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Old 14th Jan 2011, 16:55   #1
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Default Philippa Gregory: The White Queen

I had sort of promised myself I wouldn’t read any more “popular Ricardian fiction”. I have a shelf-load of historical ‘stuff’ covering the 1450’s-1490’s – some of it is rubbishy romance, some are sturdy old-fashioned Jean Plaidys and Margaret Campbell Barnes, some are in-depth examinations of the political machinations of the latter days of the Wars of the Roses. Two or three volumes are simply very well researched and very good historical fiction and faction indeed. So where does The White Queen, first in The Cousins' War quartet, sit?

Well, Philippa Gregory has certainly forgotten that Cumbria didn’t exist until 1974; that ‘numpty’ is a C20th term (at the earliest), that C15th princesses didn’t actually go “OMG!” at bits of astonishing news, and that Elizabeth Woodville terming Edward of March a “boy” at age 22 (being only 27 herself) is a bit rich and rather insulting.

Then there are the more nit-picky historical ‘mistakes’:
Gregory writes of churches where sanctuary-seekers might sleep on an arrangement of pews and hassocks, although pews were not introduced into church until the very end of the medieval period, and only mostly at the Reformation, and hassocks were a later invention as well.
In general the writing is fairly sloppy and repetitive: there are hundreds of references and reminders of the story of Melusine, the water-goddess from whom Elizabeth Woodville construes her descent – invocations, curses, magical happenings that unpleasantly interfere with the historicity of the story. Historically both Elizabeth and her mother Jacquetta were accused of witchcraft (and the mother found guilty) but to include passages where they call up storms and floods and curses to wither Richard of Gloucester’s sword-arm, invites derision and no sympathy for these two central characters.

To base the narrative in the first person is a crucial fault that gives way to extended “reported accounts” in the third person later in the book. For all the many battles at which Elizabeth is not present, and the council meetings, exiles, etc., the narrative simply gives way to a roughly sketched history or worse still, an imagined vision (magical of course) of what her beloved Edward is doing at that moment. Elizabeth is limited, fatally, narratively, to sit in chambers with her children, endure multiple beddings by her husband, and argue with her mother-in-law, so much of the writing reflects this boredom. And did she really always have to refer to her children from her first marriage as "my youngest Grey son Richard" or "my son Thomas Grey"?

A ‘prince-swap’ (when one boy is already resident at the Royal Palace in the Tower before the coronation) means that the young Duke of York is spirited away to Tournai to be brought up as Peter (or Peterkin/Perkin) Werbecque, but his page-boy replacement is disguised to join his older brother in the Tower - “We’ll say he has a cold or a sore throat. We’ll tie up his jaw with a flannel and put a scarf around his throat.” This would seem to hint at the infamous children’s bones discovered in the Tower in 1670 and re-examined and x-rayed in the 1930’s. The older child’s diseased jawbone suggests osteomyelitis, though here in fiction it is the younger boy only pretending.

Gregory is initially favourable to Richard -

Richard is beloved of all the men. They trust him, even though he is only eighteen.”
and she has William Lord Hastings state (with all predictable irony) – “I would trust young Richard with my life.”

She only attributes the greatest betrayals to Richard's name once the crown is deemed to be within his grasp. She takes crucial significance from the absence of Richard’s wife from London in the run-up to Edward V's coronation - suggesting the coronation was clearly never going to happen - but in historical fact Anne Neville did arrive in London on June 5th, just as fifty esquires were invited to ready themselves for knighting at the ceremony. Later she makes much of the rumours that Richard was intending to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York, and has the young girl admit to her mother that Richard never loved his wife Anne, and felt obliged to marry her. Presumably this is why after his and Anne’s youthful marriage in 1472/3 he appears to have been utterly faithful to her until her death from TB in 1485….

For Ricardian readers one of the key moments comes in the days after Edward IV’s death when there are dual journeys made by Richard from the North and the young prince from Ludlow on the Welsh Marches to London. They are due to meet at Northampton. Gregory has Richard marching “faster than they [the Woodvilles] imagine” in order to steal a march on the young king and ‘kidnap’ him from Woodville authority. They are shown to meet and dine at Stony Stratford instead, 14 miles closer to London. Richard is described as arriving with 2000 men and ready to fight, waylaying the royal party en route to London. In history the large body of men was that armed escort of 2000 under the Woodville’s authority marching from Ludlow. Richard arrived at Northampton with 300 northern men dressed in mourning, having already stopped at York to say solemn masses for his dead brother, and pausing again at Pontefract. He was joined at Northampton by the Duke of Buckingham with another 300 in his retinue, and expecting to have the prince delivered into his keeping, in following with his deceased brother’s request that he be Lord Protector during the boy’s minority. On arriving there, Richard discovered that the Woodville/royal party had pushed on ahead 14 miles, pressing their advantage to get to London first with control of the prince. Complex political moves were being played in this time, but by both sides.

Despite the various appalling calumnies that Gregory seems happy to attribute to a previously decent and upstanding personality, as a pro-Richard reader, it is relieving to me to find that the disappearance of the princes is not laid at Richard’s door. It is principally Margaret Beaufort (Henry Tudor’s mother) with the aid of the ambitious Duke of Buckingham who takes the credit, for which I am heartily glad.

To fly the flag for the revision of Richard of Gloucester, I’ll applaud Gregory for this little chunk of defence that raises my rating a ½

“I’ll do nothing and say nothing,” he decides, his voice is bleak and weary. “No one will dare to ask me directly, though they will all suspect me. I shall say nothing and let people think what they will. I don’t know what has happened to your boys; but nobody will ever believe that. If I had them alive I would produce them and prove my innocence. If I found their bodies I would show them and blame it on Buckingham. But I don’t have them, alive or dead, and so I cannot defend myself. Everyone will think that I have killed two boys in my care, in cold blood, for no good reason. They will call me a monster.” He pauses. “Whatever else I do in my life, this will cast a crooked shadow. All that everyone will ever remember of me is this crime.” He shakes his head. “And I didn’t do it, and I don’t know who did it, and I don’t even know if it was done.”

Will I bring myself to read The Red Queen (about Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII's mother), The Lady of the Rivers (more of ruddy Jacquetta Woodville), or The White Princess (Elizabeth of York, married off to Henry VII)? No way.
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