Sunday, 19 October 2014

The White Queen, by Philippa Gregory

3 stars

An imagining of the journey of Elizabeth Woodville from widowed mother of two to Queen of England as the wife of Edward IV, to being a widow once more and the mother of the two princes in the tower. As this is the first I've read about this period in our history I can't speak to whether this is an accurate depiction, but I found it a compelling one that finally enabled me to make sense of and differentiate between many of the famous names of the time (which was a feat, as it seems our royal families have always had a lack of imagination when it comes to naming their children and so they're all Edward's, Henry's, Richard's and Williams, with the occasional George thrown in for good measure).

With the events of the War of the Roses being as bloody, backstabby and intense as they were, it would be very hard to make a book with that as its setting boring and Elizabeth Woodville - beautiful, ambitious, vengeful and dogged by rumours of witchcraft - is also a very interesting character. I loved the fact that this was a version of history as seen by the woman at its centre when history books have mostly focused on the men and their wars, although I will admit that I thought the book was stronger when we slipped out of Elizabeth's voice and into that of the historian, putting us at the edges of the battles between Edward and his many foes, particularly in the case of the Battle of Barnet where we got a flavour of the carnage and confusion with men fighting their own armies in the mist.

More than anything, this book really brought home to me once again what a shitty deal women had, being mostly slaves to the whims of their husbands or fathers, and that our rulers have pretty much been whoever was the best and most bloodthirsty killer of their day. Alison Weir's Eleanor of Aquitaine made me boggle at the viciousness of the children of Henry II (Richard the Lionheart and Bad King John), but it seems that the Yorks were worse again, constantly laying waste to their own families to further their ambitions for the crown. Their family motto was most definitely not this:

Gregory's isn't the most powerful writing when it comes to placing you inside the heart of the matter - there's a little too much reliance on foreshadowing, and the love of Elizabeth and Edward felt a little Meyer-esque up until they started speaking dispassionately of all of Edward's extra-curricular bonking - but it was good enough for me to pick up The Red Queen next to start learning about how things went down on the Lancastrian side.

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