Your own work excluded, what books would you recommend about the royals?
On the modern royal family, anything by the wonderfully knowledgeable Christopher Warwick (“Princess Margaret: A Life of Contrasts,” for example), Sarah Bradford’s “Diana” or “In Royal Fashion,” by Kay Staniland, a fascinating study of the surviving clothes of Queen Victoria and Princess Charlotte. One of the best history books I have ever read is Helen Rappaport’s “A Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert, and the Death That Changed the Monarchy.”
If you could require the prime minister to read one book, what would it be? And Meghan Markle?
I would give the prime minister Martin Gilbert’s “The Will of the People: Churchill and Parliamentary Democracy,” because she could benefit from its example. In authorizing airstrikes in Syria without a parliamentary mandate, she has aroused a lot of anger in Britain. I’d give Meghan Markle “Burke’s Guide to the Royal Family,” because I think it would give her a sound cultural context for the rarefied world into which she is marrying.
You ran a school for a while. What was your favorite book to assign and discuss with your students?
“Romeo and Juliet.” I gave out the texts to my class of adolescents and announced we would be reading Shakespeare, only to be greeted by groans of “Boring” and “Nooo!” But, by the end of that lesson, they were gripped and begging to stage the play. We studied it for a term, during which the school’s inspector came around and was treated to the duel scene where Mercutio is killed. In the end, we did not have enough people for a staged performance, so we enlisted some pupils from my daughter’s school and made a 90-minute audio recording, after I had spent a whole weekend abridging the play. It makes me smile now to hear those passionate young voices, and my 11-year-old daughter crying, “O happy dagger!”
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned from a book recently?
In researching Anne of Cleves, the fourth wife of Henry VIII, for my forthcoming novel, I reread the “Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII” and the standard biographies by Elizabeth Norton, Mary Saaler and Retha M. Warnicke, and detected a hitherto unnoticed thread of evidence that merited further investigation, which led to my evolving a new — and probably controversial — theory about her. I can’t say more, as it’s under wraps until the novel comes out next year!
The last book that made you laugh?
Philippa Gregory’s brilliant “Alice Hartley’s Happiness,” one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. I was crying with laughter.
The last book that made you cry?
It was years ago, in 1997, and it was my own book “The Life of Elizabeth I.” As I wrote the final passages, tears were streaming down my face.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Did you have a favorite character or hero?
A diligent reader. I loved strong narratives — and still do. My parents chose a wonderful range of titles for me, and I was brought up to know that a new book was a special treat. My favorite character was Cinderella; I was obsessed with the story, and still love it.