Here at XOXOAD, Philippa Gregory is known. Philippa is the ultimate package – she’s prolific, world famous, and writes a mean historical novel. But with rampant international success, and with a new Starz series on the way, based on her book The White Princess (check out the trailer below!), it’s nice to be reminded that she was a debut novelist once too. Read the retrospective preface of her first ever novel, Wideacre, and get sentimental with us on a Friday afternoon. Ah, sometimes dreams to come true!
I was a young married woman, in my late twenties, living in a small town in the North of England. I had a newborn daughter and I was trying to finish my PhD thesis on the popular fiction of the eighteenth century. To prepare for this study I had read more than two hundred novels published between 1740 and 1800 and had painstakingly compared the standard elements like sexual morality, the relationship to agriculture and the countryside, and the wonderfully bizarre: incest, banditti, even aliens. I believed there were identifiable themes in the novels and that they could be read together as a fictional world that sometimes mirrored eighteenth- century England, and sometimes denied and hid it.
Hoping to become an expert in the real and imaginary eighteenth-century world, I accidentally served the ideal author’s apprenticeship. Without intending it—for when I started at Edinburgh University I was twenty-six and really very scatty—I read myself into the art of the novel, and then started to write my own—longhand in a school exercise–type book. Where it read Name I wrote my name, where it read Form I wrote IVB (I had enjoyed my fourth year), and where it read Subject I wrote with simple ambition: Best Selling Novel.
That was partly a joke for myself: I had been locked in a library for four years, I was ready to be amused by almost anything, but I found that I loved writing and became more and more convinced that it was a successful novel. I sent it to an agent who refused it, and then to another who accepted it. After a worldwide auction I had a three-book contract in the UK and the US, my first career path, and the first steady income for the first time in my life.
I rarely tell this story because it is such an extraordinary one—it is not typical and not to be expected—and, worse, it encourages apprentice writers to think of writing as a route to fortune and fame, which it very rarely is. Writing is something so much more: the route to working in the finest and most accessible art form in the world.
It is an honor to work as a novelist, I have been learning my trade and practicing my skills (for it is also a craft as well as an art) for thirty years—as this anniversary edition shows. To write a novel is to dedicate yourself to an art form which is universally and frequently enjoyed. The first novels I read were borrowed from the library, I bought my beloved collection of secondhand books for small change, and now I can read almost any published fiction in the world at the touch of a button. No other art form is so widely available, so regularly experienced by its audience, and so easily accessed.
Reading a novel is an exercise that is escapist—I tumble deep into the story, immerse myself in the fiction, and yet it has a powerful relationship to the real world. Even at the end of a story that is wholly imaginary there may be a sense of truth or a sense of powerful authentic emotion. I feel oddly contented when I have read a good novel. Not for the outcome of the story (though I admit to an unrefined preference for happy endings) but because something about the measured unfolding gives me a sense of delight.
This sensation of joy sometimes comes to me when I am writing too. On a very good day I experience what I am describing: I am both here in my study with the view of the North York moors and the wide northern sky above them, and here at the court, in the little room, in the cell, in the garden, on the streets of medieval London.
I love storytelling, which is an archaic art buried deep in human nature. I imagine a tribe, perhaps as old as those who drew massive imaginary beasts in the light of flickering torches, who pressed their own handprints beneath the delicate hooves, gathering around the fire to tell stories that warn of poisonous berries, of betrayal, of the hidden snake. The stories perform that uniquely human gift—carrying an idea from one mind to another in complexity and with emotion. Stories conquer death—tell a story about someone well and there he is, returned to life, laughing so hard with his arm around his brother that he can hardly stand. Laughing: though the joke is old and he died a hundred years ago. But if I describe him so that you can see him and hear him, in what way is the joke old? In what way is he dead? I love stories for the same reason as I love history, because they have a powerful life in the temporal world—and they transcend it.
