The White Queen – Philippa Gregory

It has been ages since I have read any historical fiction, despite having plenty on my shelf. Including this book reviewed below. I chose it for my book club, mainly because we have not had any such historical fiction and also because it is about to be broadcast in the spring of 2013 on BBC television.

My knowledge of the Wars of the Roses, Richard III and The Princes in the Tower is very little. I know it was York and Lancaster, the White and the Red rose, the king with a humpback and the murderer of his two nephews, who I only recall depicted in the Madame Tussaud’s tableau I once saw. The Tudors and Shakespeare have a lot to answer to I think in creating a history. This book was going to satisfy my knowledge and my love of history and learning.

Madame Tussaud’s Tableau

Elizabeth is a young widow, with two sons to look after. The death of her husband has left her back at the family home with no money and with a need to breakaway again and be sufficient for herself. Desperate she goes to the man who may be the only man to help her; Edward.

This powerful, handsome young man can help her financially but something else happens and all of a sudden they are romantically involved. This is a love match. But it brings with it much more. It brings with it a unity of warring families and of great power. It also brings great danger.

Elizabeth has met Edward IV and she becomes the Queen of England. With her two sons from her first marriage and her growing family with Edward, she becomes a powerful woman. The old adage “behind every great man stands a greater woman” could be applied here. With her marriage, brings their family from the red side (House of Lancaster) to the white side (House of York) but it means Elizabeth needs to be on her guard all the time, as those around her our battling and plotting and only the strongest can survive.

Not only does she have her own family to worry about, being very close to her brothers, especially when have all lost their father. She now has Edward’s family to concern herself with – can she trust George? Whose his mother’s favourite and rather a turn coat as he switched allegiances rather too freely as he freely took drink. Or maybe they can all rely on the young Richard, who seems so pious, quiet and dedicated to the cause of his elder brother Edward?

Perhaps Elizabeth can rely on only one thing, her ‘sight’, that which she has inherited from her ancestor’s through her mother’s side. Elizabeth and her mother, are living in dangerous times and whilst the supernatural sub plot of this novel is not as important, it makes you question something that none of us have evidence to prove or disprove. Have they really had any affect on the events which are played out in this novel.

It does take a good 60-70 pages to get into the novel. There are a lot of characters, names and titles, and it does take some time to get it straight as to who is for and against who and where they fit in the bigger picture of history. I referred to the family tree quite a lot to start off with, so I could get a sense of where I was in a timeline, and the relevance to future events. Having read it, I can now place the importance of this woman, Elizabeth who by her own daughter moves forward to a more familiar period of history to me – The Tudors. It suddenly all fell into place like a jigsaw.

The story also opened up a lot more questions as well for me, and I am much intrigued now by this historical period than I was when I picked up the novel. Recognising of course that I am reading and much enjoying historical fiction, it was a love story at its heart and a woman’s determination to protect her children whatever the cost. I think Elizabeth lost focus on that many a time and it was the shock of events that perhaps made her realise what she was doing and what it was costing her. Trusting those who were most recently enemies, seems such a foolish thing to do reading this book in the twenty-first century.

Gregory has a knack for me of taking you back into the period, the settings and the places brought the whole era out from the page. The darkness of the sanctuary in an abbey to the beauty and colourful pageant of a place at court. The sheer violence of battle to the mysterious myth that is Melusina. A really interesting read and one which I will be following up, I want to know more about these woman in a time where being a woman was so very different to being a man.

And in my review I have not even touched on The Princes in the Tower! Elizabeth was their mother, and in the book Gregory uses some background research for a different result than what we are generally led to have been believed Richard III killed both of them. I would like to think that perhaps Gregory’s interpretation of events, which I know are for fictitious purposes is perhaps the better one and it certainly puts the infamous Richard III into a very different frame from the one he has always been portrayed in.

I thinking every moment of your life if you were involved with anything to do with the Royal court would have resulted in you worrying constantly whether you were ever going to survive, say the right thing, be seen doing the right thing and whether an action in the past might be affecting the future of your own family.

As for the mythical possibility of witchcraft that Elizabeth, her mother, and her daughters seem to have all come from a male perspective – I wonder if actually there was just something so determined and resolute that men were concerned that their positions were no longer as strong as the thought, if these powerful but seemingly oblivious women were pulling all the strings from behind!

So many questions and I look forward to my book group’s discussion on it and especially to the BBC TV series because I know having the read the book it will be a much richer experience.