The White Queen
by Philippa Gregory
In The White Queen, historical fiction author Philippa Gregory moves away from the Tudor era, the setting of several previous novels, and further into English history to bring us the story of Elizabeth Woodville, Queen Consort of Edward IV. The novel begins with Elizabeth and Edward’s first meeting, and follows her rise to power. Where Elizabeth goes, her family follows, and the extensive Woodville network proves to be a hotbed for palace intrigue and treacherous plots. But when Edward is felled with a sudden illness, Elizabeth’s kingdom begins to crumble has her sons are locked away in the Tower and her brother-in-law, Richard III, takes control of the government. Elizabeth must tread very carefully to regain her position of power while protecting her daughters from harm.
Fans of The Other Boleyn Girl will be pleased to find all the emotion and splendor of the English court retained in this novel. The first half of the book is swept up in the romance of the battlefield and the bed. Elizabeth and King Edward are two lusty souls thirsting for power and each other, so whenever Elizabeth isn’t pregnant and Edward isn’t fighting to protect his claim to the throne, they’re making love all over the place. (Considering how many children Elizabeth mothered, this can only be historical accurate, right?) But the battle scenes are a little stranger. You see, most of the book is told in the first person by Elizabeth, but being a woman she was naturally not amongst the soldiers during the war. For these scenes, the book switches to a third-person narrator, and the change is a bit confusing. Is it Elizabeth, experiencing a vision? Is it someone else, or merely the omniscient storyteller?
Elizabeth could be experiencing a vision. Her family claims to descend from Melusina, a mythical water goddess whose story is woven into the narrative, recalled in the ‘Once upon a time…’ fashion of a fairy tale, and this supernatural origin has left the women with an unusual effectiveness when casting spells. Folk magic and quaint rituals are practiced by Elizabeth and her mother Jacquetta, and I found the details of these spells to be some of the most interesting moments in the book.
The book is far more sympathetic to Elizabeth than the biographies I’ve read, but this is definitely a ‘warts-and-all’ character. Elizabeth Woodville is greedy and calculating; she wastes little time with forgiveness and is usually a sharp, harsh speaker. She’s also incredibly stubborn, and her insistence on certain points throughout the book become extremely, extremely repetitive. But she’s also shown to be a loving mother to her children and devoted wife of her husband. Elizabeth has an extremely strong mother-daughter relationship with Jacquetta, and in her later years it’s almost heartbreaking to see her trying (and struggling) to create to a similar relationship with her own daughter.
The White Queen is definitely Philippa Gregory’s strongest novel in the past few years. I really enjoyed kicking my feet up and sinking into Elizabeth's world. If you enjoyed her earlier books but fell off the wagon, this is a good chance to step back into her world. It is the first volume of a proposed trilogy, to be followed by The Red Queen (Margaret Beaufort) and The White Princess (Elizabeth of York, Woodville’s daughter).
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