Sunday, January 31, 2010
The White Queen, by Philippa Gregory, is the story of Elizabeth Woodville, the wife of Edward IV, during the struggle for England’s throne between the Lancastrians and Yorkists. Spanning a period of two decades, this book begins in 1464 with a widowed twenty-seven year old Elizabeth boldly standing in the road, waiting for the newly victorious king to pass her way so she can beg for the return of her lands in order to provide for her two sons. Five years her junior, Edward is renowned as much for his conquests of women as he is his enemies on the battlefield. So when he arrogantly tries to seduce Elizabeth, sexual tension simmers as she rebuffs his overtures and keeps him at arm’s length.
Madly in love with him despite her resolve, Elizabeth is swayed by his persistence and they are secretly married. While Elizabeth’s parents view the match as a calculated risk that could advance them in royal society, it is Elizabeth’s oldest brother, Anthony, who doubts Edward’s sincerity and warns her of the consequences. Even Elizabeth herself becomes skeptical, so she is as surprised as anyone when Edward, during a meeting in which his advisors are pushing him to choose his future bride, confesses that he is already married – to her.
So begins Elizabeth’s new life. Aware of how quickly favor and fortune can fade, Elizabeth manages to quickly entrench her family into the royal web of marriages and titles, and thus the Riverses vault into power – evoking the jealousy of those who have been bypassed.
For much of this story, Elizabeth is either pregnant or barely recovered from her latest birth. But even in confinement, she manages to keep a finger on the pulse of the kingdom and stay abreast of ongoing plots and happenings within England. Gregory handles the enduring love story between Edward and Elizabeth admirably, beginning with the sizzling encounters of a newfound passion, and carrying through the stages of jealousy that flare up as Edward’s appetite for other women resurfaces, followed by reconciliation and on to a more mature mindset of the connection that inexorably ties these two together.
At a few points during the story, Elizabeth gives lengthy recounts of some of England’s most pivotal battles. While vividly detailed, they occasionally feel a bit detached in comparison to the rest of the story; however, Gregory manages to unfold a very complex time in England’s history, while still managing to keep the many threads and players involved distinct.
Throughout, there is an interwoven element of witchcraft and the myth of the water goddess Melusina. At first, this component’s relationship to ongoing events may not be entirely clear, but in time it becomes a very interesting twist that adds a unique element to this story.
All in all, The White Queen is a dazzling tale of romance, ever-shifting loyalties, and one of history's greatest outstanding mysteries – the death of the two princes in The Tower – as lived through an incredibly strong and determined heroine. Perennial Gregory fans will not be disappointed, as this is one of her finer works.