The latest Philippa Gregory book, The White Princess, is the fifth in her “Cousins War” series and follows the fortunes of Elizabeth of York after Richard III, her lover, has been killed and Henry VII (father of King Henry VIII) has ascended the throne. Forced to marry Henry and prove her family’s loyalty to the new dynasty, Elizabeth struggles with what’s required of her. Comparing her husband to Richard, she finds him wanting – and with reason.
As the first of the Tudors and a foreigner in all but name, Henry has to prove himself worthy of the crown – in terms of his leadership but also his blood. There are those loyal to the House of York who perceive him as a usurper and for the duration of his reign, plot to overthrow him. Claimants in the form of the princes in the tower (Edward and Richard – Elizabeth’s younger brothers who disappeared, believed murdered by Richard III) crop up everywhere – particularly Richard – and folk rally to their side. Scotland, Ireland, France – all collude to overthrow the king. Thus, Henry, raised abroad and under the thumb of his ambitious mother, Margaret Beaufort, sees threats and enemies everywhere, including in the shape of his beautiful wife, who is also the heart of the York clan. This affects not only his relationship with his wife and children, but with his court and people.
Covering at least a dozen years of Henry’s reign and Elizabeth’s marriage to him, I found Gregory’s interpretation of Henry’s insecurity and the possible reappearance of Prince Richard, the Duke of York, interesting. Told from the first person point of view of Elizabeth, you get the sense of strong female bonds, of what women were forced to endure and how often they had to bite their tongue or compromise their morals for their own sake and that of those they love and seek to protect. Elizabeth lacks her mother’s fire (perhaps she observed and learned), but does retain an inner strength in Gregory’s rendition. Though, there were many times you wanted to slap her. How she could love a man like Henry – selfish, needy, paranoid and a “mummy’s boy” beggars belief – especially in the way he is represented in this novel.
That was the least attractive aspect of this book – the portrayal of Henry. He had no redeeming qualities whatsoever – insightless, fickle, demanding – a complete arse, actually.
Nonetheless, Gregory does have a compelling writing style and even when you’re most fed up with characters and the repetition of phrases and ideas continues (occasionally too much and this is a flaw in the book), you are drawn into this world of religion, politics and royalty, and the burgeoning romance at its centre, and it’s Elizabeth who takes you with her on a journey into the privy rooms, court and bedrooms of the greatest in the land. The words unfold, poetic at times, sharp at others, and yes, repetitive too, but Elizabeth’s world and the pressures under which she must operate and find her place are well drawn.
I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I have some of the others and that’s because there was a sense in which Gregory kept telling the same story over and over, emphasising the same characteristics and foibles and concerns of the main individuals as well. There wasn’t so much character growth in this novel as diminishment. That being the case, it was hard to invest in them. Knowing the history and the conclusions to the story of great historical figures does not take away from the reading pleasure of historical fiction, on the contrary, it can enhance it as you seek to uncover how the author reads the times and people involved, the hues in which she paints them. Whereas Gregory has been unsurpassed with some of her books, in this one, she is – perhaps aptly – too black and white – thus the White Princess fades into a snowy backdrop that, ultimately, disappoints more than it gratifies.
Nonetheless, I did mostly enjoy the book and will look forward to the conclusion.
Rated 3.5 out of 5.