Monday, January 25, 2010

The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

I must confess to being something of a Philippa Gregory fan. Having discovered her years ago through the Wideacre trilogy, I have since read most of her books. Lately she has been working her way through the Tudor kings and queens of England, and has now struck into a new historical vein, that of the Plantagenets, the Tudors' predecessors.

The White Queen is set against the background of the Wars of the Roses, a 35-year conflict between the rival Plantagenet houses of York and Lancaster which effectively extinguished the Plantagenet line and gave the Tudors a foothold. It follows the fortunes of Elizabeth Woodville, the queen consort of Edward IV during the late 1400s.

Readers of Gregory's novels will be familiar with the themes: the interactions of power, love and sex, family rivalry and loyalties, strong female characters who navigate with great determination through a male-dominated power structure, and male characters who are either idealized or exceptionally unable to remain faithful to their wives.

On top of this, there is always a thread of magic: typically, Gregory endows her heroines with the Sight, a foretelling ability that goes beyond the merely pyschic, and even with the power to direct events through supernatural means. To me, this supernatural theme always sits a little uneasily on its historical background; yes, powerful women were often accused of witchcraft in the middle ages, but are we seriously invited to consider that a historically documented flood or storm may have been called up by sorcery?

Not that I can recommend Gregory's books on the basis of historical accuracy, having been warned against that by "real historians" who can be surprisingly dismissive of Gregory's research, even though she is no slouch academically (has a Ph.D.) and frequently, as in this book, provides a bibliography for the reader's benefit. Being no historian myself, I honestly can't say how accurate the novels are, but they certainly serve to spark interest in my country's bewildering tangle of kings and queens and the great families that supported and strove against them (often simultaneously).

Nonetheless, The White Queen will satisfy most Gregory fans with its clear, direct writing and compelling first-person-present point of view. The simplicity and short length of many of Gregory's more recent novels (this one is 400 pages) makes them quite suitable for youth/young adult readers and a great relaxation read if, like me, you've been tackling too many heavy tomes lately.

So yes, I enjoyed the novel as an easy, relaxing read with an interesting historical background. BUT. I wish, I wish, I wish that Gregory would return to pure fiction. I really do. Wideacre, and stand-alone novels such as Fallen Skies, showed such a talent for probing the darker sides of human nature and such a broad scope of imagination that I've always wanted more. It's hard to criticize a highly successful novelist on the basis that she should be stretching herself when you're nowt but a humble reader, but that's my honest opinion. For me, these "kings and queens" books are like candy: they satisfy in the short term, but in the long run leave me longing for some meat and potatoes.

So I'm giving this one the slightly damning "beach read" rating, knowing that my opinion will not make the tiniest dent in her impressive sales record. And yes, I'll check the next Philippa Gregory novel out of the library, along with the hundreds of others who put the book on hold. Yet I won't feel compelled to buy it, which is telling.


Claire Dawn said...

Sounds interesting! I've read "The Other Boleyn Girl" and "The Boleyn Inheritance". I am currently working on the "Constant Princess".

I loved the way she made history come alive in TOBG, but TBI wasn't as exciting, and I feel like I've been wading through TCP forever. Maybe it's just because Anne Boleyn was such an exciting figure.

I think I will have a gander at the non-historical works, because historical fiction is really not my cup of tea.

Alyssa said...

I feel just the opposite. I LOVE her historical fiction; The White Queen was the first of her books that I read, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Wideacre, on the other hand, actually made me feel like less of a human being for having read it. It is a filthy, miserable, depressing book in every way. Every time I had to pause while reading it, I considered just sending it back to the library. Beatrice has NO redeeming qualities. At all. I got the feeling I was supposed to sympathize with her in some way, but she actually made me cheer for the "male dominated society" she lived in.
I'll definitely read more of Phillipa Gregory's books, but I think I'll stay away from her "pure" fiction.