Monday, August 10, 2009
Perhaps one of the most anticipated historical novels this year, Philippa Gregory’s latest book is the first in a new series about the “cousins war” or what we now call The Wars of the Roses. However some the promotional material that has been released (including some videos on You Tube) have generated quite a bit of controversy as historical fiction fans worry that the apparent witchcraft angle will create an over the top disappointment.
In 1464 the Lancaster and York branches of the Plantagenet family have been fighting over the throne of England. As a result, Elizabeth Woodville is a widow with two young boys who has been denied her rightful lands. Supposedly one of the most beautiful women of her time. Elizabeth hopes to catch the eye of the young York king as he passes near her parents home. Edward IV likes the ladies and can’t pass up a pretty face. Elizabeth finds that her plan has succeeded – and then some.
Refusing to become the king’s mistress, Elizabeth finds herself secretly married to Edward. When the truth becomes known, there are serious repercussions and the York faction finds itself fighting not only the Lancastrians, but each other. I am not going to recount the details of their struggles here. Suffice it to say that it’s all here – the treachery of the king’s brother George; the loyalty of his brother Richard; the resentment as Elizabeth’s family are given positions, land and power; Edward’s death resulting in Richard becoming king; and of course, the mystery of what happened to Elizabeth and Edward’s two sons, the “princes in the tower”.
Now, about that witchcraft angle. In, Elizabeth’s mother Jacquetta is descended from the water goddess Melusine. As a result, they both have a special relationship and special abilities with water, as well as some capabilities with “the sight”. Although these “pagan tricks” as Elizabeth refers to them are woven into the events that unfold, they weren’t the focus of the story nor did they overwhelm it. It is not “dark” magic, but something more subtle and earthy. Elizabeth also has to face the fact that sometimes the magic can have unintended consequences -one of which will be so drastic that it will change the country forever. However if you don’t like to read about spells and charms at all or are annoyed by references to Elizabeth as a witch, then you may not enjoy this book.
From some of the promotional information that has been put out there by either Gregory herself or her publisher, many have gotten the impression that this is just another portrayal of Elizabeth as the conniving, shrewish witch. I found that not to be the case. Elizabeth is a good and faithful wife, a loving mother and most of the time a smart and likeable woman. Yes, she advances the interests of her family, but really, who wouldn’t in her position? She doesn’t always seem to understand the animosity this causes, but her brother Anthony does and often tries to get her to recognize and appreciate their somewhat precarious position. Elizabeth is also one to hold a grudge and she vows revenge for the deaths of her father, brother and later, her boys. But she also has feelings of regret as she wonders if it was all worth it.
Elizabeth does seem to undergo somewhat of a personality shift following Edward’s death. Her hasty decision to go into sanctuary and the events that followed indicate how much she did not trust Richard. Why should he uphold her son’s claim when he could make one of his own? Although this does initially bode well for Richard’s reputation, there is somewhat of a turn around by the novel’s end. Since the book is written in first person (mostly) and from Elizabeth’s point of view some less than flattering remarks about Richard should be expected. But given the panic that Elizabeth feels after her husband’s death and her desire to protect her children, as a mother, I understood it. Were her fears reasonable? Maybe – maybe not. But by her actions, the real Elizabeth Woodville obviously had her reasons and to her, her reaction was totally justified. Whose to say what lengths we might go to protect our children and what we felt they were entitled to.
As Elizabeth plots against Richard she makes uneasy alliances with those who say they want to uphold Edward’s claim to the throne – notably the Duke of Buckingham and Margaret Beaufort. As the rumor of her sons’ death begins to spread, fingers quickly point to Richard. But did he really do it? Elizabeth begins to have doubts as she wonders who would benefit from the death of her sons.
The first person narrative for the most part works pretty well. One thing however drove me nuts - Elizabeth constantly refers to her older sons by their last name “my Grey sons; my son Thomas Grey etc” even before her other sons are born. It may have been to reduce the confusion from all of the people with the same name, but people don’t talk that way. At times, the story comes out of Elizabeth’s first person narrative and switches to third person to relate what is going on with Edward elsewhere. At first it was a little jarring, but I much preferred this to say Elizabeth or Jacquetta “seeing” what was going on.
Most of the extended Woodville family is barely mentioned. There is however a fun snippy little cat fight between Jacquetta and Cecily Neville shortly after Elizabeth and Edward's marriage. After Anthony’s death and as Elizabeth continues to stay in sanctuary, she finds herself battling her eldest daughter who questions her motives and accuses her of caring more about the crown than her own sons.
Overall, I really enjoyed The White Queen. It was a little hard to get into in the beginning, but once Edward and Elizabeth were married I thought it picked up. I've read a few books about Elizabeth (and many where she is at least a secondary character), and this seems to be one of the more balanced and perhaps even sympathetic portrayals of her that I've come across. Gregory seems to have become one of those authors that most people either love (for her entertaining style) or hate (for playing fast and loose with history, often in the guise of historical accuracy). Despite all of the controversy over some of the assertions and storyline choices she has made, I'm looking forward to seeing where she goes with the rest of the series.
Brothers with a difference: “Edward lives as if there is no tomorrow, Richard as if he wants no tomorrow, and George as though someone should give it to him for free.” Anthony to Elizabeth as he assesses her husband and his brothers.
Rating: Very Good
My thanks to Kelly at Simon and Schuster for sending me a copy to review.