Having It All in the Fifteenth Century

  attachment-3Ever since Thelma and Louise clasped hands and took fatal flight into the Grand Canyon, there’s been no shortage in pop culture of fierce women willing to risk it all for their integrity, freedom, or justice.  Has anyone noticed, however, how unlucky they are in love?  Recently, we even seemed to have generated a new genre of crime-fighting heroine—we might think of them as the daughters of Jane Tennison, Helen Mirren’s professionally steely but personally unstable chief detective in “Prime Suspect”—who quite explicitly pay for their power with disastrous relationships, mental break-downs, and infinite sadness.  The heroines of “The Killing,” “Homeland,” “Top of the Lake”—what a depressed, driven crew!  The only female detective with a cozy home-life is steel magnolia Brenda Leigh of “The Closer,” (Keira Sedgwick), who has now gone off with her beyond-belief supportive FBI hubby and whose successor is “Major Crimes”’ coolly contained Sharon Raydor (Mary McDonnell.) That neck doesn’t move—her stiffness is part of her charm–let alone bend to receive anyone’s kisses.

 The twenty-first century, it seems, is power-friendly to women but cruel to their love lives.  That’s an old trade-off, of course; we’ve seen it in countless female protagonists from Joan Crawford on (usually minus the “friendly” part): the price of standing up to men or a masculinistic system is an empty bed.  The difference now is that these women are no longer misogynist caricatures (for that we’ve got reality television.)  Women like them, root for them and feel an uneasy but undeniable sisterhood with them.

 For relief from this grim state of affairs, which makes for powerful television but doesn’t exactly attachment-6feed female sexual fantasies, we must turn, it seems, to yesteryear. Or rather, yestercentury—and a time, apparently, when the would-be rapists were gorgeous and a woman could turn a knife on one without, like Louise (of “Thelma and…”), having to pay with her life.  Wait; did I say not paying with your life?  It’s better than that: tell him off, turn the knife on your own throat, and he’ll find you irresistible and make you queen.

 This is “power-feminism” Philippa Gregory style, and despite a pretty unanimous critical thumbs-down, women are loving the BBC/Starz production of “The White Queen.”  From the first episode (the only one I’ve seen, as I live in the US), it’s not hard to see why.  By any of today’s standards, Lancastrian beauty Elizabeth Woodville/Grey (Rebecca Ferguson), having met with victorious Yorkist King Edward (dreamy Max Irons, Jeremy’s son) to ask him to return her (dead) husband’s lands to her, breaks all the rules: engages in seductive behavior that can only (political correctness be damned) be described as “leading him on,” humiliates him by unceremoniously throwing him off when she’s had enough, challenges his manhood by daring him to “doubt her courage” and declaring herself “match for any man,” and—most envy-inspiring of all—her hair maintains its perfect crimp throughout.  And, oh yes, then she gets made queen.

 “But it happened!” Phillipa Gregory, who prides herself on her historical rigor, might say.  Well, yes, sort of…perhaps.  That Edward wanted to make Elizabeth his mistress and Elizabeth declined, inflaming the king’s desire for her, is well known, if the exact details are shrouded in mystery. Thomas More and Shakespeare both recount the tale, although minus the knife; their Elizabeth refuses Edward (as Shakespeare put it) with a “good manner” and “words so well set.”  The knife detail comes from the Italian traveler Mancini, writing in 1483, but in his version it is Edward who brandishes the knife, and holds it to Elizabeth’s throat.  The knife only makes it into Elizabeth’s hands in Antonio Cornazzano’s “Of Admirable Women”; in that version she does not hold it to her own throat, threatening to slice herself, but uses it to hold off Edward. 

attachment-8Clearly, writers have been playing with this story for centuries, and I’m not here to complain about historical accuracy, but to explore the current re-creation.  “Don’t doubt my courage,” Elizabeth declares, already drawing a bit of blood from her translucent neck, “I’m match for any man.”  Female strength and courage that is as potent as any man’s is a theme that is trumpeted in ads for the series (“Men Go to Battle; Women Wage War”), that is underscored by Elizabeth’s mother Jacquetta (descended from a river goddess as she reminds us several times, even her husband says he is sometimes scared of her) and by the audacity of both Jacquetta and Elizabeth when they meet Edward’s proud and disapproving mother Cecily.  Jacquetta (Janet McTeer) soundly puts her in her place by reminding Cecily of some nasty gossip about her affair with an archer, but little Elizabeth is no slouch either, telling the King’s mother (!!) to curtsy to her.

