On The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

While I’m starting to enjoy reading Gregory’s books because they’re decently entertaining for the most part, I do wish Gregory would quit insisting (implicitly, of course) that she’s some academic historian. But I’m not about to get my panties in a bunch and go right there, since I’m someone who readily subscribes to the thought, or truism, that historical novels are the paragon of that animal called speculative fiction. No doubt this novel involved demanding scholarly research, but any hints of being scholarly are absent. While this book is leaps and bounds better than The Red Queen – its sequel, which I read first – it’s far from outstanding. And it’s mainly not because of what I’m guessing are its historical inconsistencies or lack of “scholarliness.”

The White Queen covers a time period of about 20 years (give or take a few) starting from when Edward and Elizabeth Woodville meet up until it’s almost time for the Bosworth Field. It’s a tumultuous period in English history that any novelist would struggle to incorporate all the events, surmise, and fill in the missing details with imagination. Gregory, in particular, at times needs to resort to writing in the third person to comment rather than dramatize Elizabeth’s narrative, at others she skips years. The early section in particular blends into one long war montage that becomes confusing. And it doesn’t help that so many key players have the same name (George, Richard, Margaret), despite of the map and detailed family tree ravishingly illustrated up front in the book.

But undertaking a novel as grand and complex as a civil war is bound to be confusing, and not only with names and lineages and family trees. Actually, that’s the modern name for the conflict; at the time it was called the Cousins’ War, reflecting the fact that kinship relations didn’t fall neatly along party lines. In this, those who fought with the house of York (white rose) often had blood-ties to their Lancastrian opponents (red rose), giving new meaning to the phrase family feud. Not only that, but England and France weren’t yet distinct national entities. It’s all rather murky, and it’s as if this particular area of English history was an enormous jigsaw puzzle, and Gregory is laying down the landscape, piece by piece, so you can see how it all fits together. It doesn’t.

I don’t mean to imply that The White Queen is hard reading labor. It’s not; it’s impassioned and absorbing and, despite some repetitious passages that an editor should have caught, almost a notch above mediocre. You just have to get your bearings, try to exert a little effort in investing in the story. The plot is fairly simple. Edward IV (York) meets and marries Elizabeth Woodville, a proud, young Lancastrian widow (there is a lot of switching of sides in this book). They have several children, but kings and their heirs don’t survive long in these troubled years, and often Elizabeth and her kids are holed up in one sanctuary or another while they wait for the latest battle to be resolved. Along the way, she and her high-born mother, Jacquetta – descendants of Melusina, the water goddess, and thus gifted with second sight – dabble in sorcery, casting spells to seduce men and make male babies, and calling down storms and curses on their enemies.

The novel is strongly marked by these two different aspects, the historical and the fantastic. Its more realistic part retells the Cousins’ War from the vantage point not of the men who go into battle but the women who watch and suffer – and often scheme behind the scenes. Elizabeth is a proto-feminist who, in response to Edward’s advances, says things like, “I am not a yard of ribbon. I am not a leg of ham. I am not for sale to anyone.” Under the tutelage of her mother, an expert in royal politics, as queen she buys rich marriages and titles for her family, moving people around like chess pieces.

Elizabeth isn’t heartless, though, and one of the strongest scenes in the book shows her witnessing a battle, close up, for the first time. She is appalled by the “ugly excitement” on the soldiers’ faces and their “wild vicious hunger more like animals than men.” She had glorified war, and now she feels like a fool: “I did not know that [it] was nothing more than butchery, as savage and unskilled as sticking a pig in the throat and leaving it to bleed to make the meat tender.”

Nevertheless, Elizabeth and Jacquetta fight in their own way, with enchantments and witchcraft instead of swords and axes. I must admit that this part of the novel often seemed silly and unnecessary to me, a bit of superfluity that is at odds with the women’s actual power and assertiveness. I didn’t really have a big problem with the fantastic element in the story since it wasn’t completely over the top, but I found myself rolling my eyes quite a bit over the convenient “let’s blow gently out of our lips and a nice storm will blow up somewhere in England to stop our enemies.”

This book could have been much better but with so much going on, it becomes too plot-driven and character development is secondary. Right at the beginning of the book Elizabeth and Edward meet, fall immediately in love and marry secretly. The problem is that you don’t ever feel like you’re reading a romantic scene. You just cannot feel it. You don’t know much about Elizabeth (she’s widowed, but you never get any sense of what her relationship with her first husband was like), nor what she sees in the King. It seems like they get married only because that’s what actually happened, rather than because of who the characters were and how they felt.

Throughout the book, the characters are all one-dimensional and can all be pigeon-holed in a word (think “scheming” or “unhinged” or “placid”). None of them, not even Elizabeth, have the complexity that characters in a historical fiction novel ought to have – especially if you consider that the book takes place over 20 years. And then those character traits get reinforced to you repeatedly – I felt like Elizabeth had exactly the same conversations with her husband, brother and mother over and over.

Besides being a romance and a fantasy and a glimpse into the past, The White Queen addresses a persistent historical mystery: What really happened to Elizabeth Woodville’s two sons (Edward’s heirs, the famous “princes in the tower”)? Did Richard III, Edward’s brother, murder them? The question remains. I won’t give away Gregory’s speculative scenario, but it’s intriguing.

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