Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Book Review: The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

27. The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

So with my two rather new jobs comes an awful lot of commuting. And what better way to pass the time than an audio book? Since I had such success with The Queen's Lover, I decided to pick up some more historical fiction, this time from an author I'm quite familiar with.

Philippa Gregory creates tension in the details. Most of her books deal with well-known events in British history, but she focuses in on minor characters and minor events that pack more unexpected dramatic punches. In The White Queen, the first person protagonist is Elizabeth Woodeville, a minor noblewoman who famously beguiled (some say bewitched) Edward IV into marrying her. What I didn't know was that Elizabeth was already widowed with two young sons when she married the king, making her conquest even more extraordinary. I know the broad outlines of the story, that Edward became king through conquest, and after some years of rule died, leaving behind two sons. Instead of his son inheriting the throne, his infamous brother Richard III usurped it. Richard III, of course, is most notorious for secretly killing the "princes in the tower," Edward and Elizabeth's two young sons. I expected this would form the central tragedy of the book, but then Gregory never makes the obvious choice in these cases.

I don't agree with all the choices that Gregory makes in her books or this one in particular, but I do respect her decision to focus on lesser known events, which prove more interesting for the reader (So interesting, in fact, that today I checked out Alison Weir's The Wars of the Roses, just to see how much of Gregory's story is fact vs. fiction). One of the choices Gregory makes in this book is to intermittently include the legend of Melassina, Elizabeth's supposed water goddess ancestress, who bequeaths "the Sight" to her female descendants. I don't know how I feel about this occult element blending into the historical. Witchcraft is viewed far too matter-of-factly among the characters. While it may be realistic that they would believe in witchcraft, it seems unrealistic that Elizabeth and her mother would practice so openly and her husband and his family be so unfazed. There are references to concerns that witches may be killed if found out, but these never come to serious fruition. The legend itself adds nothing to the story except an inept metaphor and the witchcraft just seems too easy an explanation for certain events, whereas it might have no effect on others. Plus the spells she, apparently successfully, performs make the protagonist appear quite cold-hearted, vindictive, and cruel.

Elizabeth Woodeville is not as endearing a protagonist as Mary Boleyn, Katherine of Aragon, or even Gregory's calculating portrayal of her great-granddaughter, Elizabeth I. Her character is uneven. At one moment, she likes her husband's brother Richard on sight, at another she cannot help but dislike him for no reason she can discern. She similarly takes immediate dislikes to Edward IV's closest friends and family, and turns them into her enemies even before they prove themselves so. Toward the end, her daughter Elizabeth, the future Elizabeth of York and mother of Henry VIII, accuses her of valuing the throne above the lives of her sons. According to Gregory, it's not an inaccurate portrait. The character is not unsympathetic, it's hard not to sympathize with a woman whose brothers and sons are killed or ripped away from her. But she is neither an easily relatable character nor a clearly defined one, and that is an unfortunate flaw in the book.

Gregory does much better with the minor characters in this novel though, and brings them to fascinating life. Elizabeth's brother Anthony is a "philosopher and a man of the world," and his advice and thoughts are some of the most thoughtful and valuable parts of the book. It may have benefited Gregory to use him as a second viewpoint character, which I think she needed in this book. She has Elizabeth frequently describe battles and scenes where she could never have been present, but Gregory feels they're essential, so in they go. Since Anthony was present at most of these events, he could have served as a second set of eyes.

I was also intrigued by Gregory's portrayal of Richard III. He is not a hunchback, merely smaller and darker than his brothers. His presence in scenes are curt and negligible for the majority of the book, but Gregory writes a compelling confrontation between him and Elizabeth toward the end of the book that left me wondering more about her interpretation of Richard. Who was he really and what were his real goals and feelings? And did he really murder those boys? Gregory comes out clearly on one side of the question, even though Elizabeth has room for doubt.

As usual, Gregory seizes on unlikely historical speculations and weaves them into her fiction as fact. Here, where there is so much incentive for a happy ending, I find it doesn't bother me as much. And then, Gregory lets history finish the book for her, ending before the decisive battle to which the later part of the book, or maybe the whole book, is leading up. That story is continued in The White Princess, though for now I've checked The Red Queen out as my next audio book.

Despite my issues with the book and the occasionally uneven narration, I would recommend this to anyone interested in the War of the Roses who would like an easy read. Gregory has a gift for bringing out the inherent sexiness of history.

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