Friday, January 01, 2010

The White Queen, by Philippa Gregory

Having novelized all the Tudors she could get her hands on, Philippa Gregory moved back in time for her new trilogy, starting with Elizabeth Woodville in "The White Queen." So now she can do for the War of the Roses what she did for Henry VIII's marital troubles.

Elizabeth Woodville was the wife of Edward IV, and is perhaps best known as the mother of the "Princes in the Tower"--the young Edward V and his brother the Duke of York who disappeared while living at the Tower of London and who Shakespeare claims were killed by the hunchback Richard III. So I was curious to see what Gregory's take on the story would be.

First off, the book suffers from Gregory's adherence to her formula: take a woman from a significant historical period and tell the story from her point of view. Because most of what happens historically during Elizabeth Woodville's life happens while she was not there. Edward fought the Wars of the Roses without bringing his wife along to the battlefields, so all the military strategy and political intrigue can't be reported first hand. Gregory "solves" this problem by giving her protagonist magical powers, so she can "see" what happens hundreds of miles away.

And I have a problem with this. Admittedly, I don't expect a historical novel to be rigorously accurate to every last detail--it is fiction after all, and if I want accurate history I shouldn't be reading fiction. And goodness knows that Edward's marriage to Elizabeth was strange enough that contemporaries probably did consider that she had bewitched him. But having the author introduce sorcery and mythical ancestry (the Woodvilles are descended from Melusina?) as if it were fact crosses a line for me.

Secondly, Gregory has gotten sloppy with her writing. Maybe she was always a master of cringe-inducing prose and I just missed it before, but it really intrudes here. Perhaps it's the essential lack of story that throws the writing into stark relief, but whatever it is, it is painful. The novel opens with the meeting of Elizabeth Woodville and the future king. He is on his way to meet his army and another battle, she is standing with her two sons (she is a widow, and still quite young) intent on stopping him to ask for her sons' lands back--lands that were given to someone else when her husband died in the wars.

This is a famous meeting, at least as much romance as history, and there are people in England today who can point out the exact tree she stood beneath. The king-to-be was stopped by her beauty, and was so taken with her that he actually married her secretly before he won the crown. He then insisted on the validity of the marriage, even in the face of arrangements to consolidate his throne by marrying a French princess. Warwick, his former mentor (called the "Kingmaker") turned against him, and the wars continued.

Gregory is not up to the task of dramatizing this meeting and the relationship between these two people. She may have been beautiful, but how beautiful would she have to be that Edward would sneak away from his war and risk the crown to marry a widow with two sons? Gregory's Edward can only speak in modern cliches: "God, I must have you." Perhaps that is why she resorted to treating the allegations of witchcraft as truth--because as a writer, she simply couldn't make this marriage believable.

Third: Elizabeth Woodville's life is most historically interesting after her husband dies in 1483, and Gregory has committed to covering the twenty or so boringly domestic years before that. So not much happens in cursory form for hundreds of pages. Somehow, the first half of the book suffers both from too much and not enough happening. The book only comes alive once Edward is dead and Elizabeth has to protect herself and her children and weather the political changes that threaten them.

Before he died, Edward IV named his youngest brother Richard (Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III) as Lord Protector, to run the kingdom until the Prince of Wales reached his majority and could rule for himself. Once Edward IV died, the young prince was brought to London from Wales, where he had his own household as Prince of Wales. He was there under the protection of one of Elizabeth's many brothers, Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, as well as one of the sons of her first marriage, Thomas Grey. Richard intercepted the procession, and Rivers and Grey ended up imprisoned and dead.

Elizabeth fled with her remaining children to sanctuary at Westminster Abbey, and from there watched the preparations for her son to be crowned. Historically, she was persuaded to send her second son, the Duke of York, to join his brother at the Tower. Gregory posits that she sent an anonymous urchin in disguise, while she spirited her son to Flanders, where he was raised as "Perkin Warbeck." Gregory also shows Elizabeth as suspicious of Richard's every action, and trying to raise military forces through her brothers and Grey relations, while remaining in sanctuary herself.

Gregory plays with the historical mystery: the generally accepted story is that Richard killed the two princes in order to get the crown for himself. Gregory doesn't accept this version--by the time the boys disappeared, Richard already had been declared king by Parliament, the boys had been legally declared illegitimate, and they were no real threat to his position. Their disappearance, however, was a problem. In an nicely imagined meeting, Richard III comes to Westminster Abbey to ask if Elizabeth knows what happened to the boys. If they are alive, he can show them to be so and the rumors of their murders will stop. If they are dead, he can show their bodies and blame their deaths on one of his current enemies--the Duke of Buckingham. As it is, there is only damaging speculation and rumor, and he recognizes that his name will always be blackened by their deaths.

