Book Club #9 – The White Queen – Philippa Gregory

Oh how we all loved this book – In the main it is me that has chosen most of the books with suggestions and directions along the way for some others. The reason for this book choice

  • it was on my shelf and had been for a while
  • we had not covered any historical fiction so far
  • the book has been turned into a television drama and I thought that it would give some reference and purpose having read it.

For all of us who were there, two had finished it (Me and C) two were yet to finish (L and K) and one had not read it (L). But actually this sometimes make for a much better discussion, we were not concerned about ruining the ending, we were dealing with real events, so none of it would come as a surprise.

C loved the book and was really surprised that she would, it was a period of history that she knew little about but was pleased that she could easily get absorbed into it. C had gone on and some further digging around regarding the events that happened in the book to see if they were based on fact – the mists and torrential rain, the mythology of Melusina all made for a richer reading experience. Elizabeth Woodville was a woman we all decided that you did not want to mess with – she had some spark and fire in her to do the things she did. Both L and K commented that again they found it easy to read, and was surprised that they found enjoyable even though they had not finished it all.

Although all the Edwards, Elizabeths and Richards did make it very confusing and the beauty of reading the actual book as opposed to the kindle version (as C mentioned) was that you could keep flitting back to the family tree at the beginning to get a sense of who everyone was. We all believed that Elizabeth fell deeply in love with this man, who seemed to stand head and shoulders above the rest, literally as he was exceptionally tall for the period.

I used some of the discussion questions from the back of the book – in the main the ones that focused on Elizabeth – was she a good daughter, a good wife, a good mother? Yes to all three but I think we came to the conclusion that she perhaps needed to be reminded that when it came to being a good mother. Her daughter, Elizabeth (who eventually married Henry VII and was Henry VIII’s mother) was quite harsh with her when it came to ambition and the crown. C did say though, that she chose to breast feed her daughters and played with them a lot the both times they are in sanctuary which would have been a rather radical concept for the day. That brought us round to the amount of children she had 12 in total – 2 with her first husband and 10 with Edward. As L kindly phoned me up and said “my god she his popping them out” (it took me a while to realise what she was on about!). The last at the age of 43, the first at 20 – roughly one a year, and it must have been a rare thing for so many to have survived beyond the first few days of birth, only two dying in infancy. Most beautifully handled by Philippa Gregory when young Margaret is placed with her grandmother, and it made not just me cry. An event which was covered in just a few short paragraphs, but certainly made strong the relationship between mother and daughter – she was a good daughter that was without question by us all.

As for being a good wife, well as K said to produce all those children she fulfilled her need as women were mere chattels that belonged to their husbands. She was clever, calculating and very strong in her belief and direction especially marrying off her family once she was brought to court. Love was very much lower down on the list of reasons for marrying; money, power, lands and position all much more important for this period. Everything stood to be gained and if someone was in your way then murder was a common and easy option, laws could be written to suit the requirement. We all thought Elizabeth was fully aware of what was happening to Henry VI, as her husband and his brothers made their way to The Tower; how easy it is to turn a blind eye when the result means you maintain your power. Poor Henry VI, captured and imprisoned and then released again to rule, only to be captured again and imprisoned – it was no wonder the man was insane as he was a mere puppet played with by those much stronger than him and again the power hungry wife – Margaret of Anjou (Can you see a theme?).

Was knowing what happened to Henry VI the reason that (in the novel) Elizabeth knows really what is going to happen to her young son Edward when he is taken to The Tower and is the reason that she puts a page boy in her other son Richard’s place. Would a mother really put someone else’s son in the place of her own to save something of her family name – a resounding yes definitely from all mum’s present. It was a rather moral question and I do not know if we came to a definitive conclusion. Was she right or wrong?

A long with the handsome man Elizabeth married and the children she issued with him, and love was certainly playing a part in her marriage – Edward’s adultery was rather questionable. As L said, not only was she popping out children, but she was putting up with him whoring which when you look at the book with a modern day perspective then we struggle to comprehend something like that going on. L would not have wanted to live in that period, when it was very dangerous to be alive – male or female and as C says disease must have been rife. If you didn’t have your head chopped off or died in battle, then you may well have caught something nasty.

Perhaps with a stereotypical viewpoint, I was a bit wary of the battle scenes and so were the others, that strictly being a male dominated interest. But we were all drawn into the way that Philippa Gregory handles such things, and it was made not necessarily easy to understand but the tactics were clear and the mist that helped save Edward and his supporters is done well. C and I were actually drawn into this part of history which I did not think I would have been.

I am not sure if any of us could work out whether Elizabeth would have done anything differently, considering she lost her father, brothers and two of her sons to maintain some sort of position within royalty. Ultimately it did not really achieve anything and only her daughter, Elizabeth achieved something much more at a far less cost perhaps. It was simply just a cut throat business royalty and a very dangerous time to be alive in.

This was a book which many would not have read if I had not suggested it, so that was a good thing it opened up another world to many of us and I hope to carry on and read The Red Queen, and C has already started and can see the vast difference between the main female protagonists. I pointed other members in the route of The Other Boleyn Girl (K had seen the film) and associated books where Gregory has covered the Tudor period very well, although some liberties have to be taken when writing fiction.

So another group comes to an end. We were a member down due to illness and another who was having contractions (baby has now arrived safely!) but it still proved an interesting discussion for an hour. I do need to set myself the task of asking the questions in a different way – perhaps getting everyone to choose a question out of a hat? I have plenty of ideas for the sorts of questions to ask but I need to sit down and concentrate on something a bit more generic for the book as well as specific questions to the book we happen to be reading that month. I just feel sometimes, it is coming across a bit stilted, although I realise that this maybe my own perception. If you do something particular at your book club to aid discussion please let me know.

So the next book, we had already decided on – Gold by Chris Cleave and whilst we were chatting, we decided to go with The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins for the book after, with the option of watching the film adaptation of the book.