The White Queen – Philippa Gregory (& BBC TV adaptation)

The White Queen - Philippa Gregory

Published: 2009, Simon & Schuster, paperback, 409 pages
Book 1 of ‘The Cousins’ Wars’ Series, historical fiction

Setting the scene

It is 1464 in a divided medieval England. Civil war rages between two rival houses, both with claim to the throne: York and Lancaster.

Three years after overthrowing the Lancastrian king, the Yorkist Edward IV still endeavours to establish his rule as rightful king against opposition from the rival house.

A not-so-chance meeting results in a surprising marriage between this York king and a Lancastrian widow, Elizabeth Woodville. The two are sent spiralling down a tumultuous path, a bloody path of unrest and betrayal with opposition escalating treacherously close to home.

Just how far can Elizabeth go to protect her family and their rise to power? Does a mother’s resolute ambition ultimately compromise the safety of her children?

Review

The novel is written in the first-person narrative of Elizabeth Woodville, the White Queen of the title. Typically victimised through history, Gregory ventured to do Elizabeth justice by acknowledging the strength and determination she upheld throughout the difficulties she faced, and she certainly faced her fair share.

We follow Elizabeth down a rollercoaster of a journey, from her humble beginnings to the testing and unstable life she leads as Queen consort to Edward IV. She encounters disloyalty, charges of witchcraft and bastardy, the execution of many close to her and the mysterious disappearance of her two princes in the Tower of London. All that barely scratches the surface of the challenges she faces.

It is easy to determine that Elizabeth is a strong and formidable female and for the large part she is a character we sympathise with. However, I nonetheless found her difficult to warm to, especially as we are introduced to her as a woman who deliberately uses her beauty to ensnare the king’s attention. Her ruthless ambition also becomes a little irksome towards the end of the novel and I was grateful for scenes where she is depicted spending time with her young children, as they make her a rounded character, not solely a power-hungry beauty.

The White Queen - Philippa Gregory

Entwined within this novel of political dispute and military action is an unexpected subplot surrounding an ancient legend. The legend of the water-goddess Melusina, who is half-woman and half-serpent or fish, is recognisable nowadays through its retelling as the Little Mermaid. In the novel, Elizabeth’s mother, Jacquetta, believes that she descends from Melusina and we see her and Elizabeth performing enchantments throughout. The legend is a surprising and enjoyable element in the novel.

One of my favourite aspects of the novel is Gregory’s inclusion of a poem written by Anthony Woodville, Elizabeth’s beloved brother. I thought it was beautiful when I found out that it is the actual poem Anthony, in reality, wrote the night before his death. This is touching because Anthony is such a warm character and it also brings home the fact that this is based on real people and largely real events.

Overall 

Would I recommend this book? Yes
★★★☆☆(3.5)

Gregory’s writing style is easy and informative though slightly too romanticised for my liking. She manages to keep the reader’s head above water in what could have been an all-too complex plot of political tug-of-war.

Gregory set out to bring history to life and she has succeeded in doing so.

TV series

BBC TV 10-part adaptation: BBC One, Sundays, 9pm
(First episode broadcast 16 June 2013, US: 10 August 2013)

The TV adaptation has been criticised for its historical implausibility; despite this, I am enjoying the series. The first episode is impressively faithful to the novel and I particularly like the casting of Max Irons – The Host (2013) – as Edward IV. Irons comes across as charming and amiable, just as Edward IV is in the novel and is recorded to have been in history.

The series is more romanticised than the novel, though this is often the case when trying to draw in viewership. I’m looking forward to seeing how the rest of it unfolds.

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World Without End – Ken Follett

World Without End - Ken Follett

Published: 2007, Macmillan, hardback, 1,111 pages
Historical, romance fiction

Setting the scene

King Edward II is dead. His son, Edward III, takes the throne to become King of England, as speculation mounts around his father’s death.

A knight flees to the town of Kingsbridge armed with a sword, a dagger and, perhaps most dangerous of all, a letter. The letter is buried, though its unspecified secret hangs over the novel.

The arrival of the knight brings together four children sworn to secrecy: Caris, Gwenda, and brothers Merthin and Ralph. Over the next three decades their diverse paths remain entwined as each fight for their desires and aspirations amidst injustice and corruption and all against a backdrop of war.

Review

It is the mark of a great storyteller to be able to grip you through 1,111 pages of evidently well-informed, historical drama. Follett masterfully balances the grim realities of the late middle ages – namely, the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) and the Black Death, a plague the likes of which had never been seen before – with fictional tales of love and torment in the lives of enchantingly ordinary, believably fallible characters.

The novel convincingly depicts life at the time, from clothing to politics, to new ideas conflicting with stubborn traditions and religious opposition, and poignant scenes of despair and anarchy brought on by the the Black Death. This is a novel anyone can enjoy regardless of whether they have prior interest in the era because, despite its persuasive treatment of life at the time, the backbone of the novel is essentially the heartrending love story of Merthin and Caris.

The novel spans over three decades from 1327 to 1361 and follows several plot-lines, predominantly surrounding the lives of the four central characters: Caris, an independent woman ahead of her time; Merthin, an honest romantic and genius architect; Gwenda, a savvy, head-strong peasant and Ralph, a brute, unscrupulously climbing the ranks of nobility.

World Without End - Ken Follett

However, the novel has a whole plethora of secondary characters who are equally brilliantly rounded. From the hardworking merchants and the tavern-dwelling townspeople of Kingsbridge, to the struggling peasantry of the surrounding villages and the calculating monks of the Priory, Follett’s skilful characterisation provides the finest feature of the novel. Gwenda is a particularly endearing character, whose unfortunate circumstances leaving you longing for some change in her fortune. Other characters are so corrupt they are contemptible.

Follett’s writing style is relatively informal and easy to read and he has the art of using short sentences to create tension down to a tee. However, we are regularly presented with strikingly descriptive narrative when it comes to Merthin’s architectural commissions. This reflects Follett’s self-confessed interest in cathedrals and, whilst it is admittedly tempting to gloss over at first, you soon realise that the inclusion of such detail-heavy explanations only adds to the vivid presentation of 14th-century life that the novel upholds.

Overall 

Would I recommend this book? Yes
★★★★★

This colossal novel deservedly earns the title of ‘epic’; despite its size, which could be seen as a negative, it doesn’t for one moment feel like an effort to reach the end and instead it is one to truly lose yourself in. This is thanks to Follett’s skilful characterisation and thrilling plot of love, hate, corruption and obsession.

World Without End is a must-read historical thriller.

World Without End - Ken Follett

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