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Gregory's novels bring British history to life

Pam Kelley
Pam Kelley is the Reading Life editor for The Charlotte Observer.

It's no huge surprise that Philippa Gregory earned a Ph.D. in literature with plans to become a professor.

Lucky for her fans, an abysmal job market thwarted her teaching aspirations. Facing unemployment, she published her first novel in 1986 – the 18th-century gothic “Wideacre.”

A writer was born.

Since then, Gregory has emerged as the diva of British historical fiction, with more than a dozen novels, including the best-selling “The Other Boleyn Girl,” described by Newsday as “a bodice-ripper with a bibliography.”

Now a new novel, “The Other Queen” ($25.95, Touchstone Books), is winning strong reviews. And on Thursday, Gregory makes her first Charlotte visit, speaking at Queens University of Charlotte.

Key to Gregory's success is her talent for breathing life into characters, especially women who've been overlooked or pigeonholed.

“The Other Queen,” for instance, centers on the years Mary, Queen of Scots, spent in England, as guest/prisoner of the Earl of Shrewsbury and his wife, the smart, ambitious Bess of Hardwick.

Biographers often neglect Mary's captive period, but it offers a terrific premise: Bess and her husband hope to win Queen Elizabeth's favor by hosting/guarding this high-maintenance gal. (She arrives with an entourage of 100 and enjoys bathing with white wine.) They figure she'll be there a few months. In fact, she stays 16 years, destroying their lives and fortune.

Fans often ask Gregory why people remain so fascinated with England's Tudor period, which lasted from 1485 to 1603. “I think it's a time of great crisis for women in particular and a time in which England as we know it today is invented,” she told me in a telephone interview. “So you have society becoming itself in important ways.”

Gregory says she does tremendous research so she can make “a powerful imaginative leap” into the time period she's writing about. But she has zero desire to actually live there.

“It's a time where women had no legal rights whatsoever. You're either somebody's wife or daughter,” she says. Your one shot at some power: Your husband dies and leaves you property.

What is the best period in history to be a woman?

Only when women have voting rights, birth control and a good chance at surviving childbirth, Gregory says. “I always say, if you're a woman, you don't want to be born anytime before 1960.”

Gregory speaks at 7 p.m. Thursday in Dana Auditorium at Queens University of Charlotte, 1900 Selwyn Ave. She'll discuss her new novel and the relationship between history and fiction.

Tickets are $15. 704-337-2458 or www.queens.edu/learningsociety.

Pam Kelley: 704-358-5271; pkelley@charlotteobserver.com

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