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By Philippa Gregory. Touchstone. 544 pages. $27.99
Thursday, July 25, 2013
It’s one of history’s biggest mysteries: Who killed the princes in the Tower?
In “The White Princess,” Philippa Gregory introduces a new mystery: Who was the boy who resurfaced claiming to be Richard, the prince who may have been spirited away and is heir to the England’s throne?
Gregory’s latest novel is set just after the Wars of the Roses. Henry Tudor has won and claims Elizabeth of York as his wife to unite the battling sides and hopefully bring peace.
Elizabeth is a reluctant bride. She was in love with Richard III and is of no mind to marry his killer, also the enemy of her entire family. Plus, there’s three in this marriage: Henry’s indomitable mother Lady Margaret has campaigned for England’s throne for him his whole life, and she’d rather be England’s pre-eminent lady, leaving her daughter-in-law in the background bearing sons.
As if the mistrust and dislike among these three aren’t enough, Henry and Lady Margaret are constantly on the lookout for plots. Elizabeth’s young cousin Teddy, a possible York heir to the throne, is locked in the Tower, ostensibly for his own protection. Elizabeth’s intelligent, well-connected mother is harder to shut away, but is always scheming behind the scenes.
Elizabeth walks a fine line in acting in her family’s interests while not angering her temperamental husband and harridan of a mother-in-law. Diplomacy comes easier as Elizabeth and Henry gradually fall in love, and Henry defeats efforts to depose him.
But then comes a threat greater than any other: the boy. Other young men have surfaced claiming to be the rightful heir, but none like this. The boy has the Yorks’ effortless charm and royal bearing. Henry’s allies are switching to his side. Europe’s monarchs offer him help. Worst of all, Elizabeth recognizes his hazel eyes and golden curls, and the bright smile exactly like her mother’s.
There’s room for just one king, and Elizabeth is torn between her love for Henry, her wish to see their son succeed to the throne, and delight that her little brother may be alive. Complicating matters is a curse Elizabeth and her mother laid on the killer of the princes in the Tower: His own son will die, and so will the son of his son. His line will end with a girl. (Sound familiar?)
Elizabeth is a sympathetic heroine; Gregory makes it clear she is in an awkward spot. She bears the brunt of Henry’s paranoia, even as her steadfast “I don’t know” to his questions incites his rage. She must soothe his fears of plots even as she knows her mother is plotting. And she risks being labeled a traitor as she tries to keep the boy alive.
Unlike previous installments of the Cousins’ War series, the lead character is more on the outskirts of the action than in the middle. Henry and Lady Margaret give Elizabeth little power, and her main goal is to settle unrest, not cause it. Compared with her scheming, ambitious mother and mother-in-law, she is docile and passive.
However, Elizabeth is well placed to monitor the actions of the people around her, and astute enough to guess their motives. As the bridge over the divide between York and Lancaster, she understands everyone’s loyalties, betrayals and fears. Her observations give “The White Princess” a psychological bent.
Through Elizabeth’s eyes, Gregory presents an engaging, well-told tale of the fraught years of early Tudor reign. It’s written in Gregory’s typical episodic style, which makes the book slightly choppy, but also makes it hard to resist reading just one little bit more.
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