THE WHITE QUEEN BY PHILIPPA GREGORY - "We have killed certainty in these cousins' wars and all that is left is mistrust"

Elizabeth Woodville, a young Lancastrian widow, armed only with her beauty and her steely determination, seduces and marries the charismatic warrior king, Edward IV of York.
Crowned Queen of England, surrounded by conflict, betrayal and murder, Elizabeth rises to the demands of her position, fighting tenaciously for her family's survival. Most of all she must defend her two sons, who become the central figures in a mystery that has confounded historians for centuries: the missing Princes in the Tower.

Set in the tumult and intrigue of the Wars of the Roses, The White Queen is the first novel in a  series about the Plantagenets. In the same series, The Red Queen (Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII's mother) and the latest one, The Lady of the Rivers (Elizabeth's Woodville's mother) .

I bought The White Queen in a lovely second-hand shop in Winchester, when I was there in July and I was so happy I had added a new one to my War of the Roses bookshelf. In my Ricardian enthusiasm, after reading Sharon Kay Penman's "The Sunne in Splendour", I promised myself to read as much as I could about that period and  about vilified king Richard III. And second came, "The Daughter of Time" by Josephine Tey, which was great fun to read. Third was "The Virgin Widow" by Anne O'Brien and I loved it.

 I was aware that, in this case, being Elizabeth Woodville's story,  I would be reading the facts and events I was interested in from the point of view of one of Richard's antagonists and rivals, a woman who never liked him and whom he never liked. So, of course, I didn't expect an idillic relationship between the two in this novel. Frankly, I wouldn't have accepted any take different from rivalry,  nor any characterization of Richard Plantagenet which was not negative.  It wouldn't have been plausible from Elizabeth Woodville's eyes. Anyway, its not being pro-Richard III is not the reason why I didn't like this book very much.
I haven't read anything else by Philippa  Gregory  (well I saw two different adaptations of her "The Other Boleyn Girl", actually, and wrote about them HERE) this was my first approach to her widely popular work and I can't compare this one with any other novel of hers. Unfortunately, while I was reading it,  Ms Gregory's White Queen  had to struggle with my huge enthusiasm and my admiration  for  “The Sunne in Splendour” and I don't deny her heroine and book have come out defeated. 

I usually try to be positive while reading any book or watching any film, and at the end I always find the good and the bad to notice. But this time I thought and thought and wasn't able to find anything positive to tell you. So, forgive me if for once I'll just briefly point out what I didn't like. 

- I found it difficult to sympathize with the characters, especially the protagonist. You are supposed to feel for her for her several losses or admire her for her strength, the commoner who married a King and was mother to princes and to the next Queen of England. But you simply can't. You can just see her scheming, plotting and planning and never really "deeply feeling" something. Nor love, nor sorrow.

- As I told you, I was in search of other elements to add to my Ricardian enthusiasm. But I couldn't bear to meet  a  confusing, contradictory characterization of Richard III's personality. I was sure I wouldn't find the Dickon of The Sunne , here but ... A Richard who was ... neither good, nor wicked? Always praying God, loyal and generous while his brother lived but terribly ambitious and greedy with Edward's heirs?  What is not clear is, for instance,  why Elizabeth Woodville hated him so much, didn't trust him at all but let her daughters live at court with him, saying that he took good care of them. She was sure he wasn't responsible for what had happened to her sons but still hated him deeply as if he were. Maybe I didn't catch things right (my being Italian? my being a Ricardian?)  but all the sections connected to Richard III were rather puzzling to me. Maybe Ms Gregory wanted him multi-faceted and not simply  a villain, that would have been good,  but she did not do a great job of creating a coherent character or a coherent story for him. 

- The  hypothesis - based on no historical evidence - regarding Richard,  Elizabeth's younger son. She perhaps outwit her enemies and substituted another boy, a page, to her second boy so he didn't "vanish" in the Tower  like his elder brother but was brought up abroad . He would then return as  Perkin Warbeck, the pretender executed by Henry VII in 1499.  This part didn't convince me at all. 

- After a while I found the insistence on theme of Melusina - the Goddess from whom Elizabeth's mother descended -  and the addition of supernatural and magic here and there rather annoying. Maybe too repetitive? r

- Finally , the terrible lack in the connotative mode makes the narration, mostly in first person, sound as if we were just TOLD  and not SHOWN the story.

I really wanted to like this book and I actually did as far as p. 50,  more or less. But then to get to the end required a great effort from me. I'm sure this is not Philippa Gregory at her best. I can't believe this is the quality to be expected in such a best selling author. I think I should give her another chance. Any suggestion? What should I read?