 Rebecca Ferguson, who plays Elizabeth, was drawn to the role because Woodville “was a woman attachment-7who had power.  She was devoted, strong [and] intelligent”; “She’s a medieval rebel.” Arguably, the same might be said about Anne Boleyn, who, as played by Natalie Dormer in “The Tudors,” also won a large female following.  But notice how differently Boleyn’s refusal of Henry VIII is imagined (by Michael Hirst, whom Natalie Dormer criticized for his male “mind-set” and who later regretted his hyper-sexualizatization of Anne) from Elizabeth Woodville’s, as imagined by two women: Gregory and screenwriter Emma Frost.  Boleyn is depicted as refusing Henry in order to lure him into marriage (a ploy concocted, in the series, by her power-hungry family—and Hirst, of course, isn’t the first to follow this scenario); Elizabeth refuses out of pride in her own integrity.  Anne (in season one, at any rate) is a sexy tool; Elizabeth is “her own woman.” Anne is a temptress (“Seduce me!” she tells Henry, albeit in a dream), while Elizabeth, who is no less flirtatious with Edward, her eyes smoldering and her kisses steamy hot before she throws Edward off her, escapes any condemnation for slutty behavior.   She’s a post-feminist girl; she has every right to get carried away by passion and then say “no.”

 attachment-12My point is not that this is a better show than “The Tudors.” In fact, although I will no doubt become addicted to “The White Queen” (I also haven’t missed an episode of “Dance Moms”), I wouldn’t rate it very highly among historical dramas.  Nor have I ever been a big fan of “power feminism”; Philippa Gregory and I have very different ideas about what constitutes “power.”  I would, however, like to see Carrie Mathison of “Homeland” (Claire Danes) be given some time under a tree with a gorgeous, untormented, exuberant lover like Max Irons’ Edward.  Until that happens, I guess women will have to pay for our fantasies with a ticket back in time, where we can enjoy preposterously bold, “talking back” historical heroines “having it all” with their equally preposterous, strong-woman-loving hunks.  

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14 responses to “Having It All in the Fifteenth Century

  1. Peggy West

    I’m still chewing over The White Queen and the portrayal of Elizabeth Woodville. I’ve seen the episode 3 times and I’m not done yet. (BBC’s The Tudors was hypersexualized from soup to nuts and that the women were so willing was my main point of contention.) Any woman, medieval to modern, who can fight off a rape gets my vote and so do the ones who cannot fight it off. The scene where Elizabeth Woodville fights off the king shows her panic and I like the detail of her putting the knife to her own neck because it is represents exactly the position that women were in. I’ll bet Anne Boleyn had moments of panic and that’s seen when Henry VIII rapes her in the woods. I think about these women of yesteryear and watch the women of this year and future years.

  2. Love your comments, Peggy, but I didn’t see panic in that scene as much as outrage. However, I’ve only watched it twice! I guess I’ll have to watch it again to catch up with you!

  3. Look here, you rotten pair: – this is a TV adaptation of 3 novels which it’s obvious neither of you have read.

    I’m sure if someone adapted your book, Susan, about Anne Boleyn for TV and people judged it on the TV adaptation alone without having so much as glanced at the book you would be miffed – and rightly so.

    I’ve read all 3 of these novels; The White Queen, The Red Queen and The Kingmaker’s Daughter. I’ve also been reading Philippa Gregory since her debut novel, Wideacre, first shot to number 1 straight out of the blue with no publicity and stayed there for about 30 weeks or something.

    For what it’s worth, I love her books. She doesn’t always get it right; almost half the novels she’s written are so-so, slightly off target. The Wise Woman was completely bonkers and The Virgin’s Lover was boring. But when she gets it right, she gets it SO right and The Cousins’ War series falls into that category when viewed as a trilogy.

