The books that shaped me: Philippa Gregory

The Good Housekeeping Web team
·6-min read
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

From Good Housekeeping

Welcome to 'The books that shaped me' - a Good Housekeeping series in which authors talk us through the reads that stand out for them. This week, we're hearing from Philippa Gregory. The novelist has been writing historical fiction for over 30 years and is best known for best-sellers including The Other Boleyn Girl and The White Queen. She's sold over 10 million copies of her books and they've been translated into more than 80 languages. Her latest novel is Dark Tides, out now.

How have books impacted your life?

Books have been a huge part of my life for as long as I can remember. I’ve always loved reading. My mother was a keen tennis player so I had a regular routine of going to the library on a Saturday afternoon while she played tennis – reading one book and borrowing three. I was also bed-bound for a winter due to illness which meant I read anything and everything. Whether I am reading or writing a book, I tumble deep into the story, and have a very powerful connection with my characters. I miss them when I finish, and then have the pleasure of re-reading and, if it’s my own work, re-writing. I still feel unbelievably lucky to have this great joy in writing. Books, in my opinion, are the most accessible art form in the world.

The childhood book that’s stayed with you...

My favourite book when I was old enough to read a longer story was The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. This is a great adventure book set in Victorian times and a mixture of historical fantasy and historical fiction. It tells the story of an heiress to a Victorian estate whose lands include a mysterious forest and forces of evil. She has to defeat the evil forces and win her inheritance. I believe it is great classic that all children should read. It started my love of historical fiction and become a family favourite for my children. I’ll read it to my grandchildren when they are a little older – it has some very scary passages!

Your favourite book of all time...

There are so many great books and powerful reading experiences that it's hard to pick one, I think The Making of the English Working Class by EP Thompson made me understand the real importance of writing history, and the passion that a great historian can bring to the subject. The Country and the City by Raymond Williams is a book I read and re-read for its sense of place and time, and what that means to readers. But to pick a ‘favourite’ it would be hard to look past George Eliot's Middlemarch - great women characters here from one of the greatest women writers. Dorothe is a clever young woman with really nothing to do - she mistakes love of study for love of the scholar and marries the wrong man. But even the right man is not her equal. It’s a wonderfully nuanced picture of how difficult it is to be a highly intelligent woman with a great capacity for love. Other women characters are similarly complex: the wonderfully dreadful Rosamund Vincy who catches and ruins her man, and the endearing Harriet who seems like a foolish indulgent woman but rises to hardship. It’s extraordinarily dense and deeply moving, like a snapshot of a whole provincial town at a time of change.

The book you wish you’d written...

Again, so many! I wish I had written everything by Jane Austen, certainly everything by EM Forster. I have a library full of classics that I’d have loved to write, each of them masterclasses in storytelling and language. They’ve all shaped my writing career. Reading good novels is the one piece of advice I give to anyone who wants to become an author. In the case of both Austen and Forster they write with great simplicity, the sentences are really transparent. There’s nothing grandiose or pompous about the writing and it makes the books seem simple when in fact they are layered and complex. I think of Austen in particular as pioneering a particularly ‘English’ style of novel writing: domestic, small-scale, modest in style. It is deceptive, behind the little scenes there is a whole understanding of the world, a compassionate view, and a wisdom which is anything but small-scale.

The book you wish everyone would read...

Novels are a form of art, just as much as poetry or say an opera aria. So nobody "should" read anything – you should only ever read something for the joy of it. They are for pleasure, a really high pleasure that engages the mind and the emotions and even the soul. You might learn from them, which is always good, but any novel that sets out to teach the reader a lesson is diverging from what I think is its real purpose – to be as near as possible a perfect novel. Books that are moving and educational and might promote peace and tolerance are many: my particular favourites would be The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne, as a challenge of great hidden power to the horror of the Holocaust, or anything by that great humanist John Steinbeck, in particular the lesser known In Dubious Battle.

The book that got you through a hard time...

When we are struggling with the pain of the here and now a novel can take us into another place and time, and even if the story there is painful or hard, the artistry of the writer gives it a significance, a morality and a beauty is often missing in our immediate lives. Great writing gives any experience a significance and a meaning, and when we are struggling and suffering it is the lack of significance with no idea of a bigger picture, that is so painful. I re-read Iris Murdoch's The Sea, the Sea as a book which is far away from my own concerns and yet entirely about the human struggle to own the person you love, when you know that cannot be achieved, to free yourself from your own vanity and greed, to recognise those who are your deep companions and friends. At the same time it’s a deeply engaging story about a theatre director in his retirement home at the sea.

The book that uplifts you...

I don’t know why Simple Gifts by Joanne Greenberg is not universally adored. It describes an eccentric, very poor family in remote Colorado, paid to create a "heritage" experience, making their farm into a pioneer homestead of the 1880s. The question of heritage versus history is played out in the novel as a terrific social comedy which is also poignant about the past we have all lost. It’s another world in a teaspoon book – you step into the slim volume and a whole other life unfolds around you.

Dark Tides by Philippa Gregory (Simon & Schuster) is out now

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