Philippa Gregory's official site


Alessia Carmicino said...
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Alessia Carmicino said...
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Alessia Carmicino said...

you must read the other boleyn girl, the boleyn inheritance and the queen's fool!these are philippa gregory best novels, all settled in the tudor period!

Maria Grazia said...

@Alessia Carmicino
Thank you, Alessia. I really want to give Ms Gregory another chance. I've seen "The Other Boleyn Girl" in two different adaptations and I think I'll pick that one up among your suggestions!

Anonymous said...

If you really want to find anything good in Ms Gregory's work, MG, please DON'T read "The Other Boleyn Girl".
By reading that *** you won't sympathize neither with "the other Boleyn girl" (Mary, which is very dull indeed ;-) nor with the "Official Boleyn girl" (Anne, which is as scheming and plotting as we already know: not a hint of humanity in her, I'm afraid).
On the same subject (the Boleyn girls and much, much more) I can highly recommend a different novel: Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel.
Have a nice Sunday,
xx K/V

Maria Grazia said...

Thanks a lot, K/V. You know, Wolf Hall is on my wishlist. A nice Sunday to you, too!

Laura said...

Making a good review is easy, as you like the book, you like the story and words come alone... But I'm sure this isn't one easy writing, being honest and try not to hurt other people's feelings about their work.
I couldn't be able to set the differents between reality and fiction in this particular matter but I know and read your other reviews and confide in your instincs and your knowledge.
So thanks for your review.

lunarossa said...

Hi MG, There is so much to say about this subject! I'm sorry you did not like the White Queen. To tell the truth I do not think PG's aim was to make the Elizabeth's Woodville character a sympathetic one. As she explained in her many talks introducing the book, too little is known about the Plantagenets and you cannot make a whole character out of the simple facts you have at your disposal, but you have to elaborate with your imagination. And the result is that you do not always like the main characters. Same is for her second book of the Cousin's Wars series, The Red Queen. You finish the book feeling a deep dislike for the very manipulative Margaret Beaufort, Henry VIII's grandmother. I was not very happy about the depiction of the Duke of Gloucester either and I actually asked her about this and she said that she did not want to take a stance about him being a controversial figure who was very often ambiguous and incoherent in his actions (especially when he took the throne) and wanted the reader to decide. The Sunne in Splendour is a beautiful book but you cannot expect it to be historically accurate, as much as I like it to be! PG researches her books very carefully from the historical point of view. She mentions the legend of Melusina, that you did not like, mainly because there is a thread running through the historical records associating Elizabeth and especially her mother Jacquetta with witchcraft and that's why she has based several scenes on that. It is important that we modern readers understand that religion, spiritualism and magic played a central part in the imaginative life of medieval people. The use of playing cards to predict the future was a medieval practice, alchemy was regarded as a spiritual and scientific practice too and herbalism and planting by the phases of the moon was well known in most of households. All in all I was quite intrigued by PG’s three books about the women involved in the Wars of the Roses and I'm looking forward to her next book about Anne and Isabel Neville. I like her beautiful use of the English language and her writing style. I would recommend you to read The Constant Queen about Catherine of Aragon, my favourite PG’s book. I’m sorry to say to you and Val that I was rather disappointed by Wolf Hall. I found it hard work, difficult to persist with and rather irritating. The narrative was broken, with regular loss of context and of whom we are talking about, resulting in much re-reading of text. I felt I had to finish the book because of my love of the period, but even the end seemed out of place. Reading for me should be a pleasure and not a chore and this is what I felt that book was for me. Apologies for this exaggeratedly long comment but as you know, this is a subject I care vey much about! Ciao. A.x

Anonymous said...

WOW, Lunarossa! What a passionate defence of MS Gregory's work: she'd be honoured to have such a dedicated fan - and so many others, from what I hear :)
I wish I had the language skills to explain my P.O.V., but it's clear that what you mostly admire in her ("beautiful language and writing style") is exactly what I don't like. And probably this is WHY I adored Ms Mantel's style, while you couldn't even finish reading her novel.
Well, MG, you should be glad to have raised a literary discussion: why don't you post more negative reviews in the future? ;-)
xx K/V

Anonymous said...

