I was delighted to have the opportunity to read this novel, the first of Philippa Gregory's much anticipated trilogy set during the time of the Wars of the Roses when the Houses of Lancaster and York fought throughout England to establish their rival claims to the English crown. The above quote from Shakespeare's cycle of history plays about the Wars of the Roses came often to my thoughts when reading this novel and highlights the turmoil and shifting loyalties of the period.
The white queen of the title and narrator is Elizabeth Woodville, the young widow of the Lancastrian supporter, Sir John Grey. Her ambitious mother, Jacquette of Luxembourg, encourages her to catch the eye of the young Yorkist claimant to the throne, utilising her skills in witchcraft to assist Elizabeth with the match. Edward of York is captivated by Elizabeth's beauty and they subsequently marry in secret. Elizabeth becomes his Queen consort when he has secured his claim as Edward IV, giving birth to ten children including the two princes who were imprisoned in the Tower of London and whose fate remains one of history's greatest mysteries.
I feel that Gregory has done a superb job of bringing the principle characters vividly to life and capturing the ambiance of the late medieval period. Her earlier works, such as The Other Boleyn Girl, were more centred on court intrigues; whereas The White Queen is set in a time of a savage civil war between noble families where cousins and even brothers took arms against each other. I thought that Gregory did very well in describing the battle scenes as well as the consequences of war upon the land and the common people. It is quite heartbreaking in places. Her research was obviously extensive and she utilises her storytelling skills to present this complex period in English history in a very accessible way.
I also appreciated the way in which Gregory interwove the legend of the fairy-woman/water goddess, Melusine with Elizabeth's story as indeed her mother's family did claim to be descended from Melusine's line. Gregory's use of myth, magic and witchcraft throughout the novel brought a powerful extra dimension to the story, even though I expect this may prove a point of controversy with some critics and readers.
Overall, an excellent book that I found almost impossible to put down and leaves me wanting the next in the series. I would predict that this will be considered as Gregory's best work to date as it combines solid research with a confident and vigorous style that draws the reader quickly into its fascinating tale. Certainly this is a 'must read' for lovers of historical fiction and one to delight Gregory's many fans.
The ARC cover was very attractive with its red and white roses and the question underneath each:' Which House will you choose?'. Well I can quite unreservedly say that I am a Yorkist and that my ancestors on my mother's side were unwavering in their support of the House of York. My thanks to jawastew for permission to share her scan of the ARC cover art.
Note: Waterstones Booksellers in the UK are offering an exclusive edition with extras and cover featuring Elizabeth's famous portrait. Here is link to pre-order page.
The Wars of the Roses - web site dedicated to this period.
Excellent review of 'The White Queen' by jawastew (mild spoilers towards the end).