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'Bad women are great characters to write': Philippa Gregory on her new novel

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In a fascinating interview, the queen of historical fiction, Philippa Gregory, discusses her new Restoration era novel, Dark Tides.

Phillipa Gregory returns with a new book, Dark Tides, the second book in her Fairmile series. The novel is set 21-years after the events of Tidelands and in a very different England from the one riven by Civil War and gripped by fear of witches.

Sky HISTORY spoke to Philippa Gregory over the phone about her new novel and found out why she thinks the Restoration is such a fascinating period of English history.

Dark Tides is set 21 years after the events of Tidelands. What's been happening in England since then?

Tidelands closes with the death of Charles I when it looks like England's going to be a republic, probably forever while Dark Tides opens with the restoration of Charles II.

This is a time of intense dramatic political change. It is an interesting time in terms of our national history. England was the first country in the Western world to have a full rebellion and to kill a king, before the French Revolution, before the American Revolution. At that time, England was famously, shockingly, amazingly, radical.

So the Restoration which is offered up as a sort of return to normality in a lot of conventional histories was for very many people who supported Cromwell Revolution, a mistake.

You've spoken about the issues facing the country, what about those facing your characters in the book?

What I like doing is having the historical, and the political in the personal. So in America, in New England, we have, Ned, representing the newly defeated Cromwellian radical wing. He's settling there in the hopes of building a new democratic and rational society. He believes that the land is empty, but he very quickly meets the Native American Pokanoket people who live in a more democratic and equal society than he's ever experienced before.

Then working in a warehouse on the side of the Thames there's his sister, Alinor who is struggling to make a living. Into this uncertain world, comes this incredibly glamorous, completely unexpected Venetian widow. She’s there to make a living, by exploiting the new appetite for classical architecture.

The book is set in America, England and Italy. Can you tell us more about these three locations?

Venice is at the peak of the power of the Doges, so it's incredibly secretive and dangerous. In England, there’s this real glamour returning with the king but at the same time, there’s intense poverty. My family in the book is a working-class family and are hoping to tap into this new prosperity, but are struggling.

In New England, there’s a settler society that is pushing at the frontier, and on the other side of that frontier, are the indigenous people, the Pokanoket.

Was it a departure to write Native American history?

It's been an interest of mine for some time. I wrote a novel called Virgin Earth about 15 years ago, which was about a very similar period, and that was about the Powhatan people. This is still English history because it's, it's sort of England overseas, so I'm quite confident about following my English characters as they go abroad.

It's quite easy to research because you have a lot of accounts by the first Englishman, that record the sort of greeting they received, about what the people looked like about what their lives were like. But it's also hard to research in the sense that they're wrong about almost everything.

So there’s a very white, male, focus on indigenous people who are themselves very egalitarian, and in which women have a very significant part to play.

How did you go about researching the novel? Was it hard getting into the head of 17th-century characters?

There's a lot of material. This is the time for Pepys so you've got a diary of a 17th-century man, right there, to look at. It's also a fairly well-researched time and many historians of the previous century did a lot of work on the Cromwellian radicals. It’s just is a question of reading it and absorbing it, and trying to be open to the things that are not said.

In all history, the most interesting stories are the ones that you have to read between the lines.

Was it important for you to write your historical books with leading female characters, as history as a subject tends to be very male-focussed?

I think it's something that I came to completely naturally because I'm a woman and I'm interested in women's history. I'm also a feminist, and I think that these stories should not be erased.

Women did not lack attention by accident. There was a conscious decision by generations of male historians that what was interesting was political decisions when men had the vote and women did not and military decisions when men could be in the army and navy and women could not. There wasn't much interest in social history which is where you would expect to find 50% of the population, doing things.

So in a sense, it wasn't that I thought ‘Now I'm going to adjust the balance and this will prove to be very successful in terms of selling lots of books,’ though that's what happened. I followed my own interest. Whenever I read almost anything, I always ask myself: 'What are women doing and where are the women in this story?'

What did you most enjoy about writing the Dark Tides?

There were so many pleasures and they were so very different. The creation of the character of Livia the Venetian widow who is a really bad woman was immensely enjoyable.

She is sexually manipulative, she's completely dishonest, she's completely self-serving and she doesn't even love her baby. She sets her heart on making an enormous fortune and a social success, and everybody pays for that decision. Bad women are great characters to write. They give you the chance to let out your evil side, so that was fun.

The other wonderful aspect of the book was writing about the Pokanoket people because I went to Connecticut, and I met with the tribal elders who invited me to a ceremony on their tribal lands. I read a great deal of their history, a lot of it's not been published and is still in oral form, so I spoke to them a lot. There was something about being able to talk to people who are aware of the religious practices from history as if it was immediate and significant. In a sense, you step outside history in a way. You lose a sense of time, which is really interesting and very moving.

Will this be a trilogy?

It will be more than a trilogy but certainly, book three is on the way. We'll go globally. As this one is is basically three locations, England, Venice, and New England, and the next book will probably be England, the Sugar Islands, and possibly India.

Given the huge success of your novel, The Other Boleyn Girl why do you think people are so fascinated by the Tudor period?

Everybody learns about Henry VIII in primary school in terms that make sense to primary school children. So what you don't get is the terrific sexual violence and his cruelty. Henry VIII was a psychopath, he’s certainly a serial killer but you don't get that in primary school, What you do get is this kind of memorable picture of this man who was big and fat and married six wives.

You don't have an analysis of why. I think what people experience when they do read about Anne Boleyn or watch something about her is, it's like historical research. It is the same pleasure that historians get, which is finding out the story behind the story.

Dark Tides is available to buy in paperback from all good book shops.