Thursday, October 03, 2013

The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

The War of the Roses is the basis for Philippa Gregory's The White Queen and it was an interesting trip back to England before the excesses of King Henry VIII to learn that there were even more interesting kings and queens and rebellions. 

Elizabeth Woodville decides that she will stand in the road along King Edward IV's path to beg a favor, that he return her husband's lands to her and their sons. Her husband was killed in the war against Edward since her family stood for the Lancastrians and her lands were taken from her, probably as the spoils of war. Edward was winning all his battles and had already been crowned king as leader of the Yorks. He sees Elizabeth and, true to his nature, immediately wants to bed her, but Elizabeth will not sell her virtue or her body so cheaply and eventually draws his own dagger against him when he tries to force her. He gives her the dagger and stalks off in a rage. Elizabeth asked for his favor not to become his mistress.

Her mother is a pragmatic woman and she sets a spell for Elizabeth. Taking her to a tree near the water, she tells Elizabeth to choose one of three strings. Elizabeth chooses and her mother cuts the other two strings, strings tied to destinies Elizabeth may no longer see. Taking up the string a foot a day, Elizabeth eventually draws a golden crown from the water just big enough to fit around her finger, a promise of marriage to Edward, which Edward accomplishes in secret with Elizabeth's mother in attendance in front of a priest Edward brings with him to their family chapel. Thus begins the war within a war as Elizabeth faces down in turn Edward's two brothers, Neville the kingmaker, Edward's mother, and the nation.

The White Queen is part of The Cousins' War series by Philippa Gregory and has all the marks of her writing. There is magic and mystery and thrilling/frightening scenes all with their roots in history.

The first part of The White Queen was romance itself, but as Edward fights on against growing odds from within his own faction and Elizabeth is left more and more alone and in hiding in sanctuary protecting hers and Edward's children and his legacy, Elizabeth becomes less a shining queen and more a frightened and determined woman willing to use magic, which if discovered is punishable by death, to help Edward and eventually to gain her own ends: restoration as queen and her sons as heirs. There is plenty of intrigue and the usual twists and turns that are part of the struggle for a throne and no end of plots and counter plots, betrayal, and death. Through it all, Elizabeth becomes quite an unsympathetic character as she struggles to keep hold on a kingdom that is being denied her and her children.

Elizabeth loses so much as she fights her own battles, but the loss of her mother, father, and brothers leaves her without the strong support that she needs and she becomes desperate. Her eldest daughter, Elizabeth, Edward's first born child, sees Elizabeth as the thorn in the rose of her own dreams.

I enjoyed the first half of the novel, but towards the second half of the book, as Gregory paints Elizabeth in dark and unflattering colors, the story began to plod and strain my patience and my interest. Throughout the novel, Gregory admits to adding elements that are not strictly factual or historical, but she does retain honesty in her portrayal of a chapter in history that is at best sketchy. I'd give the books 4/5 for Gregory's take on this turbulent time, but 3/5 in execution since I came to dislike Elizabeth so much during the latter portion of the novel.

The White Queen is an interesting and at times exciting read, but tends to get lost in its own plots and stratagems. The history of Melusina, the mother of Elizabeth's family, was fascinating and well detailed in the novel and provided a fantastical element that gave Gregory's novel a bit of magic.

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