Thursday, February 27, 2014

Book Review: The White Princess by Philippa Gregory

7. The White Princess by Philippa Gregory



My commutes with Philippa Gregory's "Cousin's War" books have come to an end, at least for now. Apparently, there's going to be a new book about Margaret Pole, and there are the auxiliary books about Elizabeth Woodeville's mother, Jacquetta, and Richard III's wife Anne Neville that I haven't yet read.

I've said before that Gregory makes some unusual and spurious choices vis-a-vis historical evidence, but the world that she creates in her books is amazingly cohesive. She also continues to focus on lesser known events, infusing them with dramatic tension even for the well-informed reader. A book on Elizabeth of York has inherent frustrations, because after her marriage, she was effectively walled from influencing public policy or exercising almost any kind of agency. The White Princess reflects that reality, and I wanted to bang my head against the wall every time Elizabeth nicely acts her husband for some simple act, usually mercy to her family members, and he denies her. Still, Gregory creates a rich interior life for the princess turned queen, and her observations of court life are keen, if politically useless.

After reading The White Queen, it's interesting to see the relationship between Elizabeth of York and her mother, Elizabeth Woodeville, mirror the relationship portrayed in the earlier book between Elizabeth Woodeville and her own mother. After reading The Red Queen, it is possible to speculate about Margaret Beaufort's thoughts in her many more or less hostile conversations with her daughter-in-law. Elizabeth's cousin, Margaret Pole, emerges as her close friend and confidant, a character in her own right. This role is made more poignant by knowledge of Margaret Pole's eventual fate, and, I suppose, more marketable for Gregory's upcoming book!

Elizabeth's complicated relationship with her husband, Henry VII, serves as a bittersweet core to the book. How do you write a marriage between conqueror and conquered? Shakespeare and other near contemporaries, of course, paint Henry as Elizabeth's savior. After all, she, her mother, and sisters were for a time essentially prisoners during Richard III's reign, and he may or may not have had her brothers killed (Gregory's conjectures spin a bit differently than Alison Weir's on the subject). but the truth is bound to be a bit more complicated. Even if Elizabeth were not on good terms with Richard (and there is some evidence that they were romantically involved), he was still a York king. When Henry conquered England, it meant that Elizabeth's family was removed from power and political influence. In many cases, it meant the death and imprisonment of her male cousins, and careful dispersion through marriage of her sisters and female cousins. Gregory writes that between Elizabeth and Henry's obligatory lovemaking, there were "blood prints."

Henry VII is a hard man to love. He is consistently cruel to his wife, and yet, Gregory will not let him be a caricature. At times, he proclaims an agonized love for the beautiful woman he has been obliged to marry. He envies her family's infamous charm, which he noticeably lacks. And Gregory's amazingly sympathetic Elizabeth comes to care for him, at least at times, and to pity him. It's a complex dance that Gregory writes, for she must acknowledge Elizabeth's righteous anger on behalf of her family as well as her fears and feelings of powerlessness, but also that Elizabeth is intimately tied to this man, her enemy, and will be till the day she dies. He is her husband, and the father of her children, for better or worse.

And it is Elizabeth's children that provide the bridge between the Cousin's War and Gregory's many other books on the later Tudor monarchs. Here, we see the births of Arthur and Henry, and the childhood of the two boys. Serious Arthur is his mother's confidant, and jives well with the character later portrayed in The Constant Princess. Little Henry Tudor begs courtiers to play with him, and gets up to sing at a public banquet in his honor. One wonders if his mother had any idea what kind of man he would turn out to be.

The White Princess is a very intimate look at the early Tudor court. It is frustrating that the female heroine lacks agency compared to the heroines of Gregory's other books, but ultimately each of these women was caught in a web of social roles and networks, and, at last, had only themselves to rely on.

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