So, by the end, the book gains the historical ballast it needed all along. Richard is a hard man, but no worse than others. The young man who shows up in England years later calling himself "Perkin Warbeck" and claiming to be boy who was assumed to have been murdered in the Tower is the son of Edward IV. No one knows what actually happened to the boys in the Tower, but Gregory leaves open the suspicion that they were murdered by Henry Tudor, later Henry VII. She also gives some understandable human flesh to the bones of Elizabeth Woodville's later actions--why she allows her daughter Elizabeth to leave sanctuary and go to Richard III's court, and what happens to Elizabeth there. How Elizabeth falls in love with her uncle, and her betrothal to Henry Tudor.

It is in the latter half of the book that Gregory finally shows some of her talent in a more subtle use of sorcery--while in sanctuary, Elizabeth curses whoever killed her boys by cursing him with the death of his own sons. "That is how we shall know who it was--by the death of his own heir." This threatens to rebound to her own injury, as history shows us that Elizabeth's grandson Arthur dies before becoming King of England, and that Henry VIII spends decades in a quest for his own heir.

The next two books in the projected trilogy are "The Red Queen," to focus on Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, and "The White Princess," focusing on Elizabeth of York, the daughter of Elizabeth Woodville, sister to the Princes in the Tower, wife of Henry VII and mother of Henry VIII.

Will I read them? Probably. Will I bitch about it as I do. Undoubtedly. But I think I can't live with not knowing what position Gregory takes on the historical mysteries of those times.


Miss Moppet said...

I didn't finish it - only got as far as the battle of Barnet - but you've summed up very well exactly why I got fed up with it.

It seems the White Princess book has been dropped in favour of a book about Jacquetta called The Rivers Woman. So if you don't want to hear any more about Melusine you might prefer to give it a miss!

Cate Ross said...

Maybe there is more to Elizabeth Plantagenet Tudor than I know, but dropping her book looks like a good move to me.

I think maybe Cecily Neville Plantagenet would have also been an interesting choice as a focus for a novel--she lost her husband and oldest son in 1460 when they challenged Henry VI, then her second oldest son became Edward IV, her third son George died in the Tower of London, her youngest was Richard III--and her grandchildren were murdered in the Tower and also became Henry VII's queen. . . .

I think if Jacquetta becomes another witchcraft book, I'll take your advice and give it a pass.

Misfit said...

I did finish it and was seriously underwhelmed with it all, inaccuracies aside (we could argue that forever) the writing was flat out crappy.

Michele at Reader's Respite said...

I finished it, although I can't for the life of me remember why. PG and I have a hate-hate relationship for the most part and Melusine isn't helping the relationship.

Victoria said...

I was horribly bored and disappointed by the first part of this book - Elizabeth Woodville wasn't written at all well. I also tried to read a couple of her other witchcraft books and found them utterly deadly.

SLM said...

It's the first of her books that I've been absolutely unable to finish... For me, it's both the writing and what I think of as "the willing suspension of disbelief" -- is the story compelling enough to make me forget about the little quibbles I have in the way the author deploys her facts.

I agree with Cate that it would be fascinating to see Cecily of York as a focus for a novel -- or someone so unknown to history that the author could invent a background and experiences for her against the reality, as Gregory herself did in The Queen's Fool. I'm hoping the Margaret Beaufort novel will be better, as she is another very intriguing character, far more so than Elizabeth Woodville.

Bookish Medievalist said...

I haven't read this book but I have had the privelege(?) of studying the Wars of the Roses under a Professor who is an expert on the period and Richard III. According to some historians (and to him I think) the Princes in the Tower were still a threat even after Richard had become King for a number of reasons.

One was that not everyone accepted the story about why they were illegitimate (its revelation was little too convenient methinks), and also this did necessarily mean that they could not rule as parliament could declare them legitimate.

Many seem to have still been loyal to Young Edward V, and a rebellion was actually raised in his with the apparent intention of putting him back on the throne in late 1483, so it appears Uncle Dickie's position was not as secure as it might have seemed.

Another interesting fact is that the rumour of the Princes deaths seems to have been current this year. An Italian ambassador who was around in England at the time wrote an account of 'The Usurpation of Richard III' and seems to have believed they were dead and 'Richard did it'.

I personally think the case for the Princes having been killed at the behest of Richard is fairly convincing. Though Richardians might not think so...

Kathy Heyne said...

Here's my take on Gregory's work: she plays it safe. She sticks with the Tudor/Shakespeare/Victorian version of events, ignoring the work by modern day historians and throws in heaving bosoms, ripped bodices and male declarations of uncontrollable passion and undying love it all palatable.

Don't read Gregory if you're seriously interested in the period- you might as well watch Shakespeare's Richard the Third or read Thomas More- read some modern historians instead.

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