A Queen in Hay

Each year, Hay on Wye plays host to the Hay Literature Festival, showcasing a range of writers, from the local writing group, right up to the Queen of historical fiction herself: Philippa Gregory. It is perhaps one of the longest literature festivals that I have run across, lasting just over a week, and filling that time with over 900 fantastic events. This year, I was able to go down and see it for myself, and I must say that next year, you won’t be able to keep me away! With mountains of books to purchase, and the authors themselves mere meters away, it was a fantastic opportunity to meet one of the writers that has influenced my love of history so much.

The whole town comes alive for the Hay Festival. The castle ruins were packed and people were even setting up arts & craft stalls in the gardens of their beautiful stone cottages. Everywhere I turned there was something different. Comedians, filmmakers, scientists and all kinds of writers come together to debate, discuss and enlighten, but I came for one day only, and chose literature above all else.

The festival itself was set up a little way off from Hay itself, and since I had chosen to park by the castle, I had to walk through most of the town. However, with the mass of very athletic-looking young men with rickshaws and a shuttle bus to ferry anyone who needed it, the festival remained accessible to anyone and everyone. At the Festival itself, visitors could not only attend talks, but also get signings from other writers there that day. For this reason, Cassandra Clare’s autograph is now tucked away safely in one of my notepads. (Cassandra Clare, author of the Mortal Instruments Series and the Infernal Devices Series.) There is something new and interesting around every corner, fantastic facilitates, a vast array of writers and something to interest everyone. Oliver Jeffers was busy encouraging writers in attendance to design their own jumpers for his illustrated characters to wear, creating a brilliant piece of artwork to be auctioned off at the end of the festival.

Each talk cost around six pounds to attend, so Hay Festival is considerably more affordable than most other festivals. In her interview with Stephanie Merritt, Philippa Gregory was simply mind blowing. I personally love her writing; the novels that make up The Cousins War series are some of my all time favourite books. Philippa Gregory is proof that you simply can’t tell what a writer will be like in person by reading their work, especially since she writes from the perspectives of individuals who are completely at odds with one another.

The first two books of The Cousins War series are ‘The White Queen and ‘The Red Queen, which illustrate the lives of perhaps the most formidable women that ever walked through Plantagenet England. ‘The White Queen is both a stunning romance and a novel of suspense and action, documenting the explosively scandalous marriage between Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV, son of Richard, Duke of York. Elizabeth betrayed her Lancastrian alliances to marry Edward, driving a split between Edward and his closest advisor; Warwick. Philippa Gregory’s writing draws the reader immediately into the turmoil of family feuds, bitter battles and traitorous mentors.

The Red Queen flips the first book on its head, painting the same lifetime from the perspective of Margaret Beaufort. Mother of Henry VII and grandmother of the notorious Henry VIII, Margaret spends her life plotting for her son and his place on the throne of England. After ‘The White Queen, the reader has already seen Elizabeth Woodville’s view of the woman, and the supposed impact of Margaret’s actions, yet this second book leaves you questioning the insinuations of ‘The White Queen.

During her interview, the author commented on how she needed to take a step back. Writing ‘The Red Queen meant that she had to remove herself from Elizabeth’s prejudices and look at reasons why Margaret Beaufort would have acted in the way she did. There was no room for bias or condemnation because of another character’s opinion, and she had to learn to understand both of these women.

As the interview progressed I was more and more impressed with how genuinely funny Philippa Gregory was. Sat on that stage, she was faced by an enormous room of tiered seating, all of which was completely packed, but there wasn’t even a moment where she seemed fazed. Her humour was fantastic, openly joking with the audience when she was asked “Which is your favourite male from history?”. The writer makes no secret of being a feminist: her books are clearly focused on the powerful women of history who were not appreciated, simply because they were women.

Did you know that Jane Seymour was the first woman to be published in England? Would you have thought to think of her beyond Henry VIII’s third wife? You can see why Philippa Gregory writes the books she does, and what is wonderful is that she does it with consideration for the women she writes about. She says she often wonders if Mary Boleyn (‘The Other Boleyn Girl) would have appreciated all the attention that the bestseller got her.

The Festival itself is free entry, and with the sessions being so affordable, Hay Festival has proven itself to be event that well warrants attending. If you go to one festival in a year, then make it Hay. And so, while I wait for the next instalment of the Cousins War, and wonder what Warwick’s daughter Anne Neville will have to say, I shall dive into my signed copy of ‘Changeling’, Philippa Gregory’s new young adult book.

The TV series based on Cousins’ War is coming out next year on the BBC.

(End Note: Within the next few weeks look out for my review on ‘Changeling’. We shall see how Philippa Gregory’s young adult works compare to her more mature novels.)

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