Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Red Queen and The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

Notice the queens are color coded (okay, there is no yellow queen)
The White Queen was a 10-part BBC production about the War of the Roses that was recently broadcast in the US on the Starz network instead of on PBS or BBC America, the more typical destinations for their costume dramas. It featured the usual assortment of British actors and stunning locations. I really enjoyed it, and was not bothered by the historical inaccuracies and anachronisms--it's TV, not a history lesson. Some critics compared it unfavorably with Game of Thrones, which I also love, and they are right, this wasn’t as good. Who cares? It was still fun, though apparently no one watched it except me. Maybe no one gets the Starz channel; I’m not even sure why we get it.

I had not read the Philippa Gregory books on which the series was based because I usually think her books are dull and repetitive, but in this case I was intrigued by her approach to this material. She wrote four different books from the points of view of four different women who all lived mostly concurrently; these books relate the same (or interconnected) events from each of the women's (often conflicting) perspectives. The BBC took all four books and combined them into one narrative, but I was curious about how Gregory did it so I read two of the four books. The White Queen is about Elizabeth Rivers, wife of Edward IV, and The Red Queen is about Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor (Henry VII; and she never was a queen so what’s with that title?). The other two books are The Lady of the Rivers (about Elizabeth’s mother, Jacquetta Rivers) and The Kingmaker’s Daughter (about Anne Neville, wife of Richard III, shown above in yellow). I doubt I will have the stamina to read either of these. Of the two I read, The Red Queen was a lot more interesting. Margaret Beaufort’s shocking confidence in her own ability to converse with God, and her singled-minded obsession with getting her son onto the throne made her a much more interesting character than Elizabeth Rivers, whose primary attributes seemed to be her looks and her fertility. Gregory has entitled her series The Cousins War, and a fifth and final volume is coming out soon. Called The White Princess, it's the story of Elizabeth of York, daughter of Elizabeth Rivers and wife to Henry VII. While I probably won't read that either, I like the fact that Gregory has taken on this era and story, which is usually overlooked in favor of the Tudors. 

I read both books simultaneously as I watched the show, so I would watch an episode, then read up to that point in both the books, then watch another episode, etc. The show tracked the books pretty closely and the chapters are helpfully titled. I enjoyed myself, though my reading experience is inextricably linked to the viewing experience, so it's hard to comment only on the books. I would venture to say that, without the added fun of the good looking actors, and great costumes and locations, the books would be bland. But you should try it my way: the DVDs are available in the UK now and will be soon in the US, and the books are in the library. 

Tom Hiddleston as Hal. Sigh.
And speaking of the War of the Roses, PBS just finished broadcasting new productions of the four plays that make up Shakespeare’s take on this war, including my favorites Henry IV Part I, and Henry V, starring (among others) Jeremy Irons as Henry IV and Tom Hiddleston as Hal/Henry V. I loved watching these too, though eventually I started having dreams where I tried to construct Lancaster and York family trees in my head. Chronologically these plays come before the events of The White Queen. I wish the Shakespeare series had included Richard III, the events of which do overlap The White Queen, though apparently that play is no more historically accurate than Gregory’s books. So I guess if Shakespeare could tinker with the facts to make a better story, why should anyone criticize Philippa Gregory and the BBC?

(Books 29 and 30, 2013)


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