First published in 2009, The White Queen is the sixth book by Philippa Gregory and first in The Cousins’ War series. The story explores 15th century England and power struggles that rocked the country between Lancasters and Yorkists, with meddling of foreign entities and betrayals from within. The book has all the right elements and is no wonder a best seller.
Following the story of a young widow Elizabeth Woodville, the reader experiences the rise of a house from common breed to that of royalty and nobility, and pay the price for such a dramatic elevation.
The tale of one woman’s ambitious ascent to royalty during the Wars of the Roses and the unsolved mystery around her sons’ imprisonment in the Tower. The first in a stunning new series, The Cousins War, is set amid the tumult and intrigue of The War of the Roses. Internationally bestselling author Philippa Gregory brings this family drama to colourful life through its women, beginning with the story of Elizabeth Woodville, the White Queen
The White Queen tells the story of a common woman who ascends to royalty by virtue of her beauty, a woman who rises to the demands of her position and fights tenaciously for the success of her family, a woman whose two sons become the central figures in a mystery that has confounded historians for centuries: the Princes in the Tower whose fate remains unknown to this day. From her uniquely qualified perspective, Philippa Gregory explores the most famous unsolved mystery, informed by impeccable research and framed by her inimitable storytelling skills.
The story begins with the myth of Melusina, the water goddess, and the premise that men always promise more than they can deliver to a woman they do not understand. A young widow, Elizabeth Woodville, prepares her two young boys and go out to plead her case to the new Yorkist King, Edward, to return her inheritance. Her husband died fighting against the young king and she begs for her chance at life. The young king is enamored by her beauty and considers her case and the magic of Melusina begins to take affect, with active involvement of Elizabeth’s mother Lady Woodville.
Thus the War of Roses is fictionalized in this book. The death of Sir John Grey, Elizabeth’s first husband, happened at second battle of St Albans and King Henry VI is captured. Elizabeth marries the young King Edward in secret and it is revealed later to the shock of Warwick. For a student of British History or those who have read War of Roses, it is easy to guess what comes next. From author’s own notes at the end, a lot of fiction was used to fill in the gaps where history was ambiguous or facts were missing altogether. Even though the reader experiences all the happenings from Elizabeth’s perspective, the severe predictability of the story is a let down.
For those who are interested in historical fiction novels and are not aware of British History, particularly War of Roses, would find the plot very enjoyable even if a bit dragged. The story ends just before the Battle of Bosworth Field, roughly spanning 40 years with 3 kings and nearly a dozen claimants. This is a long period to cover and not easy to remain true to the characters created.
While Elizabeth believed she was descendant of a goddess, Philippa actually turned Elizabeth, her mother and her daughter into actual witches whose enchantments caused several events and disasters of import. Many of the historical incidents, such as George loosing his first born at sea and Duke of Buckingham losing the revolt, are a result of witchcraft from Woodville women. While innovative addition to the story and well crafted within the flow, it is also a convenient escape from a better and more realistic construction of the fiction.
Authenticity of the environment
The 15th century England is accurately described and behavior of people as well as lifestyle of commoners and royalty is well suited for a historical fiction. The description of London, Westminster Abby and various other locations transports the reader to that particular time period as if living through the era. The demands of the lifestyle and harshness of the wars have been realistic to a great extent.
There are plenty of rebellions and a lot of schemes taking place, both inside the palace and outside. While the reader is able to see from Elizabeth’s perspective, much of what happens lacks realism. For example, palace servants are a big source of gossip and both an advantage and a disadvantage to the royal family. While it has been shown that people were falling over themselves to tell a new gossip, the author failed to give a more authentic feel to palace life nor explore Elizabeth’s experience and control over day-to-day affairs of her residence. The chapters were divided based on years, leading to big gaps where story moves in a different direction without the reader experiencing the environment and people, leaving with perceptions and viewpoints of Elizabeth alone and her constant fixation with power and throne.
Due to first person perspective a few experiences make for a delightful reading. One in particular is the experience of freedom after several months of entrapment at sanctuary:
After so many months in sanctuary I wake every morning with a sense of utter delight that I can open the door and walk out into the air. It is a warm spring and to hear the birds singing, to order a horse from stables and ride out is a joy so intense that I feel reborn. I set ducks eggs under hens and watch the ducklings hatch and waddle about the yard. I laugh when I see them take to the duck pond with the hens scolding on the bank, fearful of the water. I watch the young foals in the paddock and talk with the master of horse as to which might make a good riding horse and which should be broke to the cart. I go out in the fields with the shepherd and see the new lambs. I talk with the cowman about the little calves and when they should be weaned from their mothers. I become again what I was once before, an English country lady with her mind on the land.
Relevance & Complexity of themes in the novel
Love takes a major share of the theme for this novel. A love so strong that it breaks bonds and boundaries. The love between the water goddess Melusina to a mortal marks the beginning of the novel, followed by love at first sight between Elizabeth and Edward, love for family, love of power and authority, love of throne and, more strongly, love for your sons. Mother’s love for his sons is spread over vast sections of the novel. Duchess Cecily’s love for her second son George borders on madness so strongly that she begs his release despite his slander against her and murder attempts on his elder brother, King Edward.
