Is Elizabeth Woodville Philippa Gregory’s Apology to Anne Boleyn?

ElizabethIn “Having it All in the Fifteenth Century” I looked at the first episode of BBC/Starz’ “The White Queen” as a 21st century fantasy played out through the ever-flexible genre of the historical drama.  In the world of Elizabeth Woodville the would-be rapists turn out to be tender royal husbands, mom and dad tease each other affectionately across the dinner table, and family ambitions never descend into ruthless scheming.  A little white magic, yes—but no evil motives.  Family life is as cozily domestic as in a Jane Austen novel, as Jacquetta (Janet McTeer) delightedly plans which daughter should marry which royal prospect and Baron Rivers (Robert Pugh) looks on with tolerant amusement.  Its every girl’s dream family—supportive mom, loving dad, protective brothers.

It could even get kind of boring, were it not for the Woodville’s enemies:  Lord Warwick (James Frain), who I’m sure would be in a better mood after a decent shave (preferably by Sweeney Todd), and Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale, an attractive actress elsewhere, here she reminds me Margaret Hamilton as the wicked witch of the west in Wizard of Oz.) Even at this early stage, Beaufort is beginning to look as though she needs to be locked up in the attic, providing no little support to Kyra Kramer’s theory that Henry VIII’s personality problems were genetic.

This world of fairytale heroines and plotting relatives is the stuff of archetypal pleasure, as delicious as a bedtime story and a nice escape from the complexity of real life, where the villains are often clean-shaven and the rapists are rarely marriage material.  It’s also, as I suggested in “Having It All in the Fifteenth Century,” very much a female fantasy—unlike “The Tudors,” for example, a much better written show, but one whose creator and head-writer Michael Hirst had to be poked and prodded by Natalie Dormer to turn Anne Boleyn into someone with whom women could identify.

Elizabeth and EdwardWatching episode two, I was especially struck by how much Edward IV-as-dream-husband (at least at this point in the series) seemed to be constructed as the very opposite of Henry VIII in “The Tudors,” whose tenderness toward Anne declines steeply once he’s caught her, and plunges disastrously when the desired male heir does not appear.  Of course, “The Tudors” is not alone in this—for this is the story countless historians, novelists, and film-makers have told about Henry and Anne’s post-marriage relationship, basing their narratives largely on the not-exactly neutral reports of Eustace Chapuys.  In fact, we don’t know much more about Anne and Henry’s intimate life together than we do about Elizabeth Woodville’s and Edward’s—except that Elizabeth and Edward produced many children and had a long life together, and Anne and Henry…. well, we all know how that ended.  In between the beginnings and endings of both relationships, the cultural imagination, wending its way through different eras and different agendas, has filled in the dots according to fantasy and fable.

Edward and babyThe story of Queen Elizabeth’s birth, for example, although challenged by the most responsible historians, almost always has the Henry bitterly disappointed and beginning to simmer with anger at the birth of a girl.  Edward’s reaction, in “The White Queen” is virtually the mirror image.  Presented with his firstborn girl, the briefest flicker of disappointment crosses his face.  But he is quick to reassure Elizabeth, drenched with sweat and anxiously promising him that the next will be a boy, “You’re so lovely; I cannot do without you,” as he lovingly nuzzles the baby. The next scene, meant to be three years later, shows Elizabeth happily herding three little daughters through court and field.  And Edward’s tender love for his wife (you can tell from the sincerity of his kisses) has clearly not abated, despite the fact that her womb had yet to prove itself heir-friendly.

Jacquetta and ElizElizabeth’s life (in “The White Queen”) would be envied by Anne Boleyn (in “The Tudors”) in other ways, too.  In “The Tudors” Anne is coldly manipulated and used as a sexual lure for her father’s ambitions.  In “The White Queen” it is Jacquetta who is the ambitious one, but protectively, like a mother hen, with her daughter’s future in mind and never at the expense of Elizabeth’s honor or agency.  Baron Rivers, on his part, is just a big cuddle-bunny: “You’ll always be my Elizabeth,” he tells his daughter more than once, before he is cruelly eliminated by Warwick. Papa Boleyn, in contrast, remains cowardly and coldly detached as his own children are put to death.

scheming womenIt’s fascinating to consider the fact that the same writer who gave us the nastiest Anne Boleyn since Nicholas Sander went on to create Elizabeth Woodville—and gave her a family and husband befitting her goodness.  You might think her the direct descendant (imagination-wise) of Gregory’s virtuous Mary Boleyn—except Mary had no ambitions, which created a problem for Gregory’s famous claims to being a feminist writer.   “The Other Boleyn Girl” punishes female ambition and rewards more modest aspirations to a non-royal home and hearth.  So far, that isn’t the case in “The White Queen.”  Indeed, at times, Gregory seems to use her characters to explicitly oppose that formula—by having the arch-villain Warwick, for example, represent it.  In one arresting scene, he startles Elizabeth: “Burn her!” he orders a servant carrying Margaret of Anjou’s portrait; “I have no truck with a queen who seeks to rule her husband. There’s no need for scheming women here.”  (Elizabeth, for a second, thinks the “Burn her!” is meant to refer to her; it’s a great touch, and one of the few truly fresh moments in the episode.)

