23 Apr 2012
Apocalypse always seems imminent, whether financial, spiritual or an oil tanker strike. Here, in the country house hotel in North Yorkshire where I meet Philippa Gregory to discuss her new novel, the Four Horsemen couldn’t feel farther away. She sits, a petite figure framed by the blaze of sun, her hands crossed calmly in her lap, as hotel guests clatter around us and a tinny radio plays.
Known as a writer of (as she calls it) “fictionalised biography” – The Lady of the Rivers, set during the Wars of the Roses, is currently riding high in the bestseller lists, while The Other Boleyn Girl has been adapted into a film – Gregory has now produced a book for the burgeoning young adult market.
The Changeling is set in 15th-century Italy, when the Ottoman Empire was flexing its muscles and the Christian Church was convinced that the world was about to end. It features a good-looking young monk who is sent out by the mysterious Order of Darkness to investigate strange phenomena – nuns having visions, rumours of werewolves – to map out what people fear. Even now, “we have a hunger for the miraculous,” says Gregory. Barely a year goes by without “statues moving or bleeding or crying or giving milk”.
The 15th-century suited her purposes – that sense of imminence, coupled with its liminality as the borderlands between medieval semi-savagery and the Renaissance. The idea of Armageddon is particularly appealing: “Europe was absolutely on the brink,” she says. And this is compelling in terms of our contemporary crises too.
“Quite a lot of world religions have an end of days concept in them,” she says. “I suppose it’s part of our vanity as conscious beings that, because we know we’re going to die, we have a fantasy that the whole world might end, so it’s not just us, it’s everything.”
So, why the move to YA? “I don’t think there’s a real transition,” she says. “I think it’s just a marketing description. It’s to help the booksellers know where to put the books.” When I was 12, we went straight from children’s books to reading George Orwell, Agatha Christie and Evelyn Waugh, without any hand holding, I say. Gregory agrees.
There are children, she says, of seven and eight who read her “adult” novels. The only real difference with this one, as far as she is concerned, is that she is writing about fictional characters. And, as she points out, YA is not read exclusively by teenagers. The format has been quite freeing for her – “you can just make up anything you like, it’s just such good fun,” she says gleefully.
It’s not the first time that Gregory has written for a younger audience. She wrote three books in the Princess Florizella series, feminist fairy tales. She smiles when she talks about it. “I had girls writing to me asking why she didn’t want to marry the Prince!” Such pigeonholing, though, does not suit her. “I don’t really believe in categories at all.”
Rudyard Kipling was one of her favourite writers as a child, and he wrote across the board. “You could stay with the same author and grow up with that author.” She remembers reading Somerset Maugham and not really understanding what lay behind the story, but “it didn’t matter, because what you read was for the dialogue and the characters”.
The characters in The Changeling seem calculated to appeal to a broad base. There is the aforesaid monk, Luca, whose forensic mind brings him to the attention of the priestly authorities. When sent to investigate a nunnery where Satan is said to have taken hold, he falls for the aristocratic, intelligent and beautiful abbess, Isolde, who’s been disinherited by her brother and wants her lands back.
After conspiracies, witchcraft, the dissection of a corpse and the unveiling of a werewolf, the two set out on their quests. With them are Frieze, Luca’s grumpily witty servant, and the Abbess’s companion, Ishraq, a young Muslim woman who can hold her own in a battle.
The plot is deftly conceived, if predictable for the more astute reader, and the setting richly detailed. And more importantly, Gregory’s heroes battle internal and external forces as they discover more about themselves and their changing world. “Changing” is the operative word – Luca is the “changeling” of the title, and the theme runs through the book. “In a way, that theme gets you into a sort of liberal tolerant view of difference, which I think is really interesting to write about.”
The clash of cultures in her book, Gregory thinks, is fascinating “to young people today, because what you’re talking about is the conflict between the Muslim world and the Christian world at its very roots. Historically it’s an amazing time, and all sorts of aspects are manifested, because of people’s anxiety. It’s a spiritual battle as well as a material one.”
Her message of tolerance is a clear one, without being heavy-handed. “I would be very, very uncomfortable at teaching, at dreaming to teach, people things.” People read her historical books and then go on to study history. “So maybe this is an entry into thinking about these things.”
More books are planned for the world of The Changeling, in which everything is an omen, and the characters must interpret whether it comes from God or the Devil. Gregory loves the idea of the unreal. “I mean the idea that there is this tiny membrane between us and everything… in some ways I have a sense of that myself, when I think about time, which isn’t the straightforward linear thing, so we’re sitting here now, and a 100 years ago there are people sitting here probably talking about books.”
She is silhouetted by the light. For a moment the room is quiet, the radio off, the tourists gone. She leans forwards. “You know,” she whispers, “how close is that?”
Philip Womack is the author of The Other Book and The Liberators
At Hay Fever
The Changeling is published in May by Simon & Schuster. Philippa Gregory will be talking about it at the Hay Festival on June 2 at 10am. To book tickets, go to hayfestival.org
No comments have been added yet.