By Philippa Gregory
My lot in the 2009 Bestseller Issue is The White Queen, the latest historical novel from bestselling author Philippa Gregory. The book is a tightly-organized and well-researched dramatization of the tempestuous life of Elizabeth Woodville, the wife of King Edward IV, the mother of King Edward V (for a little while, anyway, until he became one of the Princes in the Tower), and the sister-in-law of King Richard III. Her first husband was on the losing side in the York/Lancaster warfare that we know as the Wars of the Roses, and Gregory handles it all with spirit and intelligence. The White Queen has no ripped-from-the-headlines plots, no beach blankets or super-spies, and no serial killers (unless you count Richard). Judging from the grumblings I’ve been hearing around Open Letters, I might just be a very lucky young lady.
Elizabeth Woodville was lucky too – at least at first. When the forces of handsome young Edward routed their opponents at the second battle of St. Albans, Elizabeth’s husband, Thomas Gray, was killed and she was left the widowed mother of two young boys – dispossessed, out of favor, and on the wrong side. As such, she could ordinarily have expected either a long and hard life of systematized humiliation as the ‘guest’ of one trusted royal household after another, or a short life ending in strangulation – probably after watching both her boys get beheaded. Instead, she caught the eye of the victorious king and became his queen – which was, we get the impression, the least she thought she deserved. Even allowing for naturally partisan sentiments, the histories of the period tend to paint an uncharitable picture of Elizabeth, and a century later, even Shakespeare can’t quite make her likable, although you can see him trying.
Gregory is our time’s most successful and practiced hand at the same kind of trying. Her 2001 novel The Other Boleyn Girl became a surprise runaway hit, selling millions of copies and spawning not one but two movie adaptations (thus Gregory joins Elmore Leonard in the very select group of living authors who’ve seen the same work in two different movie versions), and its sequels have all exercised droit de seigneur over the bestseller lists. The White Queen represents a calculated risk on her part: will all those fans of Tudor fiction travel back with her to an earlier and inevitably less familiar era of English history?
Obviously, the answer is yes – this book is a bestseller like all the Tudor books were, and for the same reasons: Gregory manages to thoroughly sympathize with her characters, even while she’s presenting them warts and all. Take the scene where the dying Edward tries to wrest promises of cooperation out of both Elizabeth and Sir William Hastings, the celebrated “Kingmaker.” Edward wants them to put aside their eternal bickering and work together to safeguard his son until the boy is old enough to rule England, and he makes them swear that’s what they’ll do. I’ve read two other novels about Elizabeth Woodville (there are probably a hundred), but only Gregory would take us right into Elizabeth’s jarringly human thoughts at that moment:
“No,” I whisper. If I could only get the king alone, I could tell him that, with Anthony [her brother] as protector, we Riverses could hold the country safe. I don’t want my power threatened by Richard. I want my son surrounded by my family. I don’t want any one of the York affinity in the new government that I will make around my son. I want this to be a Rivers boy on England’s throne.
All of Gregory’s characters live as individuals on the page, which was tricky enough for her to manage when she was writing Tudor novels. There, she merely had five thousand earlier novelists to contend with, and she quickly made the subject her own. When she moves two generations earlier and sets her story in Elizabeth Woodville’s era, she has far fewer competitors, mainly two – but what a two! The first is Shakespeare, who gave to all eternity a Richard III who’s a scheming, crook-backed monster, and the second is Josephine Tey, whose The Daughter of Time effects a boisterous counter-blast in favor or Richard’s innocence in the death of the Princes in the Tower. Any Elizabeth Woodville novel must also be a Richard III novel, and no Richard III novel can avoid taking sides. Gregory lays her own stance out plain. Elizabeth says “I don’t believe you. I don’t trust you,” and asks him what he’ll do in the wake of the princes’ death. Richard responds:
“I’ll do nothing, and say nothing,” he decides, his voice is bleak and weary. “No one will dare to ask me directly, though they will all suspect me. I shall say nothing and let people think what they will. I don’t know what has happened to your boys, but nobody will ever believe that. If I had them alive, I would produce them and prove my innocence. If I found their bodies, I would show them and blame it on Buckingham. But I don’t have them, alive or dead, and so I cannot defend myself. 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.” He pauses. “Whatever else I do in my life, this will cast a crooked shadow. All that everyone will ever remember of me is this crime.” He shakes his head. “And I didn’t do it, and I don’t know who did it, and I don’t even know if it was done.”
Anti-Ricardians won’t be satisfied, but at least that’s plain enough. It’s like the rest of this highly professional, highly enjoyable novel: stylistically plain, rhetorically straightforward, infinitely more interested in drawing readers into the life and immediacy of history than in pedantically mimicking period idioms. For a decade, Gregory proved that such a formula could bring the Tudor era alive for a modern audience. In The White Queen she proves that the formula is portable. Who knows where she’ll go next? I’ll be waiting eagerly.
Finch Bronstein-Rasmussen is a lifelong Manhattanite (except for six summers at band-camp in rural Maryland) with a budding interest in historical fiction. This is her third piece for Open Letters.
On to #3, Dreamfever by Karen Marie Moning