Review

The White Queen

by Philippa Gregory

Civil wars are always confusing, and the Wars of the Roses, the
gnarly period Philippa Gregory has picked for her latest series, is
no exception. Actually, that’s the modern name for the
conflict; at the time it was called the Cousins’ War,
reflecting the fact that kinship relations didn’t fall neatly
along party lines. Those who fought with the house of York (white
rose) often had blood-ties to their Lancastrian opponents (red
rose), giving new meaning to the phrase family feud. Not
only that, but England and France weren’t yet distinct
national entities. It’s all rather murky, so I was glad of
the map and family tree printed up front (more detailed diagrams
are available on Gregory’s ravishingly illustrated website,
www.philippagregory.com).

I don’t mean to make THE WHITE QUEEN sound like hard
historical labor. It’s not; it’s impassioned and
absorbing and, despite some repetitious passages that an editor
should have caught, beautifully written. You just have to get your
bearings. The plot, actually, is fairly simple. Edward IV (York)
meets and marries Elizabeth Woodville, a proud, sexy Lancastrian
widow (there is a lot of switching of sides in this book). They
have several children, but kings and their heirs don’t
survive long in these troubled years, and often Elizabeth and her
kids are holed up in one sanctuary or another while they wait for
the latest battle to be resolved. Along the way, she and her
high-born mother, Jacquetta --- descendants of Melusina, the water
goddess, and thus gifted with second sight --- dabble in sorcery,
casting spells to seduce men and make male babies, and calling down
storms and curses on their enemies.

The novel is strongly marked by these two different aspects, the
historical and the metaphysical. Its more realistic side retells
the Cousins’ War from the vantage point not of the men who go
into battle but the women who watch and suffer --- and often scheme
behind the scenes. Elizabeth is a proto-feminist who, in response
to Edward’s advances, says things like, “I am not a
yard of ribbon. I am not a leg of ham. I am not for sale to
anyone.” Under the tutelage of her mother, an expert in royal
politics, as queen she buys rich marriages and titles for her
family, moving people around like chess pieces. (One of the things
I love about Gregory’s women is that they are never
goody-goodies.)

Elizabeth isn’t heartless, though, and one of the
strongest scenes in the book shows her witnessing a battle, close
up, for the first time. She is appalled by the “ugly
excitement” on the soldiers’ faces and their
“wild vicious hunger more like animals than men.” She
had glorified war, and now she feels like a fool: “I did not
know that [it] was nothing more than butchery, as savage and
unskilled as sticking a pig in the throat and leaving it to bleed
to make the meat tender.” Feminists have often suggested that
if women ruled the world, there’d be no such thing as war.
Gregory would seem to agree.

However, Elizabeth and Jacquetta --- and, later,
Elizabeth’s daughter and namesake --- fight in their own way,
with water-based witchcraft instead of swords and axes. I must
admit that this side of THE WHITE QUEEN often seemed silly and
unnecessary to me, a bit of trickery that is at odds with the
women’s actual power and assertiveness.

Gregory has employed supernatural themes in earlier books
(notably THE WISE WOMAN, a seriously scary novel), and I suppose
that pantheistic deities like Melusina felt more real and immediate
to people in the credulous 1400s than they do today. Among other
things, these mystical entities were metaphors for weather ---
those natural phenomena that humans couldn’t (and still
can’t) completely predict or master. And I think in the
context of Gregory’s feminism, they also represent
women’s secret side, the part unknown to their fathers,
husbands, brothers (the legend of Melusina, interspersed with THE
WHITE QUEEN’s main narrative, turns on the fact that
she’s half fish, half woman).

Besides being a romance and a fantasy and a glimpse into the
past, THE WHITE QUEEN addresses a persistent historical mystery:
What really happened to Elizabeth Woodville’s two sons
(Edward’s heirs, the famous “princes in the
tower”)? Did Richard III, Edward’s brother, murder
them, as Shakespeare’s play suggests? Historians now know
that drama is not fact --- revisionist accounts of Richard’s
life maintain that he was neither a hunchback nor a villain --- so
the question remains. I won’t give away Gregory’s
speculative scenario, but it’s intriguing.

A note to those who are already fans: Gregory has clearly
designed this novel to link up with her Tudor series. Again, I
don’t want to say too much about the denouement, but I assure
you that it will be marvelously satisfying to anyone who’s
been following her habit-forming novels about Henry VIII and his
descendants. It is as if English history was an enormous jigsaw
puzzle, and Gregory is laying down the landscape, piece by piece,
so we can see how it all fits together. Pretty addictive.

Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on January 24, 2011

The White Queen
by Philippa Gregory

  • Publication Date: April 6, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Touchstone
  • ISBN-10: 1416563695
  • ISBN-13: 9781416563693