This resonates particularly with me because I was brought up by my mother on stories of lost landscapes—the house of her sunny privileged childhood in the years before the First World
War. Before I even read the thousands and thousands of novels of gilded regret, before I read the history, I knew of those days of peace. By the time I came to E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf I had already walked in the lilac-scented night and looked out of the window at the cat on the mown lawn.
An imaginary world does not vanish while someone still conjures it. The beloved are not gone when they are vividly remembered. A time is never forgotten if people write history. I fell in love with history while studying as an undergraduate at the University of Sussex, and I felt that I had discovered the Meaning of Life. No more (for there is no more) and certainly no less. I had been one of those earnest, questing girls who wanted to know the answer to everything; and for me if you know how something has come about, you know what it is. I am especially drawn to mislaid and ignored histories, like the struggle against enclosure, which is the spine of the Wideacre story: the exile of the people from the land they love.
It was natural that my first novel, Wideacre, should be about a young woman who cannot bear the thought of the loss of her family home (my mother’s family’s story), who has nothing but her sexuality to gain her own ends (women’s history), who entraps her brother (such an important trope in the early novel, identified in my reading of the eighteenth-century commercial library stocks), and who is deeply and passionately invested in the Sussex landscape (a childhood love of mine). Beatrice has a wonderful horse, and this is one of the most joyful instances of my fiction foretelling my life. I swear that this occurs from time to time, my family skeptically call it coincidence. Call it what you will, but ten years after I gave Beatrice Lacey a grey gelding, I was to own my own grey gelding, and ride him over the common land around the village of Heyshott, which was the setting for Wideacre.
My novels after Wideacre developed and changed without conscious decision. I became increasingly interested in real lives and wrote novels based more and more closely on real people and on accurate history. Sometimes we don’t know the history, sometimes historians don’t agree. But when there is an agreed account, I like to illuminate, dramatize, and fictionalize it. I never depart from it for the benefit of the story, the history always comes first. I developed a style of writing: first person, so that you are in someone’s shoes, facing their dilemmas, and present tense, so that you have no historians’ hindsight, you are in the then and there, not looking back. These stylistic choices have been enormously helpful and interesting to me, bringing me to a lively understanding of historical events—if you were there, not knowing how they would turn out, what would you do?—and a greater empathy with historical characters. Most of my principal characters are women: as a woman, I think I know sometimes how they feel, I sometimes experience their difficulties myself. As a feminist, I am almost always more interested in the apparently unimportant woman than the man who is standing, talking so loudly, before her. As a feminist historian, I think it is my particular calling to look and see what the women are doing at any moment in time.
This has led me a pretty dance in research as I try to discover the most basic facts, such as where a woman was living and what she was doing, whereas traditional historians, blind to anything but big public acts, loyally and repeatedly record the sons and husbands, fathers and brothers. It has led me into a deep appreciation of the role that women—often unsung, sometimes deliberately concealed—have played in the forming of our national life. There have been heroines and martyrs, scholars and mothers, daughters and saints, sinners, poisonous domestic villains, angels in the corner, and queens regnant, militant or as apparently passive as Sleeping Beauty, all astoundingly ignored. It has been an honor to spend my working life looking for and recording a version of some of them for us: their daughters, their heirs. I know that for my readers—as they tell me in their thousands—these stories are their models and heroines, examples of how far we have come, how far we still have to go. They demonstrate the courage that is part of women’s nature.
Beatrice is not one of these! Nobody exactly like Beatrice ever lived, nobody exactly like her could have lived. She is the exuberant manifestation of the imagination of a young woman, who had spent a long time—far too long—in the library and who was eager for a rich, colorful, sensual, action-packed life. Beatrice shows ambition, passion, and a complete absence of scruples. Above all—her greatest feature—she is not ladylike. Thirty years ago I was thrilled by the thought of a fictional heroine who was not ladylike. I remember both Beatrice, and her young author, with affection and no regrets.
—Philippa Gregory, 2017