For some, Philippa Gregory’s excursion into writing for young adults will be a revelation – that such an established and phenomenally successful writer of adult historical fiction and non-fiction has turned her expert pen to targeting teenagers. But Changeling, the first in a new series called Order of Darkness, is not her first work for a younger audience. And teens already turn up at all of her events anyway.
Philippa Gregory's Changeling
23/05/2012 by John McLay
Philippa Gregory’s first novel for young adults sees teenagers take on the forces of darkness in medieval Europe
“I’ve been aware ever since I first started writing that I have a readership that is much younger than you might predict for historical fiction,” she says. “Sometimes I meet some very young readers at my signings. Ten-year-olds. A lot of them started with The Other Boleyn Girl but they have gone on to read almost everything I’ve written.”
Gregory’s new novel begins in Italy, 1453. At its heart is the relationship between Luca Vero, a handsome young Papal investigator sent by a mysterious stranger to record strange occurrences all over Europe, and Isolde, a Lady Abbess trapped in a nunnery by her brother to prevent her claiming a rich inheritance. She is his first case. They’re both 17 and yet are adults in every way – as was the expectations of the time. “You didn’t have a concept of childhood then like we do now,” explains Gregory. “From the time children are able to stand they are expected to make a contribution. They’re out scaring birds or herding sheep. No education. No idea of the innocence of childhood. It’s a very, very tough life. I knew I wanted a fairly young hero and heroine. And then I figured out that 1453 had this wonderful moment where it was fairly plausible that the Pope would send out inquisitors to try and discover what was going on.
“It really was an extraordinarily interesting year. It’s the year that Constantinople falls to the Ottoman Empire. People then genuinely thought that this indicated the end of the world was coming. That the heretics would take over all of Europe. That it was the start of the end of times.” This was a very superstitious medieval world and there was, “a terrific upsurge of phenomenon,” says Gregory. “They believed what was happening was the collapse of normality. That the march of the Ottoman Empire resembled the rise of Satan at the same time. Things were going bizarrely and peculiarly wrong. “The church was responsible for investigating these things and trying to figure out what was happening and what they could do about it. So to have Luca as an investigator was very interesting to me. He’s interested in the new science and looks for natural explanations and doesn’t rush to superstition and fear.”
Luca’s world is one hard for us to imagine now. “It is a time of tremendous insecurity. Most people are going to die about the age of 45. Any woman who gives birth is in real and imminent danger of death. There is no preventive medicine. Life is incredibly unreliable. Everyone is quite fatalistic.” Although Luca’s Order of Darkness is a fiction, it is based The Order of the Dragon which was real. “It was a medieval secret society designed to defend Christendom. And so it becomes very important at this time. “I just thought it would be very exciting to write in novel form something which, while there’s still a historical background to it, is not a historical biography. To go a step deeper into fiction and a story that might really suit the young adult audience. They obviously have an appetite for adventure and excitement and often very, very serious things and quite dark things.”
Did she do anything different when writing this book, in contrast to her adult novels? “I don’t think I held back in terms of content at all, but I think I held back in terms of presentation. When you are writing for any age you take a decision as to how vivid or how detailed you are going to make the descriptions. How close you’re going to get. I think with this young adult book I was conscious that I wanted to be fairly subtle and thoughtful about it.”
In Changeling, Gregory has not portrayed anything more controversial than smouldering sexual tension between the two pairs of young characters in the story – no doubt to be developed more fully in later books. But one scene, where Luca accidentally glimpses the reflection of Isolde and her female companion Ishraq bathing, was charged with much emotion. “If you are sexually experienced or knowledgeable you would see that scene and you would know that it was a very erotic thing for a young man to see. If you are fairly innocent and aren’t, then you just see him having stepped over a boundary or stepped to greater intimacy or perhaps fallen in love. I’m not writing anything that’s corrupting. I’m really conscious of trying to stay inside the readers’ understanding of things.”
Reading Changeling, and Gregory’s other works for adults, it is clear that her woman are no pushovers like in some of the other fiction for teens that she has read and has not been impressed with. “My woman are women of thought and action. They express themselves, and discover themselves. They are rounded people. They manage to get power and in a way it’s a bit of a correction of the way women are portrayed in so much of our culture now. My woman are not victims and they are not passive. They do things and they decide things.”
The passion that Philippa Gregory has for her subject and her characters is evident as she talks. She’d make a great History teacher.
“I never get bored with history,” she says. “It’s another world and you have the opportunity to enter it through research and study or through writing and reading historical fiction. It’s a really thrilling place. And it’s a real place.”
As with all gripping novelists, Gregory no doubts inspires legions of young readers to pick up pens themselves. “I was never taught how to write,” she says. “I learned from reading others. I was writing fiction as a little girl and I had a love of words. And of physically writing in an old ledger that my mother gave me.” Gregory’s advice to young writers is simple. “You have to read almost everything you can get your hands. Of any quality. Then read some more. That’s how you learn to do it.”
Changeling is out on 24 May, published by SImon & Schuster Children's Books.