His­tor­i­cal heroine fails to com­pel

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ARTS & LIFE -

PHILIPPA Gre­gory knows English his­tory and she knows how to tell a good tale. But in this, the fifth out­ing in her Cousins’ War se­ries, the famed Bri­tish his­tor­i­cal fic­tion author fails to de­liver the kind of fas­ci­nat­ing fe­male pro­tag­o­nist her read­ers have come to ex­pect.

The White Princess, about a heart­bro­ken 15th-cen­tury English queen whose loy­al­ties are torn be­tween the houses of York and Lan­caster, starts strong but then stum­bles and stalls — leav­ing the reader long­ing for a more com­pelling heroine.

Gre­gory is best known for her Tu­dor Court se­ries that in­cludes the 2001 best­seller The Other Bo­leyn Girl. The 2008 movie adap­ta­tion starred Natalie Port­man and Scar­lett Jo­hans­son.

The Cousins’ War se­ries steps back in time by two gen­er­a­tions to cover the events of Eng­land’s War of the Roses.

The White Princess is a nat­u­ral se­quel to 2009’s The White Queen, which has been adapted into a 10-part BBC tele­vi­sion se­ries (pre­mier­ing Sept. 6 in Canada on Su­per­Chan­nel).

What makes Gre­gory’s his­tor­i­cal nov­els valu­able is that she ex­plores im­por­tant events through the eyes of the women who lived at the cen­tre of po­lit­i­cal in­trigue. Th­ese women have of­ten been ig­nored by male his­to­ri­ans, and it is a plea­sure to read about English his­tory from a dif­fer­ent point of view.

The White Queen tells the story of El­iz­a­beth Woodville, the beau­ti­ful and con­tro­ver­sial wife of Ed­ward IV, while The White Princess tells the story of their daugh­ter, El­iz­a­beth of York.

The White Princess be­gins with an ex­cel­lent dra­matic set-up. In Gre­gory’s story, El­iz­a­beth of York is the se­cret and beloved mistress of her un­cle, King Richard III.

Upon Richard’s de­feat and death at the bat­tle of Bos­worth in 1485, El­iz­a­beth is forced into mar­riage with the man who killed her lover: Henry Tu­dor. Henry VII is a brute of a man and their mar­riage be­gins as an in­ti­mate bat­tle be­tween en­emy houses.

How­ever, this dra­matic set-up does not lead to a sat­is­fy­ing tale. Af­ter the mar­riage be­tween El­iz­a­beth and Henry, the story me­an­ders and stalls. El­iz­a­beth is un­happy and Henry is unlov­able.

There are nu­mer­ous chal­lenges to the Tu­dor reign, in­clud­ing sev­eral pre­tenders who may or may not be one of the princes in the tower — El­iz­a­beth’s young broth­ers who dis­ap­peared while held cap­tive un­der Richard III’s reign.

For about 400 pages, El­iz­a­beth worries, won­ders and waits. She gives birth to sev­eral chil­dren. But she is nei­ther po­lit­i­cally ac­tive nor par­tic­u­larly in­sight­ful.

The White Princess is a dis­ap­point­ing ad­di­tion to a se­ries that brought us fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ries about Ja­que­tta of Lux­em­bourg, El­iz­a­beth Woodville, Mar­garet Beau­fort and Anne Neville.

It is a chal­lenge to breathe life into his­tor­i­cal women who have been ne­glected by tra­di­tional his­to­ries. As El­iz­a­beth of York re­flects in the novel: “It does not mat­ter that in my heart I am pas­sion­ate and in­de­pen­dent. My true self will be hid­den and his­tory will never speak of me ex­cept as the wife of one king and the mother of an­other.”

How­ever, un­like the other nov­els in The Cousins’ War se­ries, this novel fails to cre­ate a char­ac­ter that is fas­ci­nat­ing and un­for­get­table. The his­tor­i­cal pe­riod is in­ter­est­ing but, un­for­tu­nately, this heroine is not.

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