Lady Elizabeth Grey’s husband was killed at the Battle of St. Albans and she desperately wants his lands back for her two little boys. She is tired of living in her parents’ home and would like her independence. So she stands out in the road as the new king, Edward IV, rides by, holding their hands and hoping he’ll see her. He does see her and takes note not only of her problems, but of her beauty, and before she knows it, Elizabeth is the queen of England and in almost over her head with politics and intrigue. She is a Woodville, though, and she will perservere, going to the edge to push her family as high as it can possibly go before her tower of cards topples around her.
This is going to be a good long review, as I have a lot to say on this book. For those who skim, here’s my verdict: much better than I was expecting!
If you know me and have been reading my blog, you’ll know that I’ve been working on a dissertation about Anthony Woodville (and fifteenth century chivalric culture in England overall) for what feels like forever. As such, this book was bound to touch on a topic near and dear to my heart, and it was bound to get some of the facts wrong, if only for the sake of storytelling. So it does; the Woodville family was loyal to Edward IV after 1461 but before he married Elizabeth, and Anthony was sent to besiege Alnwick Castle on his behalf with the earl of Warwick in 1463, not to mention that Elizabeth’s father Lord Rivers had already been appointed to office. The beginning was anachronistic in another way because Edward kept being referred to as a boy, and there is no way anyone in the medieval period would have considered a man who had commanded and won two battles a boy. I can see that she did this more for characterization purposes, especially given he was younger than Elizabeth, so I don’t mind as much, but still worth noting. And Anthony was not at Tewkesbury, although he was definitely in London and fighting when Thomas Neville arrived. There is also the whole magic subplot, but I thought that was actually quite creative, and historical inaccuracy only bothers me if people believe it’s true. I don’t think anyone would ever believe Elizabeth and Jacquetta were witches. I could go on, but I’ll spare you.
All that said, Philippa Gregory got more right than wrong in this instance and I was pleasantly surprised. No one is needlessly victimized here; in fact Elizabeth is quite a sympathetic character which is refreshing after all of the villainizing that typically surrounds her. Even Richard III is not a villain but a multi-faceted man whose ambition just kept on pushing a little too far. The rest of the history is in many ways what has been fictionalized before, and I found nothing that really bothered me. All things considered I enjoyed this book after the first fifty pages and I wasn’t expecting to. Gregory even included Anthony’s poem, which is authentic and the only one that survives; she inflates his reputation to some extent, but I didn’t mind, it fit in.
Gregory writes well, and in general the book is absorbing even for someone who has heard it all before. It’s romanticized, but in the way that makes us sigh and wish we had a big blond knight to save the day. It’s exciting and tense because everything is dangerous, and because I kept wondering who was going to kill the princes in this version. Another interesting twist there, and I think we’re meant to guess at what she means, but for someone who doesn’t know the history, it’s a nice question. And in the end, I like the way Gregory twisted things here. It’s interesting and it’s different when the story has been done over and over again. Given the fluidity of history itself, I found myself enjoying the way she pushes boundaries and suggests things that probably didn’t happen but might have done. I didn’t want to read another fictional recap of the Wars of the Roses, but Gregory made it a little bit new, and despite myself I think I’m looking forward to The Red Queen very much, even if I don’t think anyone ever called these ‘the cousin’s wars’.
In other words, I do recommend The White Queen. It is historical fiction, after all, and if you’re going to read another book that fictionalizes the Wars of the Roses, I highly suggest this one.