Philippa Gregory – Jennifer Merin Interview re “The Other Boleyn Girl”
Philippa Gregory’s 2002 novel, “The Other Boleyn Girl,” sparked so much interest in the women of Tudor England, the author followed it with four sequels: “The Queen’s Fool,” “The Virgin’s Lover,” “The Constant Princess” and “The Boleyn Inheritance.” Gregory chats with Jennifer Merin about making the novel into a film, Tudor England women’s wiles and feminism.
MERIN: Is publicizing a film different from publicizing a book?
GREGORY: Actually, its a shorter process. I was on tour for the book for ages, and this is relatively brief.
MERIN: Do you discover anything new during these interviews?
GREGORY: Yeah, you do. You find out mostly what different takes there are on the book. And, sometimes youre asked things that make you think. Someone says I liked this or didnt like that, and I have to really think about what the book was doing.
What I find interesting is that if youre on tour and are detached and just do the interview over and over again, you get nothing from it. But, if youre a little bit open, and you notice a different person coming in and youre interested in what theyre interested in, it becomes a whole different process. Its a lesson in terms of emotional openness really, and being real, as opposed to saying okay, you want the interview, so here goes.
MERIN: Yes, some people do these interviews on autopilot .
GREGORY: Its the easiest way to do it, I think, and for some people who are a bit emotionally fragile, thats probably the safest way to do it–going behind your screen. But its much more interesting to take the risk and tell people the truth.
MERIN: How much of a screen do you go behind when youre approaching your characters?
GREGORY: Not at all. Not at all. They become my most intimate friends. I spend more time with them actually when Im writing and doing research than I do with anybody else in the world because Im with them eight hours a day and then Im thinking about them the rest of the time. So, one of the jokes in my family is that my husband will be driving me somewhere and hell say, what are you thinking about, and Ill say Robert Dudley. Im allowed to say another mans name because when I was working on Elizabeth the First, I was constantly thinking about Robert Dudley.
MERIN: Do the characters talk to you?
MERIN: So in a way youre, what would you say, channeling?
GREGORY: Its tricky in a way, because I wouldnt say channeling was what I was doing, but when youve done a really deep and extensive research, you do, I think, create their world, you are very conscious of whats in their world, you see whats in their world. So youre participating in a way. The divide of time is absolutely there. Theres never a thought in my head that Im truly there. I know that I am recreating it, and that ultimately I am recreating it for millions of people. But I am really recreating it for me.
Every now and then something happens which I find so odd and interesting–for example, when I was thinking about Mary Boleyn, and spending years researching Mary boleyn, there was no portrait of her, so I had no idea of what she looked like at all. There wasnt even a description of her. We knew what Anne looked like, but not what mary looked like. And so for the purposes of the novel, I had to make it up, and I had to make it up on the basis of no historical evidence at all. And I decided that shes be golden-brown haired and brown eyed, and a little rounded than Anne, a little softer than Anne, and little more buxom.
Well, I write about Mary Boleyn and she becomes an extraordinary new character in a way, shes added to the history, so all the histories written after my novel have Mary Boleyn in them, whereas before they did not. She becomes of interest to everybody, people go to Hever Castle (the Boleyn residence) and ask the custodians of the museum about Mary Boleyn, whereas theyve never asked before. Theres a whole stir of interest about this character, that comes just out of the novel–its quite an extraordinary thing. So, people start looking for portraits of her, which they didnt before, because nobody was interested in her before. And they find one. And its authenticated to being Mary. And, shes blond-haired and brown eyed and slightly rounder of face. And she looks very like I described her in the novel.
MERIN: Thats so interesting.
GREGORY: Yes, its very interesting. And anybody rational would say thats a coincidence, and anybody not rational would say, how is there some way that you could know that–but I didnt know it.
MERIN: Of course not. But, your studies would give you access to the different philosophical presumptions that people had. Their thinking about things was organized very differently–if I remember correctly we were in an era where the notion of the Great Chain of Being predominated
MERIN: And there was detailed symbolism that people used in their communications with each other. We are unfamiliar with all that. How do you manage to recreate the fullness of their mental state within a framework that a modern person would understand? Or would, at least, get an idea of how complex and complicated and sophisticated their thinking and world view were?
GREGORY: First of all, I research thoroughly, reading not only the obvious history books, but I read specialist history books, so…for example, Ive recently been reading books about spying in Tudor England, so I now know the spy rings and codes they use.
When I was working on John Dee, who was a fantastic philosopher and alchemist during the Elizabethan period, I read a great deal about him and his linguistic notes and beliefs. So I dont just read the history of the reign, I read all sorts of odd offbeat social histories–particularly when I go to a location where one of my characters lived, you very often find that local historians have written small pamphlets which are only for sale in the little shop, but they have some absolutely extraordinary insights that havent made it into the big books.
So, theres a huge amount of research that goes into the history, the documents and papers, the locations so all of that goes on. I try and amass it, and because all of my novels are now first person, I just write as if I were that person thinking those things and I try to keep that in mind, bearing that if Im being read by a doctor of philosophy, then they will be familiar with some of this material and they will understand it when it comes up. If Im being read by, as I am, a kid of ten, he or she wont get it–but it doesnt matter. Its there. If they come to reread the book later, they may get it. But even if they dont, they will sense that theres a difference.
