Philippa Gregory strikes again. This time, the wildly successful historical novelist has moved away from the tried-and-true Tudors and stepped a little back in time to the messy situation that brought the first Tudor to power – the Wars of the Roses.
Possibly the nastiest family feud of the last millenium, the Wars of Roses involved the Lancasters and the Yorks – distant Plantagenet cousins, for the most part – fighting over the throne of England. It all ended with the much-maligned (and also much-admired, in other circles) Richard III. But before Richard either did or didn’t murder the Princes in the Tower, the Princes’ father, Edward IV, enjoyed a brief but popular reign with his controversial wife, Elizabeth Woodville.
Elizabeth is a great character in a story, so much so that I’ve even been compelled to write a short story about her. I’ve never read an entire novel with her as the main character, and I’m glad that if someone was going to take on Elizabeth, it was Philippa Gregory.
Many of Elizabeth’s contemporaries viewed her as a greedy, grasping commoner who ensnared Edward into an unsuitable marriage and used her position to further the position of her own family. The great thing about this novel is that Gregory doesn’t really deny any of that – but she still manages to make Elizabeth a sympathetic character and her motives and actions totally plausible.
Gregory does some interesting things with the rumours, spread by Elizabeth’s enemies, that she and/or her mother Jacquetta practiced witchcraft, and that in fact she used sorcery to win Edward’s heart and hand. She also has an interesting take on the character of Richard and his supposed murder of Elizabeth’s sons – Elizabeth hated and distrusted Richard, so Gregary’s take on him is by no means Ricardian, but she also raises plenty of questions about the worst of the crimes traditionally attributed to Richard.
The only parts where I was pulled out of the story were when Gregory breaks away from Elizabeth’s first-person point of view to describe – vividly and with great skill – battle scenes that Elizabeth could not possibly have known about in such details. That kind of playing around with point of view annoys me, but the whole story is so well-told that it was a minor irritant.
The afterword tells us that Gregory plans to write more about the Plantagenets, and I’ll be waiting for her next book. Thoroughly satisfying historical fiction.