‘The White Queen’ by Philippa Gregory

The-White-QueenI generally try to read a book before I watch the TV adaptation—I like to see if my image of a character lines up with someone else’s interpretation—but I had watched the first three episodes of the new BBC series The White Queen before I decided to read the book. I haven’t read Philippa Gregory for a long time—she used to be an established feature of my Johannesburg book club—but I haven’t read any of her books since her very popular Tudor series.

The White Queen is an enjoyable, readable piece of historical fiction, set in a period that I’m not very familiar with—so I did some googling about The Wars of the Roses as I was reading. It was a complicated web of warfare and treachery, so kudos to Philippa Gregory for taking it on. The scope of the book is ambitious—she does cover a huge stretch of time, twenty-one years, which gives it a slightly disconnected, episodic feel. I do like the idea that two other books in the series deal with the same events, just from a different perspective: The Red Queen and The Kingmaker’s Daughter. As a collection I think it must give a layered, nuanced view of all of the characters involved.  But I haven’t read the others yet…

Elizabeth Woodville, the Yorkist ‘White Queen’, is a compelling character and great foil to the ‘Red Queen’—the Lancastrian Margaret Beaufort. She perceives the other woman as grasping, scheming and ambitious but she is a blind to her own relentless ambition—and it is better concealed behind her beauty and charm. Though the men are the ones wielding swords and spilling blood, the women are just as quick to send them off to battle in the name of their cause and their superior claim to the throne. Elizabeth’s acknowledgement of the blood on her own hands is poignant, as well as her realisation of the backlash that the curses she has wrought on her enemies have had on her own family. The Rivers family connection to the myth of Melusina is beautifully woven into the story; in historical fiction accusations of witchcraft are common enough but rarely founded on any real evidence—so the Woodville women’s supernatural gifts add a fascinating element.

The White Queen has also given me a better understanding of Henry VIII, in particular the desperation he felt to produce a male heir to avoid any return to the bloody years of The Wars of the Roses, and also the very great strength shown by Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth I to hold on to a throne that had been traditionally so unstable in the absence of a male heir. Yes, I know that historical fiction is not history—but it does help us to engage with history and to visualise what it might have been like.

The BBC adaptation, so far, is a very faithful rendering of the book. I think they’ve done a good job with casting and adapting the script. Max Irons and Rebecca Ferguson are suitably young and attractive as the King and Queen. Amanda Hale, as Margaret Beaufort, is incredibly annoying, but I suppose she is intended to be. James Frain is very good as the scheming kingmaker Warwick, better than he was as Cromwell in The Tudors. (Hilary Mantel has set the bar very high for any depiction of Cromwell.) The creators of the BBC White Queen, however, will have the same problem as the creators of The Tudors—how to age a cast of twenty-somethings for a script spanning twenty years. Save me from Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ gruff, old-man voice and Henry Cavill’s pompous posturing. We’ll see…

I am also very glad to report that I now fully understand the historical background behind the first Blackadder series. Forget about The White Queen, I’m off to watch Blackadder again.

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