The Blagger's Guide To: Historical fiction

All you need to know about the hottest literary topic of the week

Some call it nostalgia for a time when queens were queens and men wore the tights. Others call it The Mantel Effect. Whatever the reason, English history is big in fiction this summer. The BBC is serialising its adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s novel The White Queen (now published in a TV tie-in paperback edition from Simon & Schuster, £7.99), the first in her “The Cousins’ War” series which focuses on the women of the Wars of the Roses.

The fifth book in the series will be published on  1 August. It will tell “the haunting story of the mother of the Tudors, Elizabeth of York”, the eldest daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville (the star of The White Queen), who is forced into marriage with Henry VII to unite the red rose of York (her) and the white rose of Lancaster (him). The novel begins with the Dowager Queen of England writing to her daughter Elizabeth about her impending marriage: “You must act the part of the queen that you were born to be … You were born a princess and you are the heir to a long line of courageous women. Lift up your chin and smile, my dear ….” In an author’s note, Gregory calls the book “a fiction about a mystery … I am inclined to believe the version I tell here. However, nobody knows for sure, not even now.”

Gregory helpfully explained to the BBC why such books, as gripping as they are, tend to confuse the reader with so many characters named the same. (Come on, who wasn’t put off Wolf Hall when the opening chapters gave us dozens of characters, most of whom seemed to be called Thomas?) “You mostly get named for a saint, or you get named for the king or you get named for your godfather,” she said. “I do absolutely everything I can, but it is horribly confusing. At one stage [in the book] I think we have three Edwards. We have Edward IV, the king; we have Prince Edward of Lancaster who is married to Anne Neville; and we have Edward’s son Edward.”

A popular game while watching the BBC’s The White Queen has been spotting historical inaccuracies such as zips and curtain rails, but much of the set is technically inaccurate, being filmed in Flanders and not 15th-century England. St Bavo’s Abbey and Het Gravensteen castle in Ghent represent the exterior and interior of the Palace of Westminster, and Ypres Cathedral stands in for Westminster Abbey. London in the Middle Ages is played by Bruges.

Several non-fiction accounts of the period are about to be published to provide background to this popular fiction. Leanda de Lisle’s Tudor: The Family Story will be published in August by Chatto & Windus (£20), and promises to be “packed with all the headlines we know and love … with many new revelations along the way.” Alison Weir’s Elizabeth of York: The First Tudor Queen will be published this autumn by Jonathan Cape (£20) and is a portrait of the marriage of Elizabeth and Henry and their seven children, including Henry VIII.

Another historian-turned novelist, Lisa Hilton, suggested to The Independent on Sunday recently that the next big thing in historical fiction should be the Anglo-Danish realm of the early 11th century, which hinges around the Norman princess Emma, wife to Aethelred of England and subsequently his successor, the Danish King Cnut.

The next episode of The White Queen is on BBC1 at 9pm today. The White Princess will be published on 1 August by Simon & Schuster, at £20.


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