The Cousins’ War series by Philippa Gregory has formed a major part of my summer reading. Spoilers ahead, but mostly of the history involved, so if you know the history there won’t be much to surprise you.
It’s a five-book series focusing on the war between the House of York and the House of Lancaster, as told through the women involved as major players. If you know about the war, also known as the Wars of the Roses because of the white and red symbols of the houses, you’ll know the names of the English kings involved – Edward IV, Richard III, the princes who went into the Tower of London and disappeared, Henry VII who started the Tudor dynasty on which a lot of Gregory’s previous books are focused. Sometimes the history can get complex, but it’s handled very deftly so that it’s never confusing.
Gregory’s very good at bringing the female perspective to these events – the women in her novels are usually very well-realised, interesting characters who simply don’t have a historical voice because they lacked official power although through their influences – on husbands, children etc – actually had incredible influence which comes through here.
The Lady of the Rivers is chronologically first, focusing on Jacquetta, whose daughter later married Edward IV. I found this one particularly interesting because of Jacquetta’s reported belief in and use of witchcraft, in particular the fact that her house believed the women were descended from the river goddess Melusina, and that fact threads through all these books in various ways. I think Jacquetta’s an interesting character, whose desire for power is often at odds with what she claims to love – her husband, her family, her home. While I think it’s undoubtable that she did love these things, she does also come across as being someone who is incredibly ambitious and if she had stayed at home with her husband, she wouldn’t have been that happy with her lot. She thrives on the intrigue and being close to power.
Next comes The White Queen, The Red Queen and The Kingmaker’s Daughter, which as a trio formed the BBC series The White Queen which was on recently.
What’s enjoyable about these from a reading perspective is that they cover the same time period. We see the marriage of Edward IV to Elizabeth, the ‘commoner queen’ (who wasn’t a royal marriage but a marriage of choice who, by all accounts, was genuinely in love with and loved by her husband – probably a rarity in royal marriages), through the war against the king he threw off the throne trying to regain his territory, and the continuation of the line to Edward’s brother Richard III. The White Queen focuses on Elizabeth, The Red Queen is Margaret, a lady in waiting for a lot of the novels but who is always focused on getting her son Henry Tudor into power as an alternative line, and The Kingmaker’s Daughter Anne who is daughter of Warwick (instrumental in getting Edward to the throne) and later becomes wife of Richard III. I loved that you saw the same events from different perspectives in each book, picking up different nuances and seeing how the houses saw themselves.
I enjoyed these three varyingly, though I think the least favourite was The Red Queen simply because I find Margaret a very unsympathetic character. She’s heavily featured in The White Princess too, and I disliked some of that for the same reason. Margaret’s obsession with rising her son to the throne is understandable but I find it very difficult to empathise with her religious beliefs; it was hard sometimes to know whether she genuinely believed that she and her son were destined by God for the throne of England, or whether she was using this as justification for her actions. The White Queen was probably my favourite of the three because Elizabeth is such a likable character and I loved the romance between Edward and Elizabeth, sap that I am! While other marriages are conducted for political reasons and generally don’t seem to have much affection, there’s something impressive about this couple marrying for love and retaining their loyalty to one another no matter what. In The Kingmaker’s Daughter, Anne is an interesting character because she’s thrown from one man to another constantly – her father marries her to the old Prince of Wales when King Edward won’t do as he’s told, then she marries Richard as a cry for independence and self-determination. I like this idea, but it really is the only independent action Anne ever makes and while this is probably historically accurate, it makes for a frustrating character! It’s also worth noting that although you’re seeing the same events, they don’t become repetitive because of the different influences and motivations.
The White Princess picks up after Richard III has been killed and Henry Tudor seized the throne. Elizabeth’s daughter (also called Elizabeth) was in love with Richard but is forced to marry Henry to seal the alliance between Lancaster and York in an attempt to end the civil wars. This was better again, partly because Elizabeth (2) was a sympathetic character for the most part who showed genuine development which sometimes the others lacked a little; some of the earlier characters seemed to arrive fully formed, whereas Elizabeth’s reactions to her husband and mother in law did change. Sadly, there wasn’t a point where she really came in to her own but again, I think this is historical.
With the Tudor books I always thought Gregory’s strength was in the characters who aren’t as much in the historical record – I prefer her story of Mary Boleyn (The Other Boleyn Girl) to Queen Anne, for example, and the voice of Amy Dudley in The Virgin’s Lover to Queen Elizabeth. In part this is probably because she has some more freedom to invent and those women can be a bit more individual. This is the same here, I think – I much preferred the story of Jacquetta as it threaded through all the books. I did enjoy the first Elizabeth character more as well.
The other thing I enjoyed was how Gregory threads the myth of Melusina through the novels, when she’s focused on the Rivers household of Jacquetta and the two Elizabeths. It seems like a perfect symbol for feminine power, the female river goddess who agrees to become more or less mortal for love, provided she is allowed some authority by transforming every so often, in secret, into her female self. It’s a brilliant encapsulation of female experience in many ways, and I love that it’s apparently based on a genuine belief of the house that they were descended from this woman. It’s details like that which give novels like this a richness and symbolic resonance that I really enjoy.