We all know that history is written by the victors, but the matter doesn't end there. History is also written by the powerful, the educated, the privileged. By people who toe--and sometimes the ones who shape--the party line. People of the wrong gender, race, class, or nationality not only don't get to write history, they often don't even get to appear in it. It's one of the tasks of historians to address the gaps and deficits in the official record, but this is also where historical fiction can come in, giving a voice to those who were denied it at the time. In the last few weeks I've consumed two different works that take on the same historical period with this goal in mind, but from two different perspectives. The BBC's ten-part miniseries The White Queen tells the story of the Wars of the Roses by stressing the role of women within them, highlighting the fact that in a dispute in which marriage and succession played such an important role, women's bodies were often a field, and a weapon, of battle. Sharon Kay Penman's 1982 novel The Sunne in Splendour, meanwhile, retells the dynastic struggle between York and Lancaster through the lens of the life of Richard III, whom Penman tries to rehabilitate from centuries of Tudor-instigated character assassination (not the least of which, of course, is the Shakespearean play that bears his name). For two works with such different goals, the miniseries and the novel are surprisingly prone to employing the same devices. They also end up evincing some of the same prejudices and preconceptions, and undermining themselves and their projects in very similar ways.
Based on the Cousins' War novels by Philipa Gregory (The White Queen, 2009; The Red Queen, 2010; The Kingmaker's Daughter, 2012), and adapted by Emma Frost and Malcolm Campbell, The White Queen focuses its story on three figures: Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson), a commoner whose impolitic marriage to the first Yorkist king, Edward IV (Max Irons), drives a wedge between Edward and his greatest supporter, the Earl of Warwick (James Frain), which fuels the later stages of the wars; Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale), a Lancastrian supporter whose son, Henry Tudor, will take the throne as Henry VII, bringing the wars to an end; and Anne Neville (Faye Marsay), Warwick's younger daughter who is initially a pawn in her father's scheming against Edward, and then marries Edward's younger brother, the future Richard III (Aneurin Barnard). Other important figures include Elizabeth's mother Jacquetta Woodville (Janet McTeer), who is quick to take advantage of her daughter's meteoric ascent by advancing her family's fortunes through marriage and royal appointments, Isabel Neville (Eleanor Tomlinson), Anne's older sister, who marries Edward and Richard's brother George (David Oakes) in a failed bid by Warwick to secure him the throne, and Marguerite d'Anjou (Veerle Baetens), the French wife of the deposed Lancastrian king Henry VI, who spearheads the fight to restore her husband to the throne and secure her son's inheritance. Gregory adds her own twist to the story by making the Woodville women witches (as they were accused of being in actual history), who use their powers to advance their goals, thwart their enemies, and divine the future (though not always avoid it).
Equally wide-ranging is The Sunne in Splendour, a 900-page behemoth which follows Richard from early childhood to his death at Bosworth Field. Though much of the book is written from Richard's perspective, Penman gives nearly every player on both sides of the wars (and some invented, minor figures such as servants and ladies in waiting) a point of view, creating a multifaceted portrait of the dispute and the personal, political, and economic motivations that lay at its heart. Nevertheless, Penman's ultimate project with the novel is to present a new kind of Richard III, not the usurper of his brother's throne, or the murderer of his nephews, familiar from history. Her Richard is intelligent, thoughtful, and kind; a fearsome and brave soldier but also an honorable one; a devoted brother, husband, and father whose participation in so much bloody history comes about because of his loyalty to Edward and his belief that he is doing the best for England, rather than personal ambition. Penman stresses Richard's popularity in the north of England, where he ruled for years on Edward's behