Tag Archives: The White Queen

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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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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