Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, would invite Elizabeth I, Jane Austen and two of the Brontë sisters to a gin-fuelled evening book club session if she could bring any women from history.
The Duchess was opening the Chalke Valley History Festival in Wiltshire today when she introduced an event with authors Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir that included criticism from Gregory of the depiction of black Britons in Bridgerton as “false history”.
The writers took turns answering questions from members of the Duchess’ Reading Room online book club on the subject of rediscovering women in history. Gregory, a historical novelist whose books include The Other Boleyn Girl, then had the chance to ask the Duchess two questions.
She said: “If Your Royal Highness were to summon any woman in history to an evening book club discussion — I think evening is key in this, because I’m assuming there’s gin involved — who would they be?
The Duchess said: “Well, I would suggest Elizabeth I because I thought she’d be a very good reader and she’d come out with some very good one-liners. Also, she was incredibly well-educated. She spoke five languages. I was lucky enough to see a book of hers that she had translated at the age of 11, with Katherine Parr, and it was absolutely fabulous. So I think I’d probably have her, and maybe Jane Austen and a couple of Brontë sisters. And maybe Anne Frank as a younger member.”
That bothers me, because that’s really against the historical recordPhilippa Gregory
Gregory also asked the Duchess which historical woman she had most enjoyed meeting through Reading Room-recommended books. She replied: “I think I was fascinated by Mrs Shakespeare in [Maggie O’Farrell’s novel] Hamnet because I think she was always portrayed as a sort of harridan and she turned out to be rather an original, tragic character.”
Later, Gregory criticised the Netflix TV series Bridgerton, which is set in a reimagined Regency England, after she was asked about the casting of black actress Jodie Turner-Smith as Anne Boleyn in a Channel 5 miniseries.
She said: “Personally I have no objection to colour-blind casting — I take it for what it was. I think it doesn’t always work when it interrupts the narrative of the story. So I didn’t mind it with the Anne Boleyn television programme half as much as I mind it on Bridgerton where it just goes nuts. You have this aristocratic duke [played by Regé-Jean Page] who has an entirely black family at a time of slavery in England. That bothers me, because that’s really against the historical record and that really means that we’re transmitting to millions of people an entirely false history.”
The handling of race in Bridgerton has proved controversial. Some critics have welcomed the rare opportunity to see black people portrayed in an escapist period drama. Others have claimed that black characters in the series are less developed than white ones or that it avoids the chance to explore the brutal realities of slavery. The slave trade was abolished in the British Empire in 1807 but slavery continued in British colonies until 1834. Bridgerton is set from 1813 to the 1820s.
Gregory also shared what she claimed was the most Marxist analysis one could expect to hear at the annual week-long history festival near Salisbury.
After she was asked how different history would have been if queens had always been in charge, she said: “I don’t think the problem is who is actually on the throne, though it was always nice to have a woman on the throne . . . I think the real problem for the rights and freedoms of women [is] the way that mercantilism developed into capitalism and developed into patriarchy so that women in the end become a reserve army of labour — called on in emergencies, called on in wartime, called on in times of extreme shortages of staff or cash, called on to repopulate the empire when the empire’s looking a bit thin on the ground — but fundamentally not allowed to achieve equality and authority in work or equality in earnings. And having a queen on the throne doesn’t alter that because the problem is not who’s the monarch, the problem is what is the system that we’re all working under.
“And that’s as Marxist as you’re going to get in Chalke Valley.”
The Duchess, whose Reading Room is based on Instagram and a dedicated website, said Weir and Gregory’s writing had “given a voice to women who for centuries have been overlooked, forgotten or misunderstood, such as Elizabeth of York, Mary Boleyn and Margaret Beaufort.”