By Diana Gabaldon
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
THE WHITE QUEEN
By Philippa Gregory
Touchstone. 415 pp. $25.99
Elizabeth Woodville is not a nice person. She's ambitious, obstinate, stupid and fertile. That last qualification is the only one required to make her a successful Queen of England, but the others help.
Set in the last years of England's infamous Wars of the Roses (so called for the emblems of the competing claimants to the throne: a red rose for the adherents of the House of Lancaster, a white one for the House of York), "The White Queen" deals with the life of Elizabeth, a widowed commoner who married Edward of York (Edward IV) and became not only a queen but one more pawn in the spasmodic, bloody civil war for the English throne.
It's sex appeal at first sight for Elizabeth and the young King Edward, when, in 1464, she stands by the road with her two young sons to stop him and beg for the restoration of her dead husband's property. She is bright enough not to sleep with him instantly, though, and with her mother's connivance, marries him secretly. He leaps from their bed to go fight another battle, thus setting the pattern for their marriage.
Some historical novels come with a map or a family tree to orient the reader; this one could use a scorecard. The men (on both sides of the conflict) all seem to be named Edward, Richard or George, and the women Elizabeth, Anne or Margaret. It's a great relief to find out, midway through the book, that Elizabeth Woodville's mother is named Jacquetta, and one can't help thinking that the eventual winner of the Cousins' Wars, Henry Tudor, was successful in part because everyone could tell for sure who he was.
The first half of Philippa Gregory's engrossing new novel deals with Edward's quest to gain the throne; the last half, his queen's attempt to hang on to it. Consequently, the opening is a dizzying sequence of battles, flight and treachery, during which Edward and his two brothers, Richard and George, raise armies, fight battles and seek foreign support while Elizabeth keeps her head down and gets pregnant every other year.
As Jacquetta says to her daughter, "When a country is at war, cousin against cousin, brother against brother, no boy is safe." On the other hand, a family with dynastic aspirations won't get anywhere without boys, and most of Elizabeth's numerous daughters are little more than names. Only her sons count in this story: The two by her first husband are useful as soldiers, but it's the youngest pair, Edward and Richard (George, alas, dies in infancy), who are the focus of the book's second half. When Edward IV dies suddenly, the little princes are the family's claim to the throne and thus in danger not only from the Lancastrians, but from their two York uncles (Richard and George. Check that scorecard).
Most of the story is blunt, brutal and bloody, but Gregory has a deft hand with historical imagination, making the most of ancient mysteries, such as the fate of the little princes in the tower, the death of the Duke of Clarence and the enduring rumor that Elizabeth Woodville and her mother were witches. The conceit that the Woodville women are descended from the water goddess Melusina (and can thus whistle up a handy storm when needed to keep the Lancaster fleet at bay) provides a bright, lyrical thread of mystery in this coarse canvas, and it gives Elizabeth a little more dimensionality than her role as the Yorks' brood mare allows. The irony of the title's chess metaphor is plain, but Elizabeth is more a rook than a queen, capable of thinking and moving only in a straight line.
Elizabeth is narrow and stubborn, but not altogether oblivious. She realizes what her husband and his brothers have done in their rise to power: They broke the law. By which I don't mean that they contravened some statute, though they certainly do that. I mean they broke the whole concept of law, to such an extent that it didn't work anymore. Edward IV ignored the law of sanctuary and murdered the innocent. Now his wife and daughters may be humiliated, his small sons kidnapped and murdered because they stand between the throne and someone who wants it. Good historical fiction always provides at least incidental commentary on the present (if not outright warnings). In this case, the warning is clear: Turning your back on morality for the sake of political gain will come back and bite you in the bum.
Only at the last, when Elizabeth's daughter (also Elizabeth) falls in love with her uncle Richard (now king -- that would be Richard III, for those keeping score) and naively demands to know why no one in the family can be content just to live an ordinary happy life, does the true tragedy of Elizabeth Woodville's story become apparent -- to the reader, if not to Elizabeth.
Gabaldon is the author of the Outlander series, including the new novel, "An Echo in the Bone," to be published in September.