1464. Cousin is at war with cousin, as the houses of York and Lancaster tear themselves apart... And 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.
I want to put this review in context: I've read what I consider to be the very best piece of historical fiction concerning The War of the Roses in the form of The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman (in fact, I listed this book as probably my all-time favourite book); and I have read previous novels by Philippa Gregory and not been too enamoured of them. With that in mind, it is no real surprise that I found myself disappointed by The White Queen.
The events themselves - true historical events - leave the reader agape. The idea of a widow transfixing a crowned king to the point that he would go against all his advisers and marry her for love is just incredible. At that time in history marriages were used to ally countries, especially between royalty - and Edward IV went against all convention when he married Elizabeth Woodville in secret.
Add to that the quarrels, the betrayals, the battles, the sorrow, and, above all, the mystery of those two little Princes - the heirs to the house of York - and you have a tale fit to entrance anybody. And other authors have certainly managed to make this story of the War of the Roses absolutely gripping.
So why hasn't Philippa Gregory, in my opinion?
My first complaint is the matter of witchcraft. I'm happy to accept that Elizabeth considers herself a descendant of a goddess - there was a great deal of paganism even once Christianity had been taken on board. What I am not happy about are the situations where Elizabeth and her mother influence events through the use of their witchcraft. These were HISTORICAL events! Henry Tudor's fleet was prevented from invading through bad weather - this was not due to witchcraft. I disliked the sensationalism of witchcraft being added to a novel that already had plentiful situations that could be taken with a pinch of salt, but that actually happened.
My second complaint is due to the repetitive nature of several sections of the novel, such as all those occasions when Elizabeth had to watch Edward ride to war. Yes, I know that this happened, but I felt each occasion read in a very similar way. The same happened while Elizabeth was in sanctuary and kept thinking about her two sons, and what might have happened to them.
My third complaint is of a technical nature. I have not read another author recently who used adjectives so flagrantly. Edward smiled boyishly. Elizabeth's mother spoke gently. Elizabeth herself said her words firmly, sadly, softly, you get the idea. It got to the point where I almost found myself laughing, and I don't think Gregory ever intended that reaction!
My fourth complaint is also technical. Most of The White Queen is written in first person, which is effective and allows us to really get to grips with the character of Elizabeth Woodville. However, the period where Elizabeth is confined from public events by staying in sanctuary, Gregory needed to find ways to convey the information about what was occurring elsewhere - and the ways she used I found very clumsy. Sometimes she merely switched to third person instead; sometimes she put the information into Elizabeth's dreams and made it part of the witchcraft aspect that I disliked so much; and sometimes she used messengers, which was actually the most effective, but was used to the point of being repetitive. I think Gregory should either have made it all third person or all first person.
Other than that, The White Queen is relatively competent and reads well. I'm sure that at least one of my complaints is merely a matter of taste and won't even rear its head when another person reads the book, so they are left with a tale rich with historical spectacle. Gregory does pay good attention to historical details, showing with ease aspects of medieval life such as food, clothing and attitudes.
I enjoyed The White Queen to a certain extent, but anyone with an interest in this period should really be picking up The Sunne in Splendour instead. I find that this novel hasn't changed my mind about Philippa Gregory's writing - I consider it rather tired at times, and end up skimming pages. Having said all this, the cliff-hanger ending of The White Queen will make me pick up The Red Queen, and I'm interested to see whether Gregory can achieve the tough objective of writing the same period from a completely different voice.