It is 1464. The English — after the horrors of the Hundred Years' War with France and after their mentally unbalanced King Henry VI has gone into hiding with his queen — have a new, young, handsome king, Edward IV from the House of York. Out riding with his men one day he meets Elizabeth Woodville and falls madly, passionately, in lust! She, five years older, widowed with two young sons, is unwilling to give herself to the king although she desires him desperately. Within a few days they marry secretly, surprising and upsetting some in the court when they return to London. There may be magic afoot here, perhaps even witchery, in Philippa Gregory's latest historical novel The White Queen.
But this book is neither chick lit nor a bodice-ripper. Gregory, as usual, has based her book on carefully researched English history. Well-known for several masterfully written historical novels about the Tudor dynasty, she steps back in time to tell this character- and event-driven story that sent me running back to Shakespeare's plays Richard III and Henry V and G.M. Trevelyan's History of England. Richard was a younger brother of the new king, and his role in The White Queen is as a gentle, loving, heroic brother. Only toward the approaching climax does he reveal himself as the villain we are familiar with.
The story is told through the voice of Queen Elizabeth (Woodville), who quickly learns the workings of the court and the great business of ruling England. She and her family had been backers of Henry VI, the Lancaster side of the family (the Red Rose). Now that she is married to Edward of York (the White Rose), her entire family changes sides — and she has many brothers and sisters. Sisters must be married off to minor royalty, favorites of the king. Brothers are given lands and titles with grand castles into the bargain. The huge task of waging war to end war had begun. In the annals of English history, it is known as the Wars of the Roses and sometimes as the Cousins War.
As much as King Edward wished for peace for his country, and as much as he wished to stay home with his beautiful queen and his growing family, over the years of his reign he was beset with betrayals, often by those he trusted, and continued unrest by the factions that changed sides with frequency. When pushed, Edward left his queen and family and went to war; he was fierce on the battlefield and, with the queen's family of Woodvilles and Greys, well covered in his warfare.
The queen, however, is ambitious, particularly where it concerns her young sons; one of them must inherit the throne, and she and the king go to extremes to make this so. His brother George meets a terrible end. Henry VI (some said he was the rightful king) endures a similar fate. There are traitors both real and imagined, but the final betrayer is the king's own brother, Richard. How and why Richard's terrifying decisions threaten King Edward, his queen and their two young sons is fascinating to read. Philippa Gregory's writing about the two young princes in the tower sheds new light on this mystery that remains unsolved, since their bodies have never been found. Was Shakespeare wrong? What about the historians?
Readers will draw their own conclusions from this most readable historical fiction.
Rachel Pollack is a freelance writer who lives in Denver.