Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Oh Philippa, where have you been?

Oh Philippa, where have you been all my life? How could I have not come across your delicious books for so many years? Well, now that you have been discovered, the loss will be shortly rectified.

I’ve always loved historical fiction, both Indian and non - Indian, and whether it is a well - researched piece of work (as in the case of William Dalrymple) or light fluffy reading (a la Georgette Heyer), if I come across any piece of historical fiction, you can bet I am going to read it. Last year, on a cruise on the honeymoon, I came across Philippa Gregory’s ‘The Other Queen’ (yes, yes, I read books on my honeymoon) and I was completely bowled over by how much fun the book was, and in my favourite genre too!

When I discovered that Philippa had written a number of books in the genre, and some of them were very popular, I was blown away. Here was a lady who had written numerous books, largely centered around the English royals, across the ages. Her books were extremely fun to read, you want to race through the pages, even though you know very well how it all ended. And so was born a worshipper! I have now made it my mission, my goal, to read all her books, in chronological order (though she is still working on the Plantagenets, so I will have to start from the Tudor dynasty).

I started off with ‘The Constant Princess’ , which traces the life of Katherine of Aragon, from her childhood, till the early years of her marriage with Henry VIII. If you are really interested in the plot, do take a look at the Wikipedia page on Katherine of Aragon. Philippa takes quite a few liberties in the book - she shows that Katherine and Arthur have indeed consummated their marriage, in fact are deeply in love, and Katherine later lies about the consummation of the marriage because she believes it is her destiny to be the Queen of England - but its an interesting take on the inner workings of a beloved and revered queen, and of how she might have been as a young woman.

Of course, in terms of actual writing, there isn’t much to recommend in her books. The writing is awkward, and she has a tendency to repeat the same expression over and over again, (say at the beginning of a speech, mid way though the speech, and again at the end of the speech). I mean, seriously, Philippa, it isn’t children you are writing for, this isn’t literature, we get the point, so get a move on woman! The inner monologues of her heroines are a bore - just because the woman thinks the same thought everyday doesn’t me you have to write those thoughts in every chapter!

She also has this tendency to ramble for the first quarter of the book, and then suddenly jump to an epilogue, which features an important (and maybe concluding scene) of the heroine’s life. it’s a little annoying because here you are, following this woman’s (the heroine’s, not Philippa’s) trials and tribulations closely, and then, in one turn of the page, you jump ahead by 10, 15 years to some sort of a forced conclusion. It wouldn’t be so irritating if it was well done, but it isn’t a smooth transition at all, and it jars, so that when you close the book, you are a little put out, and feel rather cheated.

But for all the criticism about her writing, her books are such fun! Once you start, you’re on a roll, and you don’t want it to end. And for such a light read, her books are fairly well researched. Sure, she takes a number of liberties with historical facts, and assumptions we have no way of verifying (but dude, that’s the point of writing historical fiction - where you don’t know, you put your own spin on it), but in terms of the actual events that take place, and an idea of life in court, its well researched. Mind, the research wouldn’t stand up for a second if it was serious work, but her books are little more than chick - lit, so any research is good.

I think the best part is that they raise in the reader a great curiosity about the people and the time they have been reading about. I am fairly familiar with the Tudors, atleast from Henry VIII up to Elizabeth, though I’m sketchy once James I steps in, but even I was keen to know more about Katherine of Aragon after reading The Constant Princess and did quite a bit of reading up after that, and may even be reading upon some serious historical accounts of her time.

It also makes me wish we had more historical fiction/ mythology in the Indian context. The amount of material at our disposal is incredible, but modern works based on Indian history/ mythology are very limited in India. I didn’t think much of Ashok Banker’s Ramayana series - actually I disliked it intensely, and had a tough time reading it, which is a pity since my mother bought the entire series in hardback (some sort of collectors edition), since I had been so excited about it.

I remember reading somewhere that there is a lot more historical fiction available in regional literature but translation is of course a problem. It also makes me immensely grateful to Amar Chitra Katha for their books on various Indian mythological and historical figures. They has books on even fairly minor characters (such as Sishupala). I owe them my familiarity with and interest in Indian mythology.

Anyway, I’d love to hear recommendations from you on modern works based on Indian history or mythology. Meanwhile, I’m off to spend some time with ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’.


Manoj said...

The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott is set from 1941-47. They even made a good 14 part British TV series from it.

Ramya said...

@Manoj: Ah, I think I'd heard of this before. I'll try and get my hands on it. Thanks for the reco!

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