Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Philippa Gregory and the betrayal of a genre

Philippa Gregory, you make me so mad.

Her approach to the historical novel has provoked my ire for some time now. I won't comment on her academic grasp of history, save to say that it doesn't seem to make any contact with her final manuscripts. Her female characters, with not much more depth to them than the kind of gal you'd find in a pink-and-white covered, boyfriends 'n' shopping read, adopt not just clumsily modern modes of speech, but attitudes and behaviours that I don't for a moment believe would have come into play 600 years ago. (That's not to say women were all meek little creatures, but her characters' expressions of rebellion are from the twentieth century, not the fifteenth.) It's fashionable now for historical novelists to substitute the theeing and thouing for more identifiable conversation patterns. While I bristle a little at the notion we can't cope with a modicum of that, I appreciate wanting to broaden the appeal. It doesn't present any problems if you're the peerless Hilary Mantel, and can persuade a reader that such modern expressions are merely a demonstration of a character's matter of fact nature. But Philippa Gregory doesn't display that kind of skill or imagination, so the result is unnatural, unconvincing and completely lacking in historical integrity.

But now the Beeb is showing The White Queen, a confused and rather sketchy televisual splodging-together of three of her books about the War of the Roses. If you thought her books were clumsy, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Is there a reason that English-born Elizabeth Woodville frets, flirts and simpers her way through the role with an inadequately disguised Swedish accent while her mother, Jacquetta, is as homespun as they come, despite growing up as a Luxembourg heiress? Rebecca Ferguson as Elizabeth is unbearable in the role. Seeming to revere the part rather than live in it, she's at her worst when she attempts something resembling womanly medieval dignity; she wears it like a badly fitting corset, constantly trying to settle herself comfortably; she only convinces in the bits where she's allowed to overact (reactions to death, rage, snogging, that sort of thing). The king's wee bruv Richard (later to be Richard III) looks like Randall "Pink" Floyd from Dazed & Confused, and Janet McTeer's Jacquetta is unendurably smug as a placid, sage, mum-knows-best matriarch, rather than the ambitious, paranoid schemer whose relentless pushing of her daughter reportedly bore out in Elizabeth's approach to parenting her own daughters.

And when you watch it on iPlayer, right there by the player window is a quote from Philippa herself - "It looks exactly like how I imagined". Really? Is this as high as she aimed? Even if you like her books, this seems far-fetched, given how many liberties have been taken with the chronology and motivations of the characters. The series seems hastily pinned together; so either her standards are worse than we thought, or she takes the audience for idiots.

I rant and hiss because I grew up on this kind of literature, and hold it close to my heart, and a truly great TV adaptation is a rare and precious thing (see: Pillars of the Earth; though it takes place in a fictional setting, it skates very close to a recognisable world-gone-by and was richly, intelligently produced by all involved). It'd be glorious to see a really thoughtful, detailed adaptation of a book or series that was great in the first place, but as long as Gregory sets the standard for historical fiction that doesn't seem too likely.

I may have bookshelves stuffed with Orwell, Hamilton, Berendt and Waugh, but as something of a history nerd my true literary hero is Rosemary Hawley Jarman, a woman so frighteningly obsessed with her subject matter that I nearly believe she lives her day to day life as though in waiting for the coming again of Richard III. When she wrote about Katherine de Valois and Henry V and Owen Tudor, about Richard III and Richard Neville, Elizabeth Woodville and the sinister Jacquetta, she had me transfixed. Every sentence is flooded with colour; her descriptions dispense altogether with cliche and instead find ingenious little routes to meaning; her "villains" have human motives, identifiable power cravings, imagined and real slights that mutate into recognisable vendettas and grudges. Her books are immense tomes, straining with detail, yet in six words she can cut immediately to the core, ensuring you not only understand her, but believe her. She doesn't cut conveniently to the sensational bits - she includes the in-between, the mundane, the tortuous, and makes it compelling. In her hands, historical fiction is demanding, engrossing and enriching; the end of a novel leaves you bereft, thrown out of a world you had begun to inhabit, and desperate to know more, to study the characters, read around them - in short, to expand your knowledge. She makes you feel like she must feel as she writes the novel, as she births and murders the characters she so obviously loves. That, surely, is true skill.

And now the toast of the genre is a writer whose approach to her subjects seems so cavalier as to be alienating. Actually, it probably isn't cavalier; Gregory and others like her have turned a genre that, I suppose, was probably regarded as a bit fusty and outdated, into blockbuster beach reads. I'm sure financially she's done very well out of it. In the eyes of her publishers, she has a winning formula and had sure as shit better not mess with it. I've bought a few of her books; I admit that historical fiction (a curious kind of fiction which, more than most, demands a solid grounding in fact) is something of an addiction for me. I want to know more, discover more people I didn't know existed, and find out what parts they played in the lives of those I'm already aware of. Who plotted against whom, the human behaviour demanded by the politics of the day, family relationships, alliances and enmities... these are the things I hope to discover every time I open a new story, and every unfamiliar book cover lures me toward it like a baby towards a bauble.

Unfortunately, with Philippa Gregory, you just get shortcuts, quick fades, cardboard characters and the kind of agenda that gets historical fiction written off as girly. She never writes in detail about the motivations of male characters, and her writing of the strange and much maligned/romanticised Richard III (in The Kingmaker's Daughter) is so flat and picturebook as to be offensive. She writes him like a prince/villain in a children's story, not the reputedly complex and antisocial man who has by turns been regarded as a compassionate and politically astute, betrayed leader and a conspiring, unstable murderer who did away with not only his nephews but his elder brother.

The women in her books seem to be built to tap into the idea of showing women from any age as strong, self-reliant, possessed of the same emotions we experience several centuries later - but they don't, because she doesn't write about what they really dealt with, or how they really coped with it; she thinks like someone newly emerged from the Tardis and handed a costume, not a woman born and brought up in the aggressively patriarchal world of medieval England. I don't think she writes thusly out of any feminist lean, I think she just wants to make the characters appealing. But in trying so hard and straying so far, she makes them contemptible and fictitious. It's not good enough to write it off as dumb supermarket fiction; if you're going to bother to do even half the research required to write a historical novel to completion (let alone to adequacy), then you can do better - and now similarly bad writers get stickers on their books with supposedly complimentary boasts like "better than Philippa Gregory". I want to read a story woven around how things were and what it really felt like, not a version of life if modern chicks and chaps with post-suffrage attitudes happened to wear surcoats and wimples and hose and sleeves with points. You can't learn anything from that, except how not to write.

Historical drama doesn't need to be a niche genre. The escapism that comes from exploring a world completely different to your own, yet peopled by human characters with recognisable motivations, anguishes and fears is a broadly held pleasure. And the desire to understand history, to comprehend what came before us and how our lives compare to theirs, how politics, power, money and survival influence human behaviour, isn't exactly subversive. People are interested in it; look at the success of fantasy books/TV shows like Game of Thrones, which subjects that genre to the rigorous mise-en-scene of historical drama. Or the Tudors (fruity and frothy, but certainly pretty popular), or the reliable success of historically-inspired cinema. The blood-and-guts aesthetic that has coloured it in recent years (with the brutality of battle, poverty and execution played out in all its grim, gory murk) has put paid to notions that it's a exclusively feminine genre for frumpy old misses. It sells. So it doesn't have to be completely dumbed down. It's okay to challenge us. We're not idiots. We'll cope. Philippa Gregory angers me because she takes a genre that people cling to despite sneering looks and now-decades of dismissal, and instead of rewarding their loyalty, her "will this do?" approach insults her audience. And when her Fisher-Price fiction gets adapted, badly, for the small screen and plumbs greater cultural lows, she endorses it.

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