It can be difficult to understand and portray women (or men, for that matter) of another era. I've enjoyed many of the author's books, but find that they lack depth, so can emphasize with those elements that dissatisfied you, MG.
As for Elizabeth W, it is worth remembering that England had been through a couple of decades of civil war, which divided families and loyalties, with the result of much dishonourable and questionable behaviour, which is puzzling to the modern reader. (It oughtn't, as in any era of turmoil/war/threat, we will probably always react to threat by doing whatever to survive and ensure the survival of those closest). I enjoyed Sunne, too, but did not find, at the end, that the writer had provided a VIVID portrait of Gloucester. It is the writer's responsibility to persuade the reader to a sympathy for the protagonist(s). Poor Margaret Beaufort has not enjoyed an historically sympathetic reputation either! The legend of Melusine was promulgated to explain/condemn the Plantagenets' fearsome tempers and ruthlessness by their Angevin ancestors' descent from a "witch", this Jacquetta was accused and briefly held under arrest, thanks to the Woodeville enemies...

A Ricardian too, I would like to see a balanced historical biography - or portrayal of that king. Warts and all!


Terry Stanton said...

In my humble opinion, comparing the work of Sharon Kay Penman to that of Ms. Gregory's is rather like comparing fine dining to fast food. Both can fill you up, but the first is more complex and ultimately satisfying. For me, Ms Gregory's novels have always left me wanting more historical detail and facts. I never felt swept away into the era. With Ms Penman's novel, I take up full time residence.
And as an aside, there is a new Sharon Kay Penman novel ready for release in the next few months.

Margaret Frazer said...

Ms. Gregory's books might be more tolerable if she didn't promote them as "historical" but settled for "historical fantasy", given the distortions of facts she repeatedly indulges in. At the beginning of The White Queen, she devotes a lurid paragraph to the horrors of being found out a witch in England. Every assertion in there is totally wrong. Someone practicing witchcraft could only get in trouble if they used their skill to commit a civil crime (in which case they would be tried by a civil court as a common criminal) or with the Church if they used wrongly worded charms, for which they would receive penance, not the death penalty. The list of other gratuitous misrepresentations of medieval life and attitudes in The White Queen and The Red Queen is far too long for here, but her contempt for historical fact is shown by having Queen Elizabeth take sanctuary in the crypt of St. Margaret's church. Contemporary records state outright that in taking sanctuary from Gloucester, she went into the abbot of Westminster's (luxurious) dwelling -- not into the crypt of a neighboring parish church. Besides, at that time a crypt would have been full of bodies, not a residential space, and the idea of a tunnel from there to the river is unutterably preposterous. Equally preposterous is the notion that sanctimonious Margaret Beaufort would have taken as her heroine a French heretic. An author can develop her characters however she best sees fit, but to distort history and ignore medieval realities to the degree Ms. Gregory does reduces her books from "historical" to "farce".

cooksappe said...

wow *_*

Sam (Tiny Library) said...

I listened to this on audio whilst driving and found it a pleasant way to pass the time, although I'm by no means a War of the Roses expert.

The supernatural elements were annoying for me too, especially as the narrator would adopt a throaty, 'mystical' voice for them. And I wasn't convinced on the boy swapping.

I always enjoy your very in-depth reviews!

Alessia Carmicino said...

well off course when you read Mrs Gregory you must remember that is just historical fiction and a lot of details are pure romances...but for me Mrs Gregory it's the best..her descriptions are absolutely unique!

Maria Grazia said...

Well, what can I say? I've been off line and out for my Sunday family gathering and look at what I've brought forth! As K/V suggests I'll write more about the books I don't like than of those I like if this is the result! Thanks for this interesting discussion and for all your contributions. We don't have to share the same opinions, having different ones make reading and sharing much more interesting. Don't you think so?

Elisabeth Storrs said...

I enjoyed your review, MG. I have only read some of Phillipa Gregory's 'Tudor' books and found it an interesting experience in itself to discover her 'take' on characters whose lives have been pored over for centuries. 'The Boleyn Inheritance' deals with the little known wives of Henry VIII - Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard. PG admits that the dearth of information about them made it a challenge to write the book. As for Wolf Hall - I can't wait for the sequel.

maribea said...

I love so much interesting literary discussion. I confess I have not read The sunne in splendour yet. Therefore, I cannot compare the two books, but I think that all historical fiction writers add something to the story they're telling. They have to fill the gaps, they provide a unique voice for what is only partial historical reports. Of course, there are historical novels with a good historical background and other with hardly any historical insight. But if a book can raise interest in the reader and promote curiosity and hunger for knowledge...well it is a book worth reading.
As far as PG's book is concerned, I find Melusina citation repetitive, too. What I like most was the idea of confusion: during such years as those, you were never sure who the was the bad guy and who the good one. You almost no one you could trust. Interesting thing to consider before judging.

Jacqui said...

New follower!
I really enjoyed this book, and I enjoy most of Philippa Gregory's novels. She adds a lovely element of fiction to history, and makes very memorable characters. Here's my review: