A White Queen, with a Red one to follow

Panic not! This is not a beginner’s chess lesson, but some intensive historical knowledge would help. A few months ago, myself and the intrepid CB travelled to Alnwick Castle (and hear -eventually) Philippa Gregory talk about her new series, beginning with The White Queen, her novel of Elizabeth Woodville.

It was a packed hall in the beautiful castle. Afternoon tea was mentioned, but not being a tea drinker and seeing the length of the queue we found some seats. The room was full of mainly ladies of a certain age, which probably reflects Gregory’s readership, and the people who could afford the time and the ticket price of the event. (Part of the Hexham literary Festival). The introduction to the speaker was good, except that the sound seemed to have packed up. Given that presumably they have many an event in this Hall, we were unimpressed. Not as unimpressed as Ms Gregory, who refused to utter a word until she was sure that everyone could hear her. She was a very interesting speaker, who had obviously done her research well. She also has a great feeling for the characters involved, asking the what ifs of history, if one of the Princes in the Tower had survived,or if one of Elizabeth’s most admirable brothers had prospered. I enjoyed listening to her greatly, but sadly, even with the addition of questions, she did not speak for very long. It was also quite a time before her new book, The Red Queen, was due to be published, and so she had to speak of that in the future.

When I read The White Queen subsequently, I had to agree that one of the problems of writing of the War of the Roses period is the fact that all the women seemed to be called Margaret, Elizabeth or Anne, which is confusing, as well as the fine tradition of naming sons after their fathers and Uncles. Despite this being the first in the series, it also felt that we had joined the story part way through, with many references to Elizabeth’s mother’s exciting marital career, and some of the motivation of the characters which already seemed to be established and understood. While I must admit to my relative ignorance of this period, I’m not sure that Gregory ought to depend on her readers knowing this period as well as they do the Tudor period which has been the subject of so much screen time. I appreciate that Gregory is trying to write a series of novels each depicting a different character,but  I think it’s going to be difficult to keep up with the time frame. Also, I think that the third novel is about Elizabeth’s mother, which will necessitate going back in time again.

Gregory is a confident, knowledgeable historical novelist. But I struggled to enjoy this novel. I’m not sure whether it was the subject matter (the body count is high, counting battles, infant mortality and missing, presumed dead), or the historical background which I found confusing, but I think it compares unfavourably with the Tudor novels. The characters, especially the central Elizabeth, seemed more one dimensional, and unconvincing in joy or grief. But the biggest defect to me seemed to be the writing throughout in the present tense. While appreciate it reflects how life is lived, it doesn’t admit to analysis of the situation or reflection on what is past, especially when the events are confusing.  I have not gone back through the other Gregory novels to see if that is her normal practice, but I certainly struggled with it in this book. I suppose that when a few more books in the series are written, the jigsaw may fit together and I may understand it better, but I think it will be difficult to hold all the books in mind, especially when there is at least eighteen months before they each come out.

This is a good book and I would encourage you to read it. But it is not as good as her Tudor books in many ways, and I would suggest that it would be better to start with those, especially The Other Boleyn Girl.

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