For example, in The Other Boleyn Girl, I dont remember whether where, but I know that somebody says, well theres god and the angels and the seraphim and then theres the king directly below, but superior to everybody else. A kid of ten doesnt have to know about the Great Chain of Being to get that there is some belief system going on there.
MERIN: So, when he learns about the great chain of being, he will perhaps have a visceral understanding of it because of his exposure to the world youve recreated–that he would not have had had he not read your book.
GREGORY: He may well go ah ha, I get it now. So, thats what that was about. And thats the way, I think, people learn anyhow. You get a piece of information from here, and youve already got some information from there, and its when it bolts together, you understand it.
MERIN: Yes, I think making those connections is learning–they change the way you think, they change your perceptions and presumptions. People are reading more these days. The internet has increased literacy in a strange sort of way but people are still not reading as much as they watch movies. So, its my assumption that in this day and age, movies are hugely influential on the way we think, and teach social mores, norms and behavior. The history that youve set before us teaches us what?
GREGORY: My view of history is that the lives of ordinary people are just as interesting as the lives of royals or important people and, indeed, that inside royal and important people, there are ordinary people. Were all fundamentally the same human beings suffering the same ills and experiencing the same desires. Now if any history that implies that the leaders are more interesting than the ordinary people is snob history. I dont write it.
Similarly, the history of women may not always have as great political impact as the history of men, given that women dont have political power for such a long time. But actually the history of women is very often more revealing of a society and may be more interesting in terms of peoples aspirations and determination and courage than the history of men–because the history of the underdog is what speaks to me.
So I write the history of people who are neglected by their society–like women. Ive written about black and enslaved people in England, and Ive written about Jews in Tudor England at the time of the Spanish Inquisition, the Diaspora. So I am interested in people who are neglected at the time, sometimes persecuted at the time, and that history has forgotten. So, my history is revolutionary history in that sense that it is of people who are neglected and that, indeed, are not just forgotten incidentally, but whose history is swept away because it is in some way an embarrassment to us now.
MERIN: What you set into play in The Other Boleyn Girl is a remarkable investigation into the ways of womens wiles in Tudor England .
GREGORY: Yes .
MERIN: When women were essentially powerless–they owned the clothes on their back, if they were given leave to own anything
GREGORY: They dont even own their clothes–they borrow them…
MERIN: Yet, they managed somehow to find ways to wield extensive power
MERIN: I would say that today, we who live in the United States, might call them Texans .
(She laughs heartily)
GREGORY: Ive just come from Dallas and I understand what you mean. Texas women are very clever.
You know what I find so interesting is that despite the gains made by feminism–and I am a feminist and a great supporter of equal rights–you look at Anne Boleyn who gets from nowhere to be Queen of England, and has the King of England dancing for six years–six years of courtship–during which time he turns the history of England upside down in order that he might get into bed with her, and she wont allow it–you know, thats a woman who well, I mean, these arent wiles, this is campaign level strategy. She was a phenomenal woman. Absolutely phenomenal.
MERIN: So true.
GREGORY: And as a feminist, I suppose one has to wonder what would the country have been like had Anne been allowed to be Queen of England in position as well as in name. We see what her daughter does, but what would Anne have done? Shes a character and a half. She is a true heroine. But not because she gets to be Queen of England–what I see in her is extraordinary ambition and the fulfillment of it, and thats in a person who was disadvantaged from birth by more than one thing, and in particular by her gender, which was terribly important.
MERIN: Do feel that there are lessons to be learned from your histories. Does observing these women at work in Tudor England give us another take on feminism and how to be successful at being women?
GREGORY: Yes. Im always writing about the great puzzle of my life and the great puzzle for many women and certainly the women of my novels–and that is how to be a woman in the system, how to be the sort of women you want to be, whether thats a woman of wiles, deploying your sexual allure, or whether that is in some way demeaning to you because it totally ignores your intellectual side, your spiritual side and your desire for power, because it focuses on your sexuality and your body, and we know that is going to be of limited use.
So, for instance, in my book, The Queens Fool, you see a very young woman at the court of Mary Tudor who marries as she is urged to do, and finds herself treated appallingly by her husband. And Elizabeth, who is so afraid of that happening to her, wont marry at all, but spends all of her early life and a good deal of the rest of her life burning up for various men–but particularly for Robert Dudley, to start off with. And this young women whod married is questioning how she can be a woman of intelligence and ambition and, because shes Jewish, a woman of faith, and be safe in a world in which women have to make these huge choices and put themselves in the care of men–or put themselves right outside that, and be absolutely celibate. For Mary Tudor and Elizabeth the First, the choice is really to have an emotional life with terrible danger, or absolute celibacy and, I believe, an absolute drying up of the soul.
MERIN: What about the character of Jane Parker in your book? How does she fit into this spectrum?
GREGORY: Shes so interesting, isnt she?
MERIN: Yes, I think so.
GREGORY: In film of The Other Boleyn Girl, they really picked up on Jane Parker. It was a very intelligent reading of the novel.
