Saturday, 12 October 2013

Review - The White Princess by Philippa Gregory

This is the latest book in the 'Cousins' War' series written by popular historical novelist Philippa Gregory. The series follows the events of the War of the Roses and focuses primarily on the important female characters of the time. The recent TV drama series The White Queen was based on three of the books in the series. This instalment looks at what happens after the events of the TV show (and the other books), in the aftermath of Richard III's defeat, during the early years of Henry Tudor's reign. It is written from the viewpoint of Elizabeth, daughter of Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV, and Henry's eventual wife (and of course mother to the notorious Henry VIII).

Having read and enjoyed the other books in the series, and after reading a preview snippet of this one, I was really looking forward to reading The White Princess, but I have to say it was something of a disappointment. The book is well written and easy to read, as always with this author, and is well-researched. The heroine is believable, three dimensional and sympathetic. But the story I am sad to say is just a tad dull. Compared to the hundreds of books and numerous dramas/films about Henry VIII, his father Henry VII has had meagre attention. And this book proves why. He was not a flamboyant character at all, a fairly colourless historical  figure who was probably best known for his money-grubbing. So for Gregory to make him the hero in her novel was I think a mistake. She has tried to give him character and make him more sympathetic by showing him as a child bereft of tender care, growing up to be an adult who finds it hard to inspire love whilst at the same time yearning for it. She has depicted his unpleasant actions as the result of this childhood trauma and of his overwhelming fear at losing his throne. But these measures are not enough. To me, he comes across as a cold, uninspiring character. When Elizabeth suddenly admits that she has grown to love him, this statement seems completely unbelievable and lacking in sincerity. How, we ask, has this man who cannot inspire love in anyone but his own mother, managed to make this beautiful passionate woman care about him? A question the author does not really answer.

Not only is the relationship between the hero and heroine rather insipid, the plot too is uninspiring. It is fragmentary and episodic and seems to consist mostly of Elizabeth having babies and Henry fighting off various pretenders to the throne. The events which take place in the reign of Henry Tudor lack the drama of the earlier episodes of the Wars of the Roses. Even the one and only potentially 'juicy' happening of his reign - the 'Perkin Warbeck' incident - is not handled too well. Anticipation for this incident kept me reading, hoping for some sparks flying when Elizabeth and the mysterious pretender met. But there was barely any interaction between the pair and the whole Perkin incident was an unsatisfying as the rest of the book.

The book only really came to life and felt like vintage Philippa Gregory when Elizabeth was talking about her love for Richard III. Of course it's pure speculation on the author's part that Elizabeth and Richard were in love and having an affair - but this is historical fiction, not fact, and it certainly makes for an interesting story-line. And Richard is a far more compelling and charismatic figure than Henry Tudor. I can't help but wonder why Gregory didn't backtrack a little into the events of the earlier novels in the series (as she has done in all the others) and show Elizabeth's viewpoint of her meeting and falling in love with Richard, which was what I was actually expecting of the book. Perhaps the author was a little weary of going over the same ground and wanted to break new territory, but in my opinion this was not the best decision.

The book was certainly not a bad read. Some of the characters were excellent. The heroine herself and the scheming single-minded Margaret Beaufort, obsessed almost to insanity with her only son, especially stand out. There were also some very poignant episodes such as the fate of  young Teddy and the moments of love between Elizabeth and her first-born son Arthur, whom we know is to die young. The 'curse' (which in the earlier instalments of the series Elizabeth and her mother made to ensure the first born son of the killer of the princes in the tower) makes its reappearance here and provides some thought provoking moments, especially when we realise that both Henry Tudor's first born son and Henry VIII's first born son both died young. There is also a lot of interesting and lesser known historical fact within the fiction.

However, although not without its merits,  for me this has to be the weakest link in the series.

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