Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Cousins' War (books 1-3), by Philippa Gregory

The White Queen (2009), The Red Queen (2010), and The Lady of the Rivers (2011) are the first three of a six-novel series known as The Cousins' War. "Cousins" refers to the fact that the rival royal claimants involved in England's War of the Roses were great-great-grandsons of King Edward III. The rival families of Lancaster and York were branches of the Plantagenet line that produced all of England's monarchs from 1154 to 1485. This series covers the end of the Plantagenets and the beginning of the Tudor dynasty. Chronologically, The Lady of the Rivers should be read before the two "Queens".

Philippa Gregory's approach to historical fiction in these novels, each one a first-person account of a female "insider" in one of the royal families, yields a unique perspective on the events of the day. Interjection of modern ideas leads these ladies, at times, to some contemporary-sounding feminist protests against their patriarchal society, but it would be surprising if the historical characters did not occasionally have similar thoughts.

Those readers who prefer a blood-and-guts focus on warfare and battle descriptions may be tempted to skip over some of the lengthy interior dialogs and emotional struggles of Gregory's protagonists, but the feminine viewpoint is a nice counterpoint to male-centric writers. Also, because the women usually stayed behind when the men went to war, they were privy to all of the behind-the-scenes court politics and juicy gossip.

The Wars of the Roses is fertile ground for historical fiction writers. The Edward III deathbed scene in Conn Iggulden's War of the Roses: Stormbird makes a good lead-in to The Cousins' War, then jumps forward (as the title indicates) to cover the same "Roses" years from the male perspective. Bernard Cornwell's Agincourt is set during the French campaigns of Henry V, father of the unfortunate Henry VI, whose incompetence as a monarch set off the "Roses" conflict.

Also deserving mention and, in my estimation, the best of all the "Roses" novels, is The Sunne In Splendour: A Novel of Richard III (2008), by Sharon Kay Penman.

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. The Woodville family, in particular, had an interesting history.
Score = 4
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes. As noted above, there may not be enough of the preferred history subjects for some readers, but the royal court politics is also interesting. Unfortunately, because documentary evidence is less abundant, that focus requires more guesswork and speculation. So it's "reader beware".
Score = 3
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes. In this female-character, first-person-narrative style, much of the historical action happens in other places, so events are related second-hand to the protagonists. While that detracts from the immediacy of the narrative,  I found no instance where Gregory alters history in any major way merely to serve the story arc.
Score = 3
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
Who knows? For many of these characters, the historical record contains only a few names and dates, so a novelist must invent personalities for them, and narratives to connect them. A good example of how this can lead to very different characterizations is to compare the treatment given to Margaret of Anjou in The Red Queen and in War of the Roses: Stormbird, respectively. Character invention should be a familiar hazard to hist-fict readers, however, and doesn't detract from our enjoyment unless obvious (and unexplained) conflicts with recorded history arise.
Score = 3
  1. Were the fictional or fictionalized plot and characters plausible?
Yes/No. Earthy and perceptive Elizabeth Woodville in The White Queen was much more plausible than the hyper-religious hypocrisy of Margaret of Anjou in The Red Queen. I suspect that some of the author's personal history underlies that characterization.

On the other hand, the plot with its cut-throat ambition, treachery, mendacity and family rivalries was all too believable. I look forward to following this history through the remaining three novels in The Cousins' War.
Score = 3

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