Published by Touchstone
Publication date: July 23rd 2013
Genres: Fiction, Historical
I’m going to begin with full disclosure: I love the work of Philippa Gregory. I first read her novel, The Other Boleyn Girl, and from there was hooked on the early history of England. After several books she completed her narrative on the later history of the Tudors and moved to a less-known time, the Cousins’ War, which preceded the Tudor dynasty. It was also known as the War of the Roses because the two opposing families, York and Lancaster, had roses as their heraldic symbol. York was white and Lancaster red. Gregory’s latest, The White Princess, is the fifth installment in the series and takes readers up to the point when Henry Tudor invades England to become King Henry VII. Much of his life was spent as an exile in Brittany and, as was often done, when the throne was in a state of upheaval after the death of Edward IV, the two families, on opposite sides of the battle, agreed to unite their children in marriage in an effort to end decades of strife. Henry would marry Elizabeth of York, despite their families being mortal enemies for generations and their never having met each other.
This is fiction but Gregory takes the framework of fact and builds on it using research and her extensive knowledge of English history. What makes her novels so gripping is that they are told from a largely ignored point-of-view: the women who were traded and treated as pawns in the massive game of royal succession and getting ahead. In doing so, she gives the reader a perspective previously difficult to find as history has not been kind to the lives of women. We know of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII’s other wives but only in dry fragments. With her astonishing range of prose Gregory takes us into the hearts and minds of not just the royalty and marriages of these women but the relationships they have amongst other women—often the closest relationships of their lives. For Elizabeth of York, becoming queen fulfilled her mother’s ambition after her two sons were taken to the Tower and never seen again. Or were they? Gregory plays a fine game shifting between conjecture and fact to fold the drama of the little princes into Elizabeth’s story. The Tudor reign is precarious at best and her role as consort is fraught with tension, as pretender after pretender tries to claim the throne and she must balance the emotions of her heart (the thought of a brother being alive) with the practicality of her mind (treason and her own life). All of this is overlaid with being married to a man whose mother’s sole reason for existing is that he becomes king. For the loving Elizabeth, this leads to a confrontation with the domineering Margaret.
“You are his commander,” I say. “His ally. But there is no true love in it—none at all. And now you see the price you pay for that. There is no true love in him, neither to give nor receive—none at all.”
The White Princess may detail lives and events lived over 500 years ago but Gregory recreates everything with such vividness that the tension of escalating events is contagious. That, along with her ability to imbue the wax figures of history with the warmth of humanity, makes this the perfect combination of history and fiction. A standout in the genre.