Philippa Gregory is best known for her Tudor court novels, but with The White Queen she moves further back in time to the Plantagenets and the Wars of the Roses.
Elizabeth Woodville is twenty seven when she meets and falls in love with King Edward IV. Following a private wedding, Elizabeth becomes Queen of England and finds herself caught up in the ongoing battles between the House of Lancaster and the House of York. Amidst all the politics, intrigue and betrayal, Elizabeth’s concern is for the future of her children – in particular her two royal sons who will become the famous ‘Princes in the Tower’, a mystery which remains unsolved to this day.
The book is written in the first person present tense which I found slightly irritating, though not enough to stop me from enjoying the book. The use of present tense does help the reader to feel as if they are experiencing events along with Elizabeth, so it works in that sense, but my personal preference is definitely for past tense. There are a few passages where the viewpoint temporarily changes to the third person in order to describe battles which Elizabeth doesn’t witness but which are an important part of the storyline. I often find battle scenes boring, but these are well written and go into just the right amount of detail.
I found the story itself quite suspenseful and exciting – it probably helped that although I read a lot of historical fiction novels, I haven’t read many about the War of the Roses, so only had a vague idea of what was going to happen. Of course, this meant that I wasn’t sure exactly which parts of the book were based on fact and which parts were the invention of the author. In her note at the end of the book, Gregory mentions that there’s not much information available about the period, therefore there are some areas where she felt free to use her imagination.
If you’re not very familiar with the historical background, you’ll need to concentrate to be able to keep track of all the battles, changes of allegiances and numerous claimants to the throne. The family tree provided at the front of the book is not very helpful – it’s incomplete and really needed to show at least one more generation, as it ends before some of the important characters in the story were even born.
I found it difficult to warm to the character of Elizabeth but could feel sympathy for her, especially towards the end of the book. Richard III was also portrayed quite sympathetically – nothing like the evil hunchback in Shakespeare’s play! I would have liked to have seen his relationship with Elizabeth more thoroughly explored in the book – there was no real explanation for why she distrusts him so much, other than that she’s had dreams and premonitions that something bad will happen to her sons in the Tower. On the subject of the Princes in the Tower, the book explores an interesting theory, which may or may not be true – it would be nice to think that it was.
Interspersed with the main story is the tale of Melusina, the water goddess, from whom Elizabeth and the female members of her family are said to have descended and from whom they claim to have inherited magical powers. Magic and mythology are recurring themes throughout the book. Elizabeth and her mother Jacquetta’s witchcraft skills are used as an explanation for several key historical events – for example, they whistle up storms to defeat their enemies at sea. This aspect of the story became quite repetitive and just didn’t appeal to me much. Sometimes it felt as if there were references to Melusina, water, rivers, the sea etc on almost every page!
The book ends abruptly, but that’s not surprising since The White Queen is the first in a trilogy called The Cousins’ War and will be followed by The Red Queen and The White Princess which will focus on Margaret Beaufort and Elizabeth of York respectively.
I would recommend The White Queen if, like me, you don’t have much knowledge of the Wars of the Roses and are looking for an enjoyable and relatively easy to understand introduction to the period. For those of you with a lot of background knowledge, I think there should still be enough new ideas to keep you interested.
Genre: Historical Fiction/Pages: 417/Publisher: Simon & Schuster/Year: 2009/Source: My own copy bought new