I have a confession to make: I’ve been known to read trashy books. Now, this isn’t something that I like to shout from the rooftops, but if you spent your days reading Chaucer, you would unwind with something less cerebral too. I’ve done the romance novel thing, but the formula becomes grating after a while. So, my most turned to brainless literature is mediocre historical fiction.
I don’t think Philippa Gregory started out as a mediocre artist. Her break-out novel, The Other Boleyn Girl, was pretty gripping and presented a side of that worn out Tudor saga that I hadn’t heard before. Unfortunately, her work has started to go down a long, dull hill. She’s now turning her attention to the final years of the Plantagenet reign over English with The White Queen.
The White Queen follows the rise of Elizabeth Woodville, a commoner widow, who captures the eye of the young King Edward IV and rises to be the queen of the penultimate reign of a Plantagenet monarch. This period of time has been much discussed by artists and historians as an era of greed and blood. Many a historian has portrayed Edward IV’s queen as the head of a family of grasping bloodsuckers who wormed their way into the highest positions in the kingdom, much like the Boleyns a few generations later. Shakespeare even dedicated his pen to a play based on the period: Richard III. There’s an incredible amount to tell and so many points of view to take in.
Unfortunately, Gregory decides to take the least believable route. Inspired by the whispers of witchcraft that surrounded the Woodville family (which was supposedly descended from a water goddess), Gregory portrays Elizabeth Woodville, her mother, and daughter Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth, wife of Henry VII) as practitioners of wizardry. What made Edward fall for Elizabeth? A ring tied to a string. What made a boat carrying important dignitaries toss violently over the sea? A storm called up by witches’ breath. What withers Richard III’s sword arm and cripples his health? A curse and a locket. Really, Philippa, really?
I think her choice in plot devices shows an author taking the easy way out. Elizabeth Woodville, whether you liked her or not, was a force to be reckoned with. She defied an ordained king by claiming sanctuary for herself and her children in a basement. She suffered through accusations that her husband had been a bastard, sired by a lowly English bowman. She climbed to the highest position in the land and hung there through some of the greatest storms in English royal history. And Gregory credits it to witchcraft? Ugh.
Seriously, if you find this era interesting, pick up Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour, a hefty novel that relies on history and the strength of the characters. Gregory would indeed need witchcraft to reach her standard of work. Sadly, I’m probably going to end up reading Gregory’s next book, which will be a depiction of the same events, just from the point of view of Margaret Beaufort, mother to Henry Tudor. I will grit my teeth in irritation, then maybe through my Kindle in the trash, but I will read it shamefaced. Why am I so weak?!