter of the king, and Henry realizes that he needs her. Their personal struggles to understand each other are part of the bigger struggle for the Tudors to become established.

Do you identify with Elizabeth?

Only in the sense that part of my job is to identify with any of the characters that I'm writing on. I have about two years when I think of nothing else, and it's my job to see historical events through their perspective. But that's a creative technique, it's not telepathy.

Elizabeth finds the wherewithal to marry a spouse chosen for her. Do you think people today have the same mettle as your characters?

If England were to face some terrible crisis tomorrow, I think we'd rise to the occasion just as they did. In that day, especially as a woman ... even if you were a princess, you knew you were going to be married to someone for the success of your family. You get to be a success by becoming a real tough cookie, and without a doubt she is that.

Royal families live in a gilded cage, and it's tempting to peer inside. When do you plan to write about the current British royal family?

One of the things about the Middle Ages is that I think they were in less of a gilded cage. Elizabeth really experienced ups and downs of fortune, though at times she does have a privileged experience. The moderns are less interesting to me. What you see there is a life of celebrity rather than a life of ruling or work.

So why are Americans so fascinated by this new British prince?

Because I'm a little bit bemused by it, it would be hard for me to understand it. The idea that you would have the large press pack that would gather outside of the hospital before Kate is even in it ... When you create a media storm these days it sort of fulfils itself.

What appeals to readers about historical royal dramas?

They're interested in the deployment of power, the world of women and in the roots of England as it becomes the nation-state we know now.

You've talked in the past about the importance of giving a voice to women of the past. How much value does that have given the voice is your own?

Just like any historian who writes about anybody there isn't a way that we have of doing objective ventriloquism. Having said that, it's valuable to look past the men at center stage and look at the women in the shadows. No one would have heard of Mary Boleyn (the 16th century royal), except that I wrote a novel.

It's amazing how powerful the image of women's passivity is today even amongst people who should know better. When you challenge history you end up with a much more exciting view of women's capabilities.