You know, they just found that actress (Juno Temple)–she came to audition as an extra, and they picked her out, and shes great. Parker is a bit of a mystery in the historical record. She does, indeed, give evidence against her husband, George (Boleyn, brother of Mary and Anne, played by Jim Sturgess) which takes him to the scaffold. But she manages to get a pardon for herself and her part in it, which allows her to keep some of the family fortune. She retires to her brothers house and goes very, very quiet. Shes Jane Seymours lady-in-waiting and in the interregnum between Jane Seymours death and when Anne of Cleves comes in, she just goes to her brothers house and keeps her head down. Nobody has a place at court then because there is no queen. And then, when Anne of Cleves comes in, up pops Jane again.
And if you read my book, The Boleyn Inheritance, Jane then acts absolutely specifically to betray Anne of Cleves and would have taken Anne to the scaffold had she been asked to do so. She gives false evidence of treason and witchcraft, just as she did against Anne Boleyn. And, then, she encourages Catherine Howard to take a lover, she guards her, and she smuggles him in–and then, when theyre caught, she turns evidence on Catherine Howard. So, she sends two queens nearly to the scaffold and one to divorce. Her behavior is extraordinary. The only explanation I could find for her was a pathological one, which Im really reluctant to go to–because its just too easy a way out. You say shes crazy and theres an end to the argument. But really her behavior is so contrary to her own interests and safety that she has to be driven by something which irrational. I think she was sexually perverse, someone who loved to be on the edge of an affair. So shes certainly watching Thomas Culpeper and Catherine Howard–shes outside the door of the room, listening. We know that. So theres that aspect to her. And then I think that shes one of these people who really doesnt care what risk is taken, provided shes participating in huge events–and she really likes executions.
MERIN: Shes the original drama queen.
GREGORY: And in the end, it takes her to the scaffold. She dies with Catherine Howard.
MERIN: Historically, where did you take liberties?
GREGORY: I dont take liberties .
MERIN: Not at all?
GREGORY: When we dont know, when theres an absolute gap in the record, I have to create the story–because historians can go we dont know what happened to Fred for the next three years, maybe he went on crusade, maybe he went home, maybe he got drunk, but if youre writing a novel, you cant let the reader go for a second. Theres no I dont know what I did for three years– its not possible.
So, I have to make my mind up. I look at the historical record–where the person last appears and reemerges, and then create the story thats missing. Its conjecture, animated conjecture. Its fiction, but its the closest I can imagine it to be. When we have partial evidence, its controversial because one historian thinks one thing and another historian thinks another, and its hard to choose which evidence to go with. Usually, I look at the written history and consult historians–but before I do that, I look at original material and decide what it means to me. And then I see if anyone agrees with me.
If I were a historian, I could say it might have happened this way or that, but because Im writing a novel in the first person, I have to choose. So thats where the fiction comes in. The other part where the fiction is all the way through is the dialogue, the emotions, the motivation–the animation of it. But that often seems to me to be more like a reconstruction. You know, its like when they do crimes scenes and dramatic reconstructions that are scripted. It feels more like that.
MERIN: How much influence did you have in the making of the film, and in the script?
GREGORY: I was hired as a consultant on the script and I was pretty influential, I think, in that when I said that something really wouldnt do, it usually didnt happen. But there were times when I said something couldnt be done, and the movie was made that way anyway. That, in a sense, is part of the moviemaking process, which is not going to change for me. Its the directors movie, not my movie. Its Peter Morgans script, not my script. And, its the actors performances, not mine. So, I would comment and my comments always went into the mix. Everyone always knew what my opinion was, but ultimately, at the end of the day, they were making the best movie they could and they used everyones suggestions.
What was really interesting for me was that when I went on the set, all the cast and crew had a copy of The Other Boleyn Girl, and lots of people had The Constant Princess–the director had started reading it and told everybody to read it as well. The book was its own advocate far more powerfully than I could have been, and particularly Scarlett (Johansson, who plays Mary Boleyn)–her pages are absolutely marked up and she was always going to Peter Morgan and saying we have to have this scene, if you havent put it in yet, weve got to have it in because its really important for the character.
So there was this real powerful dialogue going on all the time between the book and the moviemakers–I wasnt even voicing it, they were reading it for themselves. And the book was its own advocate. So, Id go there and it would be like meeting a reading club. The electrician guy and the guy who did the would say is this true? Did this really happen? And Id say, yeah, it really did. And theyd say thats amazing. It was extraordinary. It was like going to a reading club.
MERIN: Is there a woman today who you think of as a Mary or an Anne whos functioning in our society with the same kind of heroic intelligence and innate skill?
GREGORY: Well, actually, because Im interested in the history of ordinary women, Id say there are millions of us–each of us–trying to hoe our little row as honorably as we can, achieving our ambitions, being good wives, being good mums, being good women every day. Yes, millions of us.
MERIN: And nobody like Angelina Jolie, Margaret Thatcher or whomever–someone specific you can cite?
GREGORY: I dont have a heroine. I dont think I have a personal heroine today. But then, Im not someone who looks up to people