I have virtually visited the National Archives many times to hear talks from authors of historical fact. This time I got to see an author of historical fiction.
Shikha Sharma, the Events Manager, introduced the talk as part of the “What’s Online?” series. The interview was primarily centred on Dawnlands, part of the Fairmile series taking place in England in the seventeenth century, but there were questions and observations about Gregory’s other works as well.
Gregory said that a lot of people think they don’t know the Stuarts very well, and that it is much easier to convince publishers to print books about the Tudors. It was the notion of a family story developing into global affairs that got them interested.
Sharma reminded us that the talk was part of the Treason exhibition. The accusation of treason was the state’s supreme weapon to suppress rebellion and scrub out subversive ideas. She asked about the character of Ned Ferryman, who sticks to his personal ideals throughout but is considered a traitor by the law. Gregory said Ned was an old Cromwellian soldier who thought he was fighting for a new world of liberty. None of them could have predicted the restoration of the king so soon. Most of Cromwell’s soldiers were pardoned by Charles II, but those who had been directly involved in his father’s execution were pursued across the world. Ned is contrasted with Lyvia, who joins a long line of ambitious, manipulative women (nearly always Catholic and Italian), ingratiating herself at court, with occasional warm feelings never prioritised. Gregory said it was always helpful to have someone who can observe important historical events.
Sharma asked why it was important to tell these stories, and how the research is done. Gregory said that the life stories of lower-class women were not often recorded except as character assassinations when they stepped out of line, official records often differing sharply from personal accounts. Around 1660-80 there was a prominent increase in the number of women writing and publishing. The range of subjects on which books can be written was widened by the English Marxist historians of the 1950s. Each character presents a different research problem – she could find only two biographies about Mary of Modena, both very old and out of print. The working-class characters are usually composites from historical records rather than directly based on specific individuals. Her favourite character is always the one she’s just finished working on. Gregory covers her study with maps and drawings relevant to the book she’s writing, meaning she redecorates for each new book. She doesn’t want to delay the creative process for research – typically each new book takes 18-24 months in all, though by now she has a large stockpile of research from all the books she’s done before. We are separated from the Stuarts by generations of Whig historians, but you can often find hidden treasures in local museums.
Sharma noted that the books were prone to “painterly” descriptions, and asked if that was deliberate. Gregory said that if you pick up any historical fiction you know the author’s narrative voice. One’s idea of historical Venice is heavily mediated by Canaletto, as is London by Gustave Doré.
On the topic of historical accuracy and the grand sweep of her plots, she said that she doesn’t plan much for the series – it’s dictated by the real history but she has to decide as she goes along how her characters fit into it. Most family lineages start as peasants in the mud, much as they’d like to be aristocrats. If somebody points out an error in a book she corrects it in the next edition. She claims this has only happened 3-4 times in over thirty publications.
Sharma often asked questions from the audience but she did not name the members and often merged several similar questions together. I asked how close to the present day Gregory would consider setting her books. She said she had originally considered taking the Fairmile series as late as 1920, where British society was plagued by a fear of moral decay after the First World War and a sense that the prosperity of empire had reached its limits. Her plan had been to write two books per century, but she now finds herself writing four or five which may require the breadth of her series to be reduced.
The obvious question to ask of these kinds of authors is when they would go if they could travel through time. Gregory said she was less interested in specific eras than in solving historical mysteries, such as the Princes in the Tower or Amy Robsart.
Sharma asked specifically about the baby in the warming pan. Gregory said we know what happened in the birthing chamber because James VII was forced to hold a public inquiry. Princesses Mary and Anne both claimed to believe the story in order to justify the later coup, but the books written now cannot present it as fact.