Sunday, 3 June 2012

"The White Queen,' by Philippa Gregory

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Last year - yes, this post has taken me that long to get around to - Simon and Schuster sent me review copies of Philippa Gregory's "The Lady of the Rivers" and her non-fiction collaboration "The Women of the Cousins' War".  I'm ashamed to admit that this was when "The Lady of the Rivers" came out in hardback, and by the time I am writing this it is already out in paperback.  As I am quite an obsessive person, I wanted the read the two earlier books in the series  - "The White Queen" and "The Red Queen" - before starting "The Lady of the Rivers" (so I have pinched them from my Mum, who already had copies).

"The Women of the Cousins' War" is a companion piece to this series.  This is a non-fiction work about the central female figures whose lives are the basis for "The White Queen" (Elizabeth Woodville), "The Red Queen" (Margaret Beaufort) and "The Lady of the Rivers" (Jacquetta Duchess of Bedford).  Philippa Gregory herself writes an interesting introduction about the art of the historical novel and the comparative silence of the woman's voice in historical record.  I decided that I would approach this series by reading each novel first, and then the chapter about the historical personage in "The Women of the Cousins' War".

The White Queen of Philippa Gregory's novel is Elizabeth Woodville.  The book starts in 1464 when Elizabeth, a young widow with young children, attempts to petition Edward IV for the land that her sons should inherit.  Their encounter sparks a speedy courtship and a secret marriage.  Elizabeth's subsequent prodigious childbearing takes place in an England where her husband's rule is being constantly besieged by rebellion and rival claims to the throne.  Philippa Gregory's book foregrounds Elizabeth's story, following her from widowhood, to marriage, to widowhood again and her attempts to retain the position of her family following the death of Edward IV (as this is historical record - albeit little known, to me anyway - I haven't worried too much about spoilers).

I found "The White Queen" very difficult to get into.  However, this changed when I realised that the fault was with me and with my approach to reading Gregory's book.  I found that, as I knew that this novel had a historical basis, I started reading it as if I was in a history lesson at school - trying to remember every event and every date as if my GCSE grade depended on it - instead of reading a story for pleasure.  When I changed my mindset and decided to read it as I would a normal novel, then I began to enjoy it more. 

In "The Women of the Cousins' War," David Baldwin ably recounts the historical facts of Elizabeth Woodville's life, and I found Gregory's introduction to be a fascinating account of her approach to writing.  I have long had a distrust of both docudrama on TV and the historical novel, believing both to be an uncomfortable mix of fact and fiction, but Gregory defends her genre well in pointing out that all history is an act of creation in the choosing of what to include and what to omit.  Her introduction provides an interesting insight into how the story of individual women, particularly women who were seen as controversial and problematic, gets passed over by the grand historical narrative.  Philippa Gregory's novels help to recognise these marginalised women, and Elizabeth Woodville's tempestuous story provides Gregory with a strong heroine.

I'm taking a break from this series for a few books, but I will return to it when I read "The Red Queen".

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