Here’s me meeting the lovely Philippa Gregory in July with her tour of The King’s Curse. Having read her work since I was an early teenager, I was hugely excited to get a chance to meet this best-selling author. She is one of my favourites, although I know this is not a popular opinion in the historical fiction world. People always tell me I can’t possibly like Gregory, because The Other Boleyn Girl was historically incorrect. Well yes, it was. It was also a darn good story, and the one that got me into the genre of historical fiction. Before I picked up that book, I had refused to read anything written after 1900. But I’m not here to write about the Tudor works that have made Gregory famous. I want to tell you about my favourites: her earlier works, stories made up by the author herself and set in the gorgeous Georgian era.
When I met Philippa, I gave her a copy of Queen of Bedlam as a thank you for all the inspiration her writing has provided. I will be delighted if it brings her even a fraction of the pleasure her Georgian books have brought me.
You might not associate Philippa Gregory with the Georgians, but you should. She studied 18th century literature and chose the period for her debut novel, Wideacre. As this is a blog dedicated to Georgian historical fiction, I thought I should give you a taste for Gregory’s Georgian novels. Below, I’ve provided a little summary of each one and my thoughts.
A Respectable Trade
Like most women of her time, Frances Scott seeks a marriage for life-long security. But in order to achieve this, she has to stoop from the position she was born to. She finds Josiah Cole, a prosperous merchant who needs her connections. The two strike a bargain and embark on an amiable, if not loving marriage.
However, when a cargo of African slaves arrive, the politics of the family begin to shift. Frances strikes up an unlikely friendship with Mehuru, which turns her world upside down.
I absolutely loved this book. I read it so quickly and it completely absorbed me. Not only does it treat the subjects of slavery, oppression and ambition with the darkness they deserve, it provides a fascinating insight into the world of the Bristol traders. In particular I remember feeling for Josiah, who is desperate to work his way up. The twists and turns in his story had me screaming at the pages – I couldn’t believe that I didn’t see them coming.
The only thing I didn’t entirely like was the romance aspect of the book. I think it would have been more powerful, and believable, if the relationship between Frances and Mehuru had stayed as a profound friendship. The end also leaves you guessing a little, which may not appeal to everyone.
The Wideacre Triology
Three generations, one estate.
Beatrice Lacey, the darling of her father, is devoted to her home estate of Wideacre. She is at one with the land and the people upon it, but society has other plans for her. Her mother wants her to become an ‘indoor miss’ and marry. Terrified at the prospect of anything that might force her to leave Wideacre, Beatrice embarks on an increasingly desperate campaign to secure her place – at the expense of her soul.
Read if you dare! I won’t pretend Wideacre is a comfortable book. It will probably disturb you, and that’s why I like it so much. It had me turning the pages and gasping. The heroine clearly becomes mentally unstable during the course of the narrative, but while she is hard to like, you cannot help secretly rooting for her. You understand her motivations, even if you do not approve with her methods (any of them).
On a historical note, I also found Wideacre a great tale of a village and its squire in the 18th century. You gain an understanding of the farming methods and the way the labouring classes lived. I had read a lot of academic work about enclosures and wheat prices, but it took this novel to bring home to me just how much the poor suffered.
The Favoured Child
Julia is growing up on the dilapidated estate of Wideacre with her kind mother and bullying cousin Richard. Money is short and the villagers are openly hostile. Her difficult childhood is punctuated by vivid dreams that offer glimpses into both the future and the past. She cannot be sure if she has a gift, or she is going mad.
As Julia grows, she is torn between her love for her cousin and her desire to help the village. Her tentative steps toward independence meet with crushing obstacles. At last she finds two men who seem willing to further her schemes for social improvement, but Richard is not willing to let either Julia or the land go.
Julia Lacey is a very likeable character, a refreshing breath of air after Beatrice. I found her to be a realistic representation of a woman of her time, although at times that could be annoying – you really wanted her to stand up to her male cousin. Hers is a sad story, but I found it captivating. Another page-turner, though perhaps not as fast-paced as Wideacre. The visions and trances – almost akin to possession – that Julia experiences are, at times, overdone.
Once again the plight of the poor comes into fascinating focus: children abducted from the village to be apprentices, corn-riots, the back-streets of Bath. The dirty truth behind the glamour of the Georgian era is revealed in a very human way.
The last of the trilogy and in my opinion, the best. This was a relief, as I have read so many trilogies let down by the final book!
Meridon is a gypsy orphan, keeping body and soul together by training horses for an abusive step-father. Her only comfort is her sister Dandy; a reckless, beautiful girl. At night, Meridon dreams of a place called Wide and a girl named Sarah. She vows to find the land of her dreams. Somehow, she will make life better and save her sister from a future as a whore.
The sheer scope of this story is amazing – you travel from a gypsy wagon to horse shows, Wideacre to the highest London society, balls to card-sharping dens. The story is good, but the main pull for me was the characterisation. Meridon is someone you enjoy spending time with, despite her gruff ways. She reacts in ways that ring true based on her experience. I found her a deeply sympathetic character, especially since she was so rough around the edges.
While this book refers to The Favoured Child, you don’t actually have to read the first two installments of the trilogy to understand Meridon. If you just pick one of the three, I’d make it this one.