Of course, there will be scheming women.  What fairy-tale can do without them?  But for the time being, at least, Elizabeth, adoring husband by her side, rules.   Ah, Anne, would that you had been so lucky.

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19 responses to “Is Elizabeth Woodville Philippa Gregory’s Apology to Anne Boleyn?

  1. Wait until you get further into it and see how Gregory takes other women in this world and turns them into villains — most especially Margaret Beaufort. Sigh.

  2. Yes, I’m expecting that….You can see it happening already!

  3. I wonder if Gregory thinks PMS was more universal and extreme in the past? Would that explain the sudden and nearly random acts of evil by her female characters? Witchcraft via progesterone?

  4. Susan, you nailed it; such happy, happy, great-looking families:)

  5. Peggy West

    Margaret Beaufort is the woman who interests me the most in The White Queen. She is ambitious for her son to the point where her ambition borders on a portrayal of paranoia. Oh come on! Ambitious women are mentally ill? What a modern interpretation. Margaret Beaufort did what any woman of the times would do — she protected her son’s claim to the throne and he certainly had one. I love how Henry VI’s insanity just makes him a space cadet on a horse yet Margaret’s “insanity” propels her into action and I like that modern twist. But that Edward IV — isn’t he just the most sensitive guy? I am truly enjoying the show, though, which does a good job at representing the vulnerable position the Woodvilles were in and how rightfully scared Elizabeth becomes. What is Warwick’s real problem or is he still mad that Edward married down?

    • Warwick needs a shave, that’s his problem. A nice refreshing splash of after-shave and he’ll see the world in a different light.

      But seriously….Even though I am deliberately not reading any blogs or reviews from UK folks, who have seen the whole thing….It’s pretty clear that Beaufort is going to become the repository of female wickedness in this one. It will be interesting to chart that leaking out and blossoming!

      Love your comment about Henry VI! And so glad you “get” my sarcasm about Henry IV’s as perfect boyfriend.

  6. Gael

    How are they going to explain the fact that lovey-dovey Edward was one of the most notoriously womanizing kings ever, with a number of infamous mistresses (hello, Jane Shore!) and bastards, at least one of whom became important in the Tudor era (Arthur Plantagenet)?

    • Peggy West

      I don’t think that is going to be explained because so far (I’m only going into Episode 3), Edward is the greatest guy ever to have lived. He’s a medieval Dr. Phil! The White Queen seems to be a portrait of the most functional family, when, in fact, things fall apart around them, just like in real life. Of course now I’m going on a search for Jane Shore, someone I have not heard of.

    • They’ll get into Edward’s mistresses. :P

  7. It will be interesting
    to see how they manage that “evolution”!

  8. Beth von Staats

    Let’s see, the woman marries a man who attempted to rape her. The story line suggests her fate was determined by witchcraft, that her successes in life are more determined by omens and spells than her skills. The fall of her enemies are achieved by her cursing them. I fail to see how this depiction in any way is an apology to the farce regarding Anne Boleyn, especially when Gregory is still pushing publicly the incest agenda. And don’t even get me started on what she did to Margaret Beaufort.

  9. Elizabeth Feola

    It’s also a world where Jacquetta of Luxembourg does laundry and other household tasks!
    I’ve read some fictional accounts of Henry VIII that claim his womanizing and bastard-getting started as an homage to his grandfather Edward IV, that Henry saw him as the epitome of Kings and tried to emulate him in every way- war, women, food. It was interesting and thought provoking.

  10. Beth, you are someone whose opinion I respect enormously, and your comments have me worried that I might not be getting my perspective across in my blogs! It’s probably the result of relying too much on light touches of irony rather than saying stuff in a more polemical way. If we were having coffee together, we would undoubtedly be ranting together about just those things that you mention. But that isn’t what I want to do at this point in the blogs.
    To make it clearer–because of all people, I would hate to have you misunderstand!–my overall point is that this is a fairytale, and as with all her fairytales, Gregory is playing to fantasies, stereotypes, and her nutty version of what it means to be a feminist. Second, I’m taking these episodes one at a time, and exploring where the show is at each stage, trying not to leap ahead to places where I know it’s going, but just plant little hints (e.g. about Beaufort). I know that her “feminism” is going to self-deconstruct. I just think it’s important to understand why this show appeals to so many people, and not just blast away at it from the get-go. (As a teacher, I know that approach only works with the already-converted; you have to take people’s tastes seriously, even if they make you crazy!) My title is rhetorical; I don’t really think that PG was “apologizing” to Anne–it’s just my way of saying that she’s offering a new fantasy in this one. I hope it’s clear that I don’t believe in the fantasy myself! If it isn’t, I will certainly have to write a blog clarifying my other blogs!!

    • Beth von Staats

      My comments Susan weren’t directed at you and your blog, more at Gregory’s portray of these magnificent women. I should have been clearer about that in my response, and for that I do apologize. The woman just completely gets under my skin… but you already know this… lol It really is a shame, because she is a wonderful story teller otherwise.

      • Thanks for clarifying, Beth! I think I misunderstood because of your reference to the title of the piece….It got me wondering whether I was totally mis-communicating….wouldn’t be the first time!

  11. Pingback: The White Queen- Episode 10, The Finale- Part Two | AntiWhiteQueen

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