Literature Matters: The White Queen

The White Queen by Philippa Gregory, World Book Night edition, 2013

I only read this book because my local library gave me a free copy on World Book Night – and by the time I’d finished, I was sincerely glad I hadn’t paid for it.

The underlying story is good (based on the incredible life of Elizabeth Woodville, Queen of Edward IV, it could hardly be anything else); and two pages of bibliographic references show that the author has done her homework. That she has drawn from some of the more lurid sources isn’t surprising – this is, after all, a romantic novel – thus we see Elizabeth waylaying Edward for their first meeting as a supplicant clutching the hands of her two little boys; and shortly after, the hackneyed ‘death before dishonour’ scene in which she grabs his dagger and threatens to cut her throat rather than be seduced. The heroine and her mother are both shown as practising witches, capable of whistling up storms, causing Richard of Gloucester to lose the use of his arm and, of course, ensnaring Edward; and throughout, Elizabeth harks back to her supposed descent from the French water-goddess Melusina. (The legend of Melusina and her ducal lover crops up periodically, in passages intended to echo Elizabeth and Edward’s relationship. I found these chokingly annoying, but luckily they appear in italics so can be easily spotted and skipped without detriment to the main narrative).

The bulk of the story is told in the first person, present tense, by Elizabeth Woodville. This gives The White Queen a certain freshness and immediacy, although the style is difficult to carry off plausibly in this genre, and I wasn’t overly impressed by Gregory’s attempt. The early chapters are riddled with references to Edward as a ‘boy’; and while he might have been five years Elizabeth’s junior, I can’t imagine her (or any 15th century lady) using the term for a man well into his majority – let alone for a proven warrior who had reigned as king for three years by the time the story starts. Much of the dialogue is clunky and full of over-explication; this may be necessary to communicate the background history to the reader, but it makes for some pretty unlikely conversations between characters of the time. And Gregory wins my personal award for ‘Most Excruciating Bit of Dialogue in Any Historical Novel’ with Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford’s remark to Cecily, Duchess of York, regarding the latter’s son George, Duke of Clarence: ‘…what would one call him?’ She pauses to wonder what one would call Cecily’s favourite son, then she finds the words: ‘An utter numpty.’ Unbelievable! Bad enough to employ such a grotesque anachronism; even worse to deliberately draw attention to it as though it’s clever and funny. (I guess Gregory thinks it is; she must be laughing all the way to the bank to have fans who pay good money to read such ghastly stuff).

To me, the best parts of The White Queen were the lively battle scenes (possibly because they’re not told in Elizabeth’s voice), the imaginative resolution of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ mystery and Elizabeth’s relationship with Richard III in the closing chapters. But altogether I found it an unsatisfying experience which left me baffled as to why this author is so popular – she’s certainly no Jean Plaidy or Antonia Fraser. Her graceless prose has nothing beautiful to wallow in, nothing substantial to get the teeth into; her sentences are short, her language so basic that (bar a modicum of sex and violence) she might be writing for children. Maybe that’s the appeal – it’s quick, simple, undemanding bland pulp. But if The White Queen is a fair representation of Gregory’s work, it’ll be the first and last of it I read – and I sure as hell won’t be watching the forthcoming TV adaptation!

Conclusion? Don’t waste your money. Buy David Baldwin’s non-fiction biography of Elizabeth Woodville instead; it beats this hands-down for readability and interest.

16 thoughts on “Literature Matters: The White Queen

  1. I‘ve read David Baldwin courtesy of the British Library and I wouldn’t recommend it Try Arlene Okerlund’s The Slandered Queen instead.

    That Melusine gets everywhere. Turns out she had a bit a fling with one of the Scottish Kings, as well as various French, German and Spanish aristocrats

    Did you know Elizabeth and her siblings were through their Italian relations the Orsini family of Rome of the English Blood Royal as well as Warwick? True King John is not an ancestor to boast about but they were also descended from Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester founder of the English Parliament

    If you think the book is bad you should have watched the Youtube interview three years ago Jacquette facing execution for witchcraft and only saved by the intervention of Margaret of Anjou who just happened to be living in exile in France at the time. And that was just one of a number of excruciating historical faux pas

    • oh, that’s interesting – thanks, trish. must confess i’d never heard of melusine before – will look out for her now! and the youtube thing sounds just horrible… i’ll be firmly tuned into another channel (or moved somewhere with no electricity/tv) by the time ‘white queen’ hits the screen.

  2. You review pretty much echoes my thoughts. The writing was very flat. And ‘numpty’ leapt out at me as well! Occasionally one can get away with an anachronism in dialogue. This was not one of those times!

  3. Pingback: Royal News | King Richard Armitage

  4. Totally agree with Helen Rae, I was so disappointed when I read The White Queen – This was the first and will be the last PG book that I’ll read, luckily I had borrowed it and hadn’t wasted my money on it.

  5. That sums up that “historical” fiction author’s contribution to the genre, Helen! (I gave up on her in my late teens. Anodyne, purple prose.)

    The Melusine I recall was a witch married to the progenitor of the Angevin kings (who became the Plantagents later). Melusine refused to stay for the raising of the Host, until her husband (was it Geoffrey of Anjou?) restrained her; whereupon the witch flew up and out of the church window, never to be seen again. Which is as believable as the fiction of some author’s historical novels….

  6. I remember reading out of curiosity the Other Boleyn Girl years ago and feeling that it just wasn’t dense enough, coming off more as a light Oprah pick you see women read at Starbucks which was a shame considering incredible subject matter, and this is from someone who doesn’t know much about the Tudors. Then I hear that Gregory’s take on the WOTR includes such deliberate factual errors such as R3 effectively placing his mother in law under house arrest and that old yarn about wanting to marry Elizabeth of York (his actual marriage negotiations with Portugal and Spain, why do people keep overlooking this!?). Apparently Gregory is the worst kind of historical fiction author, when real history is deep in sex, betrayal, and murder she goes fluffy and prefers myth. When real history isn’t, she prefers myth. And then she sells. She sells very well.

  7. Hear hear! I received a free copy for World Book Night too and assumed it couldn’t be a piece of complete drivel. It’s been a very long time since I’ve read something this insipid and self-indulgent. Unbelievable that someone can write in the present tense and make the action both glib and remote. I think Hilary Mantel has spoiled us for good. Let’s hope World Book Night 2014 is more successful…

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