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You have to read between the lines…
Historical novelists have to convince us that their protagonists are at the hands of an unforetold and capricious series of events. Although our chronicles are a well-trodden battleground, there is plenty of room for novelists to manoeuvre into the gaps between the sheets – above all, to penetrate into characters’ minds. As many authors have discovered, this imaginative no man’s land is one that can be best illuminated by, and through, women.
Philippa Gregory’s books are about transformation – girls transforming from daughters, wives and pawns into women, lovers, players, even queens (alive or dead). They play the game, whatever its ultimate cost.
Here are 5 more writers like Philippa Gregory to transport you back in time.
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A way to create worlds for people who felt they didn’t fit…
Recommended Book: ‘Wolf Hall’ (2009)
To date, Hilary Mantel has only published 2 of the 3 books in her Tudor trilogy. Yet the author’s ascent to the heights of historical fiction has been as meteoric as that of her trilogy’s subject.
This is Thomas Cromwell, who came out of nowhere to nestle in the bosom of the court and Henry VIII himself. Although he has been largely cast as a Machiavellian character in the shadows of Tudor history, Mantel humanises and redraws his figure.
‘Wolf Hall’ was released in 2009. Its sequel, ‘Bring up the Bodies’, also took that year’s Man Booker Prize. They both offer up the historical novel at its most cerebral and luminously realised. At their heart are personal relationships: male-to-female, father-to-son and subject-to-king.
At the sharp end of Mantel’s pen, history reads like anything but a foregone conclusion. The screws of the characters’ fates are slowly but inexorably tightened as they step around one another’s slip-ups and the growing number of corpses in their Danse Macabre. The world that Mantel paints looks, smells and feels irresistibly authentic to the touch. As the author said, “history offers us vicarious experience”.
Readers are now on tenterhooks for the final book in the trilogy, ‘The Mirror and the Light’.
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The ‘what if’ aspect of history is always fascinating…
Recommended Book: ‘Innocent Traitor’ (2006)
Alison Weir stands at the crossroads of academic and novelistic history. Having published non-fiction for many years, the author felt liberated when she took a leap into fiction in 2006. Weir too embeds women as active players in court, family and political life, with writing that is homespun and pearly.
Weir’s career in history and as a historical advisor on TV adaptations has made her wonderfully pedantic about the authenticity of period drama. In the film ‘Elizabeth: The Golden Age’, for example, she noticed countless improbabilities – not least the fact that its heart-throb Walter Raleigh “would never have got into the Queen’s presence wearing an open-necked shirt”.
The author is eager to reclaim the (often dismissively used) label of ‘popular’ history novelist – “if writing it in a way that is accessible and entertaining, as well as conscientiously researched, can be described as popular”.
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As a writer you reach a hand into the universe…
On the hunt for another author like Philippa Gregory? Both Robyn Young and Tracy Chevalier are writers who render their novels in painstaking historical detail.
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Working history’s lost individuals into far-reaching fiction…
Recommended Book: ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ (1999)
Each of Tracy Chevalier’s 7 historical books is structured around her signature theme of creative endeavour. These range from the woman who became the muse for Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer in ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’, to the poet William Blake in 18th-century London in ‘Burning Bright’.
Chevalier writes historical fiction that is highly-versatile, evocative and formed in an elegant and restrained prose.
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How do you make a man out of clay?
Recommended Book: ‘Brethren’ (2006)
Robyn Young is a somewhat different kettle of fish. Her books provide an action-packed adrenaline ride through medieval world and culture.
At the age of 22, Young started upon a career in financial consultancy. It was at this time that she began, compulsively, to write. As she describes it, “this creative outpouring – vomiting it felt like – was due to the fact work was so uncreative”. Having found her real vocation, the writer’s first book ‘Brethren’ took 7 years to create.
Young’s books bear handsome covers emblazoned with icons of history. Filled with relics, knights and warrior-kings, her fiction jousts with mysticism and myth-making. The first trilogy, the ‘Brethren’ series, covers the Knights Templar, Crusades and the Middle Ages; her second trilogy, ‘Insurrection’, features the enigmatic Robert the Bruce in the thick of the Scottish Wars of Independence.
The author took a method acting approach to putting herself in her characters’ shoes. She describes “stumbling through lonely bogs, turning lost circles in vast forests, trekking deep into mist-wreathed glens hearing only the bellow of a distant stag”. Landscape takes on a pivotal, corporeal character throughout her books. The author harnesses these raw descriptive powers to paint reflective scenes and episodes of visceral violence in a play-like manner. Young’s dynamic words thrillingly strain and creak against the rigging of their sentences.
In this golden age of historical fiction, Philippa Gregory has seen the genre “transformed from being something which was regarded as the provenance of rather stupid women writers and readers to becoming much more mainstream”. In 2013, Edinburgh played host to the first ever historical literary festival.
Yet there are those who still dispute its literary legitimacy. For historian David Starkey, it is treasonable that while novelists “are very good at imagining character: that’s why the novels sell […] They have no authority when it comes to the handling of historical sources”. History itself, however, has always traded in rumour, propaganda and poetic license.
In many ways, these books say less about the past, and more about our present and future. With this variety of authors vying to divide and conquer the genre, long may it reign.
This is your turn to crown your favourite historical writer like Philippa Gregory.
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