    I guess at the end of the day it’s just a question of personal choice. Either you love Philippa Gregory’s trademark blend of history, power and witchcraft or you hate it. And beyond that lies the subject matter, the period itself.

    Either you’re passionately interested in the Wars of the Roses or you’re not.

    Either you’re fascinated by the mystery of Richard III and the Princes in the Tower or you’re not.

    I detect, in both your reviews, a lack of passionate fascination.

  4. PS – Anne Boleyn’s era was not mediaeval. I’m sure you know that…

  5. Sarah, I think you mis-read my blog. It wasn’t really about the War of the Roses, or about “judging” Philippa Gregory as a novelist, but about contemporary fantasies and how they are acted out through historical dramas. Philippa Gregory is a contemporary novelist, and her novels, as I read them, are as much about our own fantasies as they are about history. There’s nothing wrong with that, or with enjoying her books! But I’m a cultural analyst, and it’s my job to look beneath the surface of the enjoyment to see the cultural ideas that animate the characters and the plot. Sorry if that offended or angered you.

  6. That’s good, cause I really love your participation on my page. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what people are feeling in this virtual universe!

  7. lori mattos

    I enjoyed this review very much. I have read all the books PG wrote on The Cousin’s War and although I enjoyed them, (and they did inspire me to research Wars of Roses,) I am quite disturbed with her latest, The White Princess. Her unique depiction of HenryVII disturbs me quite intensely. Don’t ask why, I don’t know, but is there evidence he was a rapist and Richard incestuous?

    • Elizabeth Feola

      No, there is no evidence of rape in the relationship of Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York. This of course has to do with our current definition of rape and the definition in the 15th and 16th centuries, where rape could not happen inside of a marriage. Almost all of dynastic noble marriages were arranged, some since birth or childhood of the husband and wife, and there was very little of our current romantic drive towards marriage. People who hated each other were married, and often a family dispute/war was ended by a union of both families (as it was in the Percy/Neville family war), in which case those married where brought up to hate each other and now found that they had to produce children. Of course, women at that time could refuse to give consent, and rape did happen, but not within a marriage, as it could today. Gregory’s forcing of romantic marriages for love onto this time period is not original (Michael Hirst is a great comparison- when you hear women in The Borgias say “No, I will not marry him because I don’t love him” or “I will marry a man of my choosing” you know the actual person never said it), it gives a false sense of disdain from modern feminists, who can not removed themselves from their own life perspective to understand motivation and cause in history. There are a handful of love unions in this time- Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt (post-affair), Katherine of Valois and Owen Tudor, Jacquetta of Luxembourg and Richard Woodville, are the ones that pop up in my mind at the moment- they are the exception and not the rule. Sometimes love followed marriage, but it didn’t always. Gregory is playing into our modern standards by saying that any union not born of love but arranged by outside forces must have included rape, as the woman couldn’t have sex with a man they didn’t love, instead of showing that the women involved would have understood their “duty” to their family and the law and produced children with no expectation of love in their own marriage. The code of chivalry included the love of married women “from afar” and was the only love a woman might find in her life. That may seem sad to us now, but for them it was business as usual. Romantic marriages are actually a very modern concept.

      • Thank you so much, Elizabeth, for your generously informative response to Lori. I couldn’t agree more about our tendency to project modern conceptions of love onto relationships governed by very different conventions. And it doesn’t only occur in fiction. Some historians, for example, read Henry VIII’s love letters without any regard for the conventions of courtly wooing, which could include quite a bit of manipulation and dissembling. Again, thanks!!

  8. Pingback: “The White Queen: Having It All in the Fifteenth Century” in the Huffington Post | Press

  9. Pingback: Is Elizabeth Woodville Philippa Gregory’s Apology to Anne Boleyn? | The Creation of Anne Boleyn

  10. Pingback: ”In war, men fight with sword and cannon. We women, we find our own weapons.” | aparecium

  11. Pingback: “The White Queen: Having It All in the Fifteenth Century” in the Huffington Post | Press

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