Philippa Gregorybest known for her global successes The other Boleyn girl and The White Queen is a recognized authority on women’s history.
With a host of awards and recognitions for his contributions to literature, including a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honors in 2020, his latest saga, The Fairmile Series, spans the years 1648-1685.
The third book, vanes, out today. Philippa took time out of her busy schedule to tell us a bit about the show and her amazing career writing history.
Thank you very much for speaking with us Philippa. Perhaps we can start with a recap of the series so far for our readers who may not be up to date, or for those who are eagerly awaiting the new release.
This series opened with Tides where we met Alinor Reekie and her two children Alys and Rob – a poor family living on the fringes of society in Selsey, a small coastal village where land turned to sea at the end of the English Civil War.
Alinor, a midwife and herbalist, falls head over heels in love with James, a recalcitrant Catholic priest who is hiding in the house of Sir William Peachey, himself a secret royalist sympathizer. James has a plan to save King Charles I from his nearby imprisonment on the Isle of Wight and Alinor helps him, despite the great danger it brings him.
Alinor’s reward encourages her neighbors to suspect her of witchcraft. James fails Alinor, protecting his own reputation rather than claiming her as his lover. If Alinor survives the terrible ordeal of a waterside witchcraft trial, she is forced to flee the scandal and leave her childhood home. In the cliffhanger ending, we left Alinor and Alys, both pregnant, on the road to London.
In book two, dark tides, we pick up the story twenty-one years after the first book. Alinor and Alys earn their living as workers running a small wharf on the banks of the Thames.
James, whose wealth, titles and fame were restored when King Charles II returned to the throne, has anything but an heir. He returns to the Reekie family in hopes of reclaiming the child he abandoned all those years ago. As he pleads his case, Alys receives another visitor from the warehouse – an Italian beauty named Livia – claiming to be Rob’s widow and hoping to secure an inheritance for her son by shipping his wares from Venice to sell to the nobility. Londoner. Alinor is suspicious of Livia’s story, but Alys is dazzled by the glamorous newcomer and the new opportunities she offers.
Meanwhile, Alinor’s brother, Ned, has sailed to New England to find a new life away from the rule of the monarchy. He finds himself on the tense frontier of primitive America, between the worlds of the newcomers and the American Indians as they head towards an inevitable war.
So we come to vanes at a rather crucial moment. What can readers expect from the new book?
In book three, vanes, we find England on the brink of another civil war. King Charles II died without a legitimate heir and his brother James was to take the throne. But the people are bitterly divided and many do not welcome the new king or his young queen Maria of Modena.
Ned hears of the prospect of a rebellion against the Stuart Kings and returns from America with his servant Pokanoket to join the uprising against the Roman Catholic King James. Ned swears loyalty to the charismatic Duke of Monmouth who leads a rebellion against the monarchy whom Ned joins on the battlefield of Sedgemoor.
Livia joins the court as lady-in-waiting to the new queen and manipulates Alinor and Alys, gaining their support and putting the Reekie family on both sides of the war. She negotiates a marriage for her son Matteo with no regard for his foster family and drags the whole family into rebellion
The Fairmile series is another feather in your hat for an epic historical fiction writing career. I would like to know more about what attracted you to historical studies in the first place?
My love of history started in college. I was very lucky that my university imposed multidisciplinary studies in the first year, so I took courses in English literature, history and philosophy.
In my case, I was lucky enough to be taught the introductory history course by an amazing tutor, Maurice Hutt. He was a passionate historian and a brilliant pedagogue. From the first seminar, when he arrived and terrified everyone, he was completely inspiring. I suddenly realized that history tells us everything and switched to full-time history studies as soon as I could.
I then did a doctorate at the University of Edinburgh where I studied 18th century novels and their vision of the world. As I was finishing my thesis, I started writing my own novel, wide acrewhich achieved immediate worldwide success.
You have explored many different periods in your writing. What drew you to the days of King James II and the Stuart kings?
In fact, I did not expect to find myself at the royal court. I started the Fairmile series as a family saga and I wanted to tell the story of an ordinary family, in this case fictional, who, on a daily basis, are often more interested in grain yields or local market prices than to the monarchy.
But just as I was setting the novel at Selsey, Charles I was imprisoned on the Isle of Wight, just above the Solent. I couldn’t resist a rescue attempt and my characters got involved in the great historical upheaval that was the rise of the Commonwealth.
In vanes, I knew that the arrival of an Italian queen consort in England would be an opportunity for Livia, and that unrest against the royal family would bring Ned, the soldier of the Commonwealth, back home to England. He brought with him a Native American who had been enslaved after one of the colonial wars – so there was another theme about freedom and First Nations people.
My intention was for the book to be the story of a family and their relationship to each other and to the larger world of wealth and power.
I would like to know more about your research practices and how you find the truths that inform fiction.
I read! I have read all the stories and all the articles and essays referenced in the books. I also like to visit places mentioned in novels and visit museums and chat with local historians.
In this particular book, I met with the elders of the Pokanoket tribe to make sure they were happy that I was writing about a fictional person from Pokanoket and understood their story. It’s not until I’ve been completely immersed in the period that I feel ready to start writing, and then I write every day for a few hours a day.
How do you strike that balance between being historically accurate and entertaining for modern audiences, not just in terms of events and names, but also in the way people talk and interact with each other?
It is the work of a novelist. I don’t think it helps anyone to write an inaccessible story and I made the decision when I started writing fiction to modernize the dialogues.
In my Tudor and Plantagenet series, I used first person, present tense to help readers put themselves in the shoes of the characters. In this series, there’s such a diverse and large cast of characters that I use a narrative voice, but (hopefully) maintain a sense of immediacy so readers turn the page to find out what happens next.
It’s true that the story is often more remarkable than anything I could come up with – it was the queen who was accused of smuggling a baby into the birthing room to make sure she had a son and heir!
What period of history do you think you could write about next?
I’m writing a non-fiction book on women’s history. It’s a huge project and I find it completely fascinating. But when I’m done, I’ll return to this epic story of a family riding the prosperity of the British Empire.
vanes by Philippa Gregory is now out of Simon & Schuster. Pick up a copy of Booktopia HERE.
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