Similarly Elizabeth’s own love for her son and heir, Prince Edward, borders on madness as she fights for the throne against anyone who wishes to take the crown away. It has been powerfully expressed at various places and concerns are repeatedly raised by others for the blindness this love is causing. Consider the following exchange between Queen Elizabeth and her eldest daughter Elizabeth during their early days in entrapment in the sanctuary:
“I will not give up Edward’s throne,” I say tightly. “If Duke Richard wants it, he will have to take it and shame himself.”
“And what if he does that?” she asks me. “What happens to Edward then? What happens to my sisters? What happens to me?”
“I don’t know,” I say cautiously. “We may have to fight; we may have to argue. But we don’t give up. We don’t surrender.”
And on the day of coronation when they hear the bad news instead:
The gaze she turns on me is darkened with horror, as if she has seen her death. “You will never surrender, you will never let us be. Your ambition will be the death of my brothers, and when they are dead you will put me on the throne. You would rather have the throne than your sons, and when they are both dead, you will put me on my brother’s throne. You love the crown more than your children.”
Love is not the only dominant theme in the novel. Wisdom of life and ruling also find their place in the narrative. One particular conversation between King Edward and Queen Elizabeth is of particular import:
“They are money-grubbing peasants,” I say irritably. “And their loyalty goes with their interest. They think of nothing but their own desires. They are worse than serfs.”
He smiles at me. “They are indeed. Every one of them. And each of them wants their little estate and their little house just as I want my throne and as much as you wanted the manor of Sheen, and places for all your kinsmen. We are all anxious for wealth and land, and I own it all, and have to give it out carefully.”
Magic is another theme that influence the story. Already explored in a novel The King’s Grey Mare by Rosmary Hawley Jarman, Melusina’s descendants are able to curse world. The magic system is not structured at all, more like curses made on the spot and on whims. Rather than improving the depth of the story and giving it more relevance, it often dumbs it down. Creating storm through whistles and cursing bloodline by burning paper ship, all made up on the spot isn’t the way magic works. This became a simplistic escape from having to provide more rationale of the events or to develop a working magical system.
Despite the size, only a few characters are truly experienced in the novel. Unfortunately, these characters are named either Elizabeth, Edward, George, Richard or Henry. The names are repeated so many times that it does create problem in keeping track of who’s who, especially if you take a break from reading and come back to it in a day or two. Any longer, you might as well look at the detailed family tree for memory refreshment before picking up the book.
Elizabeth’s growth from simple English countrywoman to a scheming Queen of England with high ambitions has been most profound. Since the reader experience nearly everything from her perspective, the thoughts and ideas and motivations gives an insight to her as a person, as mother, as queen and as cornered tiger ready to fight for her rights. It also gives the reader the sense how she justifies her own wrongdoings and how she refuses to forgive and forget, a woman’s wrath to those she feels deserving.
We also find Edward growing into his role as a King, his brother George growing as a jealous and spoiled son of York with multiple betrayals for his self interest. Young Yorkist brother Richard changes the most as he was boy of small built at the start of the story and is King himself by the end of it.
The greatest and most interesting character in the novel is Anthony Woodville, Queen Elizabeth’s elder brother. A philosopher as well as a fighter, his thoughts and ideas and way of looking at the world is completely different than the rest. If anything, his growth is the most organic and true. From a person with worldly understanding to a poet and fighter to a traveler and eventually guardian of the Prince of Wales.
Other characters, like Elizabeth’s mother Jacquetta and King Edward’s mother Cecily, are mostly bland. From start to end they remain the same without much growth, same with Margaret of Anjou. In other instances, some of the character developments are a bit misplaced. During the siege of London when Anthony steps out for a surprise attack on sleeping soldiers of Kent, Elizabeth’s watches it with horror at the realities of war, of death, blood and gore. Her realization makes a serious impact on her world view which, although very well crafted, is misplaced.
Elizabeth was born and raised during a time of war, with her own husband killed an St Albans and she living through several others. Public executions, giving aid to injured soldiers and getting first account of atrocities of war from fighters was common knowledge and experiences. While the perspective provided was excellent, it was on the entirely wrong moment since Elizabeth had already gone through a lot to have that realization of life, of war and its perils, and dedicating a passage to it was entirely pointless.
Use of language (by author/by characters)
The dialogues are modernized version of the language used in the era of 15th century. Language has formality expected of royalty and both respect as well as sarcasm are conveyed quite effectively. That being said, the dialogues get long-winded at places. Since the story relied heavily on messengers bringing news of happenings, the conversations at times felt like an obvious attempt to drag the reader in a particular direction. Many times it was very obvious the author does not have means to tell what is happening, and so relied on such conversations for progress of the story.
Some of the dialogues also suffered from explanations rather than genuine conversations. When Elizabeth first visits King Edward’s mother, the confrontation between the two mothers (Elizabeth’s and Edward’s) is more like a scripted demolishing of King’s mother with the new queen as a spectator. At no point could one feel the mother of King as indeed his mother, a person with respect and authority.
The White Queen is a really enjoyable read with some powerful writing, particularly for those who are unaware of British History or of War of the Roses. Philippa Gregory has successfully explored the limits to what a mother could and would do for her sons and how men stoop lower than a beast to protect their own. Despite predictabilty of the story it is still a good read, both for the fans of history as well as genuine readers of historical fiction.Tags: Book review, Philippa Gregory, The White Queen