Monday, 22 November 2010

Book review: 'The White Queen', by Philippa Gregory

If history is written by the victors, then it is also mostly written by, and about, men. This is where Philippa Gregory's female-centric books come as a welcome relief. The annals of published history contain man after man, with the women acting as mere footnotes. Where they do feature, it is often because of their position rather than their skills - for example Queen Victoria or Queen Elizabeth. It is almost as though historians collectively shake their heads and say, "didn't they do well?" This chauvinism has produced thoroughly unbalanced views of history.

Gregory is most famous for 'the other Boleyn girl', which was made into a TV series and film, along with its follow-up books about Tudor life. 'The White Queen' is the first in Gregory's new series about the Cousins War (the latter part of the War of the Roses, which ended the Plantagenet era). It features the life of Elizabeth Woodville, a Lancastrian lady - little more than a commoner - who used her beauty to marry the Yorkist Edward IV. Their ill-matched marriage was personally successful, but in the long-term proved a disaster for the Yorkist cause.

Gregory obviously knows her history, yet her painstaking research does not intrude. Because there are such large gaps in the knowledge of the period, she has chosen to weave fiction in with fact, forming an intriguing 'could-have-been' story. This particularly shows through in the 'Princes in the Tower'; Gregory has the youngest son smuggled out and replaced with a servant. This leads to an obvious question: is she playing fast and loose with history, or is it just as valid as any other guess about what happened to the two princes? Shakespeare's Richard III portrays the titular antihero as a hunchback, for which there was little historical evidence. Despite this, it has become the common image of Richard III. The fictionalistion of history matters.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth Woodville does not come out of the book too sympathetically. Her scheming and boundless ambition forces her to form increasingly desperate and, with hindsight, foolish decisions.  She swaps sides with alarming regularity, trying to eke out influence with whoever is currently in charge; in the end no-one trusts her. The fate of her family is repeatedly placed in peril by her plots. It is to Gregory's credit that, despite this, you care deeply for Woodville and her family.

If you read this book to get high-powered, gory descriptions of battle, then you will be disappointed. Many of the battles occur off-scene, with Woodville knowing what happens via letters and messengers. This adds to the tension; she knows the battle is over, but has no idea how it has turned: will she still be Queen, or does she face another reversal of fortunes? It is good to see battles, the traditional focus of history, relegated in this manner.

Historical fiction based on well-known real-life characters has to be some of the hardest writing possible: not only do you need to get your facts correct (or bring the wrath of historians down on your head), but you also have to describe well-known events in a way that keeps the reader engaged. The fates of the major characters are known before the first word is read, and that makes the writer's task harder. It is to her credit that Gregory's writing carries you through the story; you grow attached to the two princes knowing full well what fate awaits them.

Woodville was an interesting character to choose for a book, and one that deserves the attention that Gregory bestows upon her. Gregory's next book, the recently-released Red Queen, focusses on one of Woodville's man competitors, Lady Margaret Beaufort. I can only hope that she proves to be an equally fascinating character.

The White Queen It is well worth a read, especially if you know little about the Plantagenets or the War of the Roses. One thing is certain: Elizabeth Woodville's story is an excellent example of how not to run your life.

I would give this book 4 out of 5 stars.

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