[Spoilers may follow about the first two books in The Cousins’ War series, The White Queen and The Red Queen.]
Philippa Gregory is wildly popular as a writer of historical fiction. Aside from her credentials (she has a doctorate in history), she is the author of numerous best sellers. One of her books, The Other Boleyn Girl, was turned into a movie. With the fourth book of her series The Cousins’ War coming out this summer, it seemed like a good time to discover her works for myself. The first two books of the series, The White Queen and The Red Queen feature two powerful women who are rivals to the throne of England in the 15th century.
To give some historical background, these novels are set during England’s War of the Roses, in which two rival branches of the Plantagenet Dynasty battled for supremacy. The House of Lancaster is the senior branch of the family and therefore has the stronger claim to the throne, but they face some major hindrances. A war with France is not going well, the Lancastrian King Henry VI suffers from bouts of mental illness, his queen Margaret of Anjou is French and therefore wildly unpopular, and it’s rumored that she’s raising her son to be a tyrant who will make England a puppet of France. After Henry and his son Edward, his faithful cousin Margaret Beaufort is the next closest thing in the Lancaster line. She is The Red Queen and the subject of book two in the series.
On the other side of the war is The House of York. Descended from a younger son of Edward III (who, by the way, had roughly a zillion children), their claim to the throne is substantially weaker but bolstered by some important advantages. They are supported by some of the most powerful lords in England including Richard Neville, the legendary kingmaker. They also have a young, confident, and charismatic candidate for the throne in Edward of York. His wife, the controversial Elizabeth Woodville is The White Queen and the subject of book one of the series. Everyone clear on this? OK.
Overall, The White Queen is a much richer book than The Red Queen. Character development is one of the major reasons for that, but historical reality may also play a role. Queen Elizabeth is a woman from a large family, and her relationships with her beloved brother, her protective mother, and her loving husband are well developed. Her role as queen for much of the book also places her close to the action as intrigue unfolds and kings rise and fall. In short, she has much more of a story to tell. Margaret Beaufort, however, spends much of her life away from the drama of the wars. Valued only for her ability to produce a Lancaster “spare,” Margaret is treated as a commodity. From before the age of nine (when the story opens) she is shuffled from one husband to the next as her fortunes rise and fall. Ironically, Margaret herself is a religious fanatic who would prefer celibacy and who, after the traumatic birth of son Henry Tudor when she is just 13, is left unable to produce further children in her two subsequent marriages.
One gets the feeling that Margaret’s life was truly lonely until she reached middle age. Her mother is a distant, crudely drawn figure, and her husbands are all ill-suited to her personality and ambitions. Edmund Tudor is dead by the time his son is born, Henry Stafford is kind but his unwillingness to fight for her son drives a wedge between them, and Thomas Stanley is a schemer who marries Margaret out of convenience and ambition. Margaret has no friends or confidantes of her own except brother-in-law Jasper Tudor, who spends much of the book away looking after her exiled son in France. Because of this, we spend most of the first half of the book “treated” to long and repetitive internal monologues from Margaret about her special destiny. She knows she has been chosen, she knows God favors her house, she knows her son will be king… but she can do very little about it as she watches three other kings enter and leave the stage. To give you a sense of her distance from the events of the day, when the book’s climax finally comes Gregory is forced to break Margaret’s first-person narrative to actually tell us what’s happening away at battle. For all her scheming, Margaret ultimately has less to do with her son’s fortunes than do the powerful men in her life. In my experience, the first-person to third-person narrative switch never goes smoothly, and this book is no exception.
Aside from the uneven character development, the books also don’t match up in their use of magic realism. In Gregory’s fictionalized England, the women of both houses have a higher power on their side. The Woodville women are allegedly descended from the ancient river god Melusenia and practice witchcraft when threatened. The “witchcraft” legends were most likely started by jealous rivals who couldn’t understand how a common woman like Elizabeth Woodville snared the love of a king, but Gregory runs with it. In The White Queen the gifts of Elizabeth, her mother Jacquetta, and her daughter Elizabeth of York become clear in times of crisis. The supernatural device is often referred to but not overused, employed just enough to convince readers that some power exists.
Margaret, on the other hand, claims the holy power of God. We start with her having mystical visions at the age of nine and she never drops the thread of asserting her special connection to God—no matter how much we are led to question whether she and her son are really favored. Her assertions of signs and visions and special messages become less convincing as the story wears on, and there’s a grain of truth when Thomas Stanley, frustrated with his wife’s ineffective scheming, points out that God only seems to speak to her when he’s saying what she wants to hear. At some point, her fanaticism becomes almost comical: she obsesses about her hatred for Queen Elizabeth, a woman she doesn’t even lay eyes on until halfway through the book, then she enters her service for a decade—even becoming one of her closest confidantes—while all the while harboring various unholy thoughts. When the two enter into a conspiracy together, Margaret is ultimately quick to blame its failure on Elizabeth’s sinful nature. Evidently, no one has made Margaret aware of the sins of pride and envy.
Overall, The White Queen is a richer and more satisfying tale. It’s clear that Gregory’s affections lie more with the women of the House of York, and their tale is better because of it. Gregory herself acknowledges that Margaret Beaufort is a challenging character, and The Red Queen never quite seems to get to her heart. However, I will say that Gregory still succeeds in making this an engaging (though light) story. Something about Margaret draws you in as she repels you, like the evil queen in a classic fairy tale. I tore through The Red Queen in two days. Gregory certainly takes license with history in creating a good story, but I recommend The White Queen for any aficionado of historical fiction. The Red Queen makes a good weekend read, and is a must if you want to continue the series, but expect to be left a little less satisfied by this second story. I hope an upcoming book in the series presents the third act of Margaret’s life in a more engaging fashion. Such a woman deserves a more complete tale than what we have seen so far.