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The Literary Merits of Philippa Gregory's 'The White Queen''

Posted: 10/04/2013 22:52

Now that the BBC is about to air the TV series adaptation of Philippa Gregory's The White Queen, it is well worth revisiting the merits of the book itself.

Set amidst the mayhem of the Wars of the Roses, it is a novel about a woman raised onto the throne. Gregory challenges the set views of Elizabeth Woodville as the widow who married Edward IV - an upwardly mobile Lancastrian, unworthy of her queenship. The author tells us a story of a powerful lucky woman who believed she was a descendant of the water goddess Melusina.

Gregory does not seek to convince us of Elizabeth's deserts than we usually credit her with. The reader is allowed to keep seeing her as the prime reason for many misfortunes that befell the House of York as soon as she became Edward's choice as Queen of England. Warwick's lost affinity with Edward's House, the turmoil in the country, England's complications with France and the dissatisfaction of the King's immediate family and relations were triggered by the entrance of Elizabeth Woodville and her large family of social climbers into the royal court. Indeed, we might even have had a completely different picture to draw of the Duke of Gloucester, had Edward IV married Lady Bona instead. Philippa Gregory is relaxed in allowing her readers to speculate. We hear Elizabeth's own daughter, Princess Elizabeth, throw at her mother the truth of her ambition, mistrust and plotting nature.

"You would rather have the throne than your sons, and when they are both dead you will put me on my dead brother's throne. You love the crown more than your children."

The White Queen makes an appealing fiction about a courageous - though not exactly positive and lovable - heroine trapped in wartime. With sentiments reminding of Gone with the Wind and with decisions that create a female perspective reminiscent of The Thorn Birds, The White Queen is first and foremost a good novel. This is a shrewd woman who knows on which side her bread is buttered and will go far to have her own way.

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The book contains some powerful imagery and effective metaphor. But it is also soaked in Melusina references which often feel out of context, superfluous and signifying little. The first 200 pages go very smoothly but come to a crawl with the abundance of Melusina interludes and at times repetitive language and turns of phrase. The last 50 pages, however, are terrific. The conversation between Elizabeth and Richard III in the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey is semantically and linguistically impressive. It is apparent the author has done sufficient research concerning the controversial reputation of Richard III. The interpretation, the logical and explanatory perspective of the mystery of the lost princes in the Tower are accurate and sensible as far as Richard's involvement in it concerns.

"Think! Think it through. Why should I kill them? Why now? ... I have made them bastards and dishonoured you. Your sons are no more threat to me than your brothers - beaten men."


"... 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. ... All that everyone will ever remember of me is this crime. ... And I didn't do it, and I don't know who did it, and I don't even know if it was done."

The author dwells in detail on the possibly imminent marriage of Richard and Princess Elizabeth. She depicts a real tender mutual love between the uncle and his niece - without any tangible worry about the apparent incest.


"Oh Mother, he is such a fine man..."

"... I would trust him with my life itself - I have never known such a man."

George, the Duke of Clarence, is vigorously vilified in the book, chiefly by Elizabeth. Whilst there is tedious repetitive condemnation of him throughout, the book surprisingly lacks retrospective reflection on Richard and we do not find Elizabeth thinking out loud as to how the "shy, saintly" boy became a vicious usurper.

Despite the semantic and linguistic irregularities in the book, The White Queen is a good literary work that offers some very accurate insights and food for thought on historical matters of this very troubled age of warring cousins.

Published by Simon & Schuster, the book is available as a hardback, Audio CD and Pocket paperback from the publishers as well as other stores. I'd recommend getting a hardback if you go for the print version as the small type on grey paper in the Pocket paperback is a pain to the eye.

 

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