|Rebecca Fergusson as Elizabeth Woodville "The White Queen"|
First night, first episode of the BBC’s The White Queen, and I waited with more trepidation than anticipation, quite honestly. On the one hand I wanted it to be a hit. Declaration of vested interest here: having written a book (Blood Sisters) about the women behind the Wars of the Roses, if the whole world suddenly went Woodville-wild, it would be good news for me.
On the other, having spent years researching these women, could I bear it if their story was turned into a travesty? Well, The White Queen has been slated in the press, over matters of historical accuracy. But do I feel inclined to join in the chorus of disapproval? Not entirely.
Yes, the series tells the stories of Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret Beaufort and Anne Neville in the highly coloured terms of story. Fairy story, almost, you might say. The point is, that version of events was current by the early sixteenth century.
|Margaret Beaufort, Elizabeth Woodville and Anne Neville|
The series has been criticised for showing zip fasteners on anachronistic corduroy costumes. Rubber soles on boots and visible drainpipes. Yes – but are these the sorts of historical inaccuracies that really matter most? I don’t think so, actually. When The Tudors provoked the same debate, I didn’t mind that the costumes were slightly out of their time. I didn’t even much mind that they amalgamated two sisters of Henry VIII.
I did mind, however, when – in a scene set circa 1530 – they presented the printing press as a brand new discovery, though in fact Caxton had brought it here almost half a century before. That’s where I think the arguments about bringing history to a wider audience fall down on their head: can a picture of the early sixteenth century which suggests the printed word was not yet invented have use or validity? That’s where the price of (as Anthony Beevor put it) ‘histotainment’ may be too high to pay.
But if you ask whether The White Queen commits these kind of sins, then to the best of my knowledge the answer is no – and I put in the caveat advisedly. The sources for this particular period are notoriously patchy – worse than for some earlier ages, oddly – and patchier than ever for the women, who fought on no battlefields and passed no laws.
A lot of what passes for contemporary sources are in fact chronicles from the early sixteenth century, by which time the mythologizing had already begun – but ignore them, and all too often you find yourself with no sources at all; forced to allow these extraordinary women to remain forever hidden from history.
I watched the first episode with my husband, a professional film critic, and half way through he turned to me and said, in tones of incredulity: ‘Is any of this actually true?’ (It’s the same question the American producers asked Michael Hirst when he was pitching The Tudors, coincidentally.)
|Richard, Edward and George|
The series is of course based on three novels by Philippa Gregory, which means that she (more convincingly than the series always shows) had already done the work of turning the sometimes challenging figures of her three female protagonists into heroines for the 21st century.
That job would have been comparatively easy with Elizabeth Woodville, the eponymous ‘White Queen’ - a commoner whose beauty captured a king’s heart. Mills & Boon meets the Kate Middleton story. Margaret Beaufort isn’t quite so easy – though, heaven knows, there’s no lack of human interest in her story. Married off at 12 and a widowed mother at 13, with all her ambitions centred on her one son, Henry.
But much of our information about Margaret dates from later in her life, when ‘My Lady the King’s Mother’ was a power behind Henry VII’s throne. That brings the risk she’s remembered as an elderly battleaxe, famed for her religious austerity. Still, the materials are there, if you slant them properly. Earlier writers on Margaret Beaufort tended to stress her piety and resignation, but it is that ambition which works better today: and that’s what the series is playing up, wisely.
Anne Neville presents a different problem, though her tale is even more extraordinary. A Yorkist daughter married off to the Lancastrian Prince of Wales to cement her father’s unlikely alliance with that dynasty; widowed within months; passed back into the custody of the Yorkists and kept disguised as a kitchenmaid for fear lest her large fortune should get away. And that is even before she became wife to Richard III . . .
But the trouble is that Anne’s is a victim’s story, and if there is one thing we want from our heroines now, it is agency. Spirit, determination, activity. Philippa Gregory says she decided that at a certain point her Anne would seize control of her own destiny; and of course it is possible the real Anne did the same thing. But the scant surviving evidence doesn’t tell us, sadly.
But the tale at the heart of tv’s episode 1 – the oh-so-romantic meeting of Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV under the oak tree? The one that had critics crying out on the absurdity? It’s in Hall’s Chronicle, first printed in 1552. Thomas More’s The History of King Richard III, much earlier in the sixteenth century, already has Elizabeth as the virtuous heroine who declares if she is too low to be the king’s wife, she is too high to be his mistress. And the tale of her defending her virtue with his dagger can be found in the work of a writer who died in the 1480s. It seems unfair to blame the scriptwriter, frankly. In a work of non-fiction, you’d make the point that these writers did not necessarily share our views on the desirability of objective factual history . . . But you can’t put footnotes on tv.
Do I believe the fifteenth century court looked as shiny as a Timotei ad? No, not really; and these bare bodies are so sparkling clean you could eat your dinner off them – something they’ll probably get around to in, ooh, episode 7, maybe. (Or not: there’s quite a lot of rumpy pumpy but of a distinctly anodyne variety. Fifty Shades of White Rose this isn’t – they’ve shot extra shove and grunt for American pay tv.) But if you look at the glowing colours of a medieval manuscript, you realise there’s a potential trap in just heading the other way.
So what about the real first duty of a tv drama – to provide sheer watching pleasure? Three episodes down with seven to go, and I’m enjoying it more as it goes on, and they allow the story to develop just a little in complexity. To allow a few of the machinations that usefully remind us this, at the time, was the stuff of realpolitik, rather than the neat allegiances sanitised by the distance of history. It’s arguable that in approaching the past through the medium of television, you are always supping with the devil, and should indeed use a long spoon. But then, for heaven’s sake, just relax and enjoy the icecream sundae.