Book 71: The White Queen


 "A modest woman looks down in this world, keeps her eyes on her slippers; a supplicant bows low and stretches out a pleading hand. But I stand tall, I am aghast at myself, staring like an ignorant peasant, and find I cannot take my eyes from his, from his smiling mouth, from his gaze, which is burning on my face."

Dates read: July 19-23, 2016

Rating: 5/10

Can we really ever understand anything without context? I've been big into Tudor-era England for years, reading plenty of fiction as well as nonfiction historical accounts centered around Henry the Eighth (and his wives) and Queen Elizabeth I. But until now, I'd read almost nothing about the period immediately preceding it: the Wars of the Roses, with two houses of royal lineage, Lancaster and York, squaring off against each other and fighting for the crown. Philippa Gregory's Cousin's War series begins with The White Queen, an account of the life of Elizabeth Woodville, wife of King Edward III.

I rolled my eyes pretty heavily when The White Queen kicked off with the hoary romance trope of instalove. But it redeemed itself from that sin by not dragging out an endless will-they-or-won't-they in which we're supposed to believe that two adults with serious responsibilities (he as the king, she as a widowed mother to two small sons) would pine after each other for years based on one encounter. Instead we're supposed to believe that these same two adults would almost immediately fall in love and decide to marry...according to Gregory's author's note, because that's what they did. That they married in secret while Edward's advisors were trying to negotiate a marriage to a foreign princess for alliance purposes is a matter of historical fact. But to her credit, Gregory wraps up their "courtship" in a relatively short period of time and their actual marriage (and Elizabeth's life after his death) make up the bulk of the book.

Although Edward was a prolific adulterer, Gregory doesn't mine their relationship for drama. Elizabeth is not totally immune from jealousy, but she accepts that her husband is who he is and his philandering is only a minor plot point. The drama comes organically from the situation in which Elizabeth and Edward find themselves: the leaders of a tenuous dynasty, constantly threatened. Elizabeth even gives birth to her first son, also named Edward, in sanctuary (literally spending months living inside the walls of a church) because her husband has been temporarily foisted from the throne. With a background situation like that, she doesn't need to create problems in their marital relationship for intrigue.

Getting into War of the Roses material does help the Tudor era issues make more sense. Henry's desperation for a male heir is understandable when you realize that it was only with the marriage of Henry's father (a Lancaster) to his mother (a York) that there was any sort of sustainable-seeming peace in England after a generation of civil war. Henry was only the second Tudor king and there were men in England with equally persuasive claims to the throne. It wasn't just his personal desire for a son, it was a very real matter of societal security.

When I read The Creation of Anne Boleyn a while back, one of Bordo's beefs with Philippa Gregory was that she'd alluded to Anne's guilt on some of the charges...specifically, that she might have slept with her brother in a desperate attempt to conceive an heir for Henry and save her own head. But it's not only to Anne that Gregory does this: her Katherine of Aragon is guilty of the charges that she'd consumated her marriage to Henry's brother Arthur, and in this book, Elizabeth Woodville and her mother are guilty of charges of witchcraft that are levied against them. I almost wonder if this is Gregory's way of pushing her audience out of their comfort zone a little. It makes us ask ourselves if they'd have "deserved" what they got, even if it were true. Did Anne deserve to die? Did Katherine deserve the cruelty she suffered at the end of her life? Did Elizabeth Woodville deserve to have her crown taken and her sons disinherited (and disappeared)? Even if it were true?

Tell me, blog friends...what period do you wish you had more context about?

One year ago, I was reading: Suspicious Minds

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