Philippa Gregory’s name is for many inextricably linked with that of Anne Boleyn: her book The Other Boleyn Girl, about Anne’s sister Mary, has been hugely successful as a book, a TV series and as a film. After thrilling readers with five more bestsellers set in the Tudor court, followed by a trilogy about the equally turbulent Plantagenets and now a sequence set during the Wars of the Roses, she has turned her attention to younger readers. Andrea Reece interviewed Philippa Gregory for Books for Keeps.
Changeling, published this month, is the first in a new series for teenagers, ‘Order of Darkness’. Set in 15th century Italy, it tells the stories of four young people: Luca, a young monk, whom local rumour describes as a changeling, sent out from his monastery to be an investigator for the Church; his servant, Freize, comical but straight-talking; the beautiful Isolde, who has been forced from her wealthy home and into a nunnery; and Ishraq, the Moorish girl who has been Isolde’s companion since childhood.
This novel is certain to appeal to its intended audience. It is a true romance, starring beautiful young people with dangers to face and problems to overcome. It deftly mixes adventure and mystery and even adds a touch of the supernatural.
While such a summary might imply that the book is a cynical construct intended to move its author into a new and growing market, reading just a few pages of Changeling will quickly put paid to any notion of calculation. Philippa Gregory has written a rousing, intriguing and hugely entertaining story that feels fresh from start to finish.
Unlike the “fictionalised biography” of her adult books, Changeling is a work of real fiction, and she gleefully describes the fun she had writing it, “I really wanted to write something that’s not tied to historical record,” she says. “I wanted this novel to be purely fictional, and I’ve absolutely loved the sense of freedom and play that came with being able to make things up! It was a joy to write.”
Philippa remains an historian as well as a novelist though and while her characters are all invented, the book is set in a real historical period, one that she describes very accurately. The choice of 15th century Italy for her first specifically teen book was crucial, as she explains. As the book opens, the Ottomans have just taken Constantinople: “The Holy Father knows that we are approaching the end of our days,” says the mysterious head of the Order of Darkness to Luca. “There was a real sense at the time that the end of the world was near,” says Philippa, “That concept is central to the book, and one that makes the period very contemporary. I was brought up very aware of the threat of nuclear bombs, and young people today can’t help but be conscious of the finite nature of the resources we rely on.”
“At the same time, this period is the start of the Renaissance. Arab knowledge coming in from the East would lead the way for the rise of science, which would displace religion.”
Luca’s first lesson from his new boss is in the mystery of the number zero, the Arab way of calculating beyond nothing, and he is delighted at the thought of a life devoted to inquiry. “This fantastic period drew me to the character of Luca,” says Philippa. “I knew that he needed a woman alongside him, so Isolde was born. The story just grew from there.”
Isolde’s story is an interesting and unusual one too. The only daughter of a very wealthy and apparently enlightened man, she has been extremely well educated, not just for knowledge’s sake but also so that she will be able to manage her land and servants. However, on her father’s death at the beginning of the novel, her brother breaks some shocking news: she will either marry a man of his choosing (and he’s chosen a particularly unappealing specimen), or go into a nunnery.
“It’s a very bleak choice indeed,” says Philippa, “and I hope an interesting way to start a discussion of the place of women in society. Historical fiction can tend to romanticise this, but of course the options open to women were actually very limited. One of the real opportunities for women to get an education and find a career was in the nunnery and I wanted to show that. It’s certainly a career route for the Lady Almoner and Isolde says explicitly to Luca, a representative of Rome no less, that as Lady Abbess she can manage her house as she sees fit.”
Isolde’s friend and companion Ishraq is an equally interesting character, and one that may surprise some readers. “I really wanted her to be a Muslim,” says Philippa. “Our xenophobic view of history tends to make us see the medieval world as all white; in fact it was a time of genuine exchange of people and cultures. Ishraq would not be at all unusual as a person of colour in Europe at the time. I’d like this series to explore the possibility of living in harmony, there’s certainly a message of tolerance there.”
She’s quick to emphasise, however, that she doesn’t want to be seen to be teaching readers. And while the book’s world is historically accurate, there’s certainly no “smell of a library” to it. “I’m always desperate to avoid that,” says Philippa. On the contrary, the book often has the feel of a fairy tale: in the second of his enquiries, Luca is sent to investigate the possible existence of a werewolf, a strong folkloric belief of the time. The supposed werewolf turns out to be something quite different in fact, though that part of the story retains something of an element of myth. “I wanted to look at how the medieval world dealt with ‘other’,” she says. “All of my characters are outsiders, who don’t really fit in. They’re all on journeys to find their way to somewhere they can belong.”
It’s Luca the enquirer’s role to separate fact from fiction, to use his knowledge and intelligence to find the truth (a role not unlike that of a historical novelist really). We watch him doing this and the detective process is immensely satisfying, yet so too is the way there are things in the book that even Luca cannot explain. Certainly, Ishraq seems to have some supernatural abilities!
“I do believe that there are some phenomena that are simply very hard to explain,” says Philippa. “I really like that idea and the medieval setting is perfect for this. I didn’t want to write a corrective to wonderment.”
It comes as no surprise therefore when she admits that she has fallen in love with Freize, Luca’s servant and the book’s Everyman. Freize is as much of a detective as ‘the little lord’, his nickname for Luca, and just as observant. He’s also particularly in tune with nature and the natural world, immediately winning the trust of animals, and very open to all the possibilities in the world.
“Freize is my hero!” says Philippa gleefully! She’s already working on the second novel in the series, though she is also finishing a book about Anne Neville, which she says has been heaven to write. Even so, “I keep sneaking off to write more Order of Darkness,” she says, “I can’t wait to go back to the characters.”
Readers, whether they are new to Philippa’s writing and find the book in the teenage section of bookshops and libraries, or her existing fans, will all concur with this.
Changeling is published by Simon and Schuster (978 0 85707 730 1) at £12.99 hbk.
Andrea Reece is marketing director for Books for Keeps and marketing consultant to children’s publishers.