REVIEW: THE WHITE QUEEN BY PHILIPPA GREGORY

THE WHITE QUEEN

Author: Philippa Gregory
Simon & Schuster RRP $19.99
Review: Monique Mulligan 

The White Queen

I’ve really been enjoying reading historical fiction lately, particularly that which features the Tudor period. After spending several weeks listening to the audio version of The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory (only to find the last CD scratched so I couldn’t listen to the ending), I was keen to get stuck into The White Queen, which precedes the Boleyn events by several generations. It turned out to be a good companion piece to Sumerford’s Autumn by Barbara Gaskell Denvil, which I read immediately before this; both books have links to the Princes in the Tower story, a mystery which has confounded historians for centuries.

The White Queen tells the story of Elizabeth Woodville, who married Edward IV during one of the most tumultuous times in England’s history. Cousin fought against cousin in The War of the Roses era for the right to rule, with the House of Lancaster and the House of York in constant states of tension and battle-readiness. Behind the scenes men and women plotted, staged rebellions and chose whichever side would benefit them best.

When the story opens, Edward IV has ousted Henry VI, but is fending off reprisals from his opponents;  the widowed and beautiful Elizabeth Woodville is bringing up her young sons at her family home. Her family and dead husband fought for the House of Lancaster (Henry VI), so the first meeting of Elizabeth and Edward is riddled with tension in various forms. Elizabeth has been tasked with capturing the eye, heart and hand of Edward IV and it’s not long before she succeeds and becomes England’s newest Queen.

Her rise to royalty gives her family great and ever-increasing power, a fact that embitters many within the kingdom. She has to be careful who she can trust because it soon becomes clear that few are deserving of her trust – even Edward’s brother, George, lured by greed and power, makes a play for the throne, aided by the man who once made Edward king. But Elizabeth is no pliable young woman incapable of understanding the political machinations of the times; her influence as Queen, and over Edward, was strong, and her will formidable. Even when things seemed impossible, Elizabeth does not give up and simply finds other ways for her family to succeed – such as marrying her daughter, also called Elizabeth, to Henry Tudor, thus uniting the Houses of Lancaster and York.

After her beloved Edward dies, Elizabeth fights to protect her son and the King’s successor, Edward V. Before he died, however, Edward VI named his brother Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, as Edward’s protector – in Gregory’s version Elizabeth is against this, sensing that Richard will not have her son’s best interests at heart. In truth, there remains to this day great controversy over the fate of the young Edward, and his younger brother Richard of Shrewsbury, who disappeared after being taken to the Tower. Gregory puts her own spin on the mystery, which may not be historically accurate, but adds another dimension to the character of Elizabeth – how far will she go for her family?

The White Queen is a vivid, detailed tapestry of the events during The Wars of the Roses era and makes enjoyable reading. I’m no historian so I’m not able to (or going to) debate the historical accuracy of the novel as a whole, though I understand readers with more knowledge have strong opinions on the matter. Instead, I ask myself, did I enjoy reading it? The answer is yes. I really did. I enjoyed the story of a strong woman who fought for those she loved; I also enjoyed piecing together the links, families, people and events I’ve read about in other books recently. For example, a few months ago I read Isolde Martyn’s Mistress to the Crown, the story of Elizabeth (Jane) Shore, who was a beloved mistress of Edward IV. It was interesting to see her appear as a minor character in here and read about the other woman in Edward IV’s life.

As a character, Elizabeth Woodville is intriguing. From my light research into her, her true character remains the subject of debate – was she an enchantress who snared the king through witchcraft (certainly Gregory does not shy away from this aspect at all, gleefully bringing myth into the narrative)? Was she a cold woman motivated by ambition? Or did she truly love her husband and want him (and her family) to succeed? From this fictional retelling emerged a woman who was flawed but in no way weak – at times I found her manipulative and even callous, but for the most part I admired her drive, commitment and loyalty. It was incredibly frustrating that she had to turn a blind eye to his many affairs … even though she wielded considerable influence, that seemed to be an area even she had no say in.

Lovers of historical fiction will enjoy this book – it’s a great read with plenty of detail, action and romance, though I would hesitate to call it a historical romance. For those more concerned with getting the facts right, I will say this – books like The White Queen actually encourage me to read up on the history and get more information. Not so much to question events, but more to satisfy curiosity about the people and events. If a book can make you hungry for more information, that’s a good thing, right? And if you happen to find out that there were inaccuracies, fine. In my case, it only makes me look for more information. I say, bring on The White Princess, the latest release in this series – it’s on my shelf and I have a feeling I’ll be reading it sooner rather than later.

The White Queen is available from good bookstores. This copy was courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

Bookish treat: I have no idea why, but Dutch spiced cookies just popped into my mind.