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Book Review: The White Princess

By (August 1, 2013) No Comment

The White Princessthe white princess
by Philippa Gregory
Touchstone, 2013

Bestselling historical novelist Philippa Gregory, whose The Other Boleyn Girl catapulted the Tudors back into cultural currency, has for the last few years been turning her attention to the sprawling, violent generational civil war that formed the fertile chaos preceding the Tudors, the Wars of the Roses between the rival houses of York and Lancaster. 2009’s The White Queen dealt with Elizabeth Woodville, the comely idiot who captivated the heart (and other parts) of tall, gorgeous, muscular King Edward IV and gave him children, including the infamous “Princes in the Tower” and a daughter named Elizabeth. That book was followed in 2010 by The Red Queen, starring diminutive, inhuman Margaret Beaufort, the utterly terrifying mother of the young man who would become Henry VII, the founder of the Tudor dynasty.

Both the Queen novels were superb – as tense as bow-strings and as concentrated as poison, utterly riveting storytelling. They were followed by 2011’s The Lady of the Rivers about Elizabeth Woodville’s crazy mother and 2012’s The Kingmaker’s Daughter about Anne and Isabel Neville, the daughters of Warwick the “Kingmaker” earl. The decision Gregory made in both those novels – to turn from the main sequence of action in order to chase down distinctly side-chapel stories – oddly enough resembles the at times unfocused narrative of the York-Lancaster conflict itself, and with predictable results, as anyone who’s ever read a history of that conflict will attest: fairly lengthy longueurs.

Sharp focus returns with her latest novel, The White Princess, about that daughter of Elizabeth Woodville, sappy, cow-eyed, curly-lipped Elizabeth of York, who was forced by the rival families to marry the usurper Henry Tudor fresh from his victory over Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in the summer of 1485. In Gregory’s telling, the marriage of Elizabeth of York to this squinty-eyed stranger is doubly or triply bitter: not only does Henry’s behavior toward her before their marriage leave something to be desired (knee-jerk feminists will be outraged, but Gregory’s depiction – of both the behavior and its aftermath – is probably photographically close to how things really were six hundred years ago, alas), but poor Elizabeth is still in love with Richard when she’s forced to marry his killer. When Elizabeth of York is narrating her own story, Gregory drolly has her think, “Of course there is an unbearable awkwardness between us.”

Then comes marriage, and conception, and confinement, and eventually a son: little Prince Arthur, who will heal the divisions between York and Lancaster and rule as a new kind of king. The prickly distrust still hovering between Henry and Elizabeth tends to evaporate completely when they talk – haltingly, typical new parents despite everything else strange about them – about the little baby boy:

“I have been going to his nursery in the night time, before I go to bed,” [Henry] confesses. “I just sit by his crib and watch him sleeping. I can hardly believe that we have him. I keep fearing that he is not breathing and I tell his nurse to lift him and she swears that he is all right, and then I see him give a little sigh and know that he is well, She must think I am a complete fool.”

Henry’s no fool; in fact, he’s one of Gregory’s finest fictional creations, hesitant, self-doubting, smart, and as bitterly critical of himself as he can be of others, even his sweet-tempered political bride. What little chance he has at peace of mind is constantly undermined by the rebellions he faces in his early years on the throne – rebellions as often as not focused on some young man claiming to be one of the lost Princes from the Tower, rightful claimants to Henry’s stolen throne. As the novel progresses, these continual challenges begin to wear him down and turn him savage:

“I should have ordered them to kill him then and there. But I thought it would be better if they brought him back to England for execution. I thought we would hold a trial where I could prove him to be an imposter. I thought I would create a story for him, a shameful story about poor ignorant parents, a drunk father, a dirty occupation somewhere on a river near a tannery, anything to take the shine off him. I thought he would be sentenced to execution and I would have everyone watch him die. So that they would all know, once and for all, that he is dead. So that everyone would stop mustering for him, plotting for him, dreaming of him …”

Elizabeth sometimes takes refuge in the sarcastic company of her mother, who can always be relied upon to speak treason with a smile. In one winning scene, when she tells her daughter that Henry isn’t well liked (“He’s not a York king like your father. He’s not beloved. He does not have a way with people”), she takes her husband’s side without even pausing to think about it:

“He has to establish his rule,” I protest. He spends half his time looking behind him to see if his allies are still with him.”

She gives me a funny sideways smile. “You defend him?” she asks incredulously. “To me?”

“I don’t blame him for being anxious,” I say. “I don’t blame him for not being the sweet herb of March. I don’t blame him for not having a white rose made of snow or three suns in the sky shining on him. He can’t help that.”

At once her face softens. “Truly, a king like Edward comes perhaps once in a century,” she says. “Everyone loved him.”

I grit my teeth. “Charm is not a measure of a king,” I say irritably. “He can’t be king based on whether he’s charming or not.”

“No,” she says. “And Master Tudor is certainly not that.”

“What did you call him?”

She claps her hand over her mouth, and her grey eyes dance. “Little Master Tudor, and his mother: Madonna Margaret of the Unending Self-Congratulation.”

I cannot help but laugh but then I wave my hand to still her. “No, hush. He can’t help how he is,” I say “He was raised in hiding, h was brought up to be a pretender to the throne. People can only be charming when they’re confident. He can’t be confident.”

The deft way Gregory captures the quicksilver conversational shifts from irritation to humor and back again is here far more refined than anything she’s shown before, and it shows best in Elizabeth’s scenes with the other women in her life. Later, when her mother has been imprisoned in the great keep of Sheen, Elizabeth disguises herself to pay a visit:

A little door inside the great gate opens. “I want to see …” I break off. I don’t know what to call my mother now that she is no longer queen, now that she is under suspicion of treason. I don’t even know if she is here under here true name.

“Her Grace the Dowager Queen,” the woman says gruffly, as if Bosworth had never happened, as if Plantagenets still grew green and fresh in the garden of England.

The White Princess is longer than either of its two real thematic predecessors, The White Queen and The Red Queen, and even these brief excerpts show part of the reason why: there’s a slightly different kind of writing going on here, more evocative, more languid, at times almost seeming unfocused although never even close to actually being so. Perhaps some of this is studied; after all, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, both justly praised for their stylistic nonconformity, would have been unthinkable without Gregory’s Tudor novels to pave the way.

Whatever the reason, The White Princess is the most confident, sumptuous, and accomplished novel Philippa Gregory has written in a few years. It’s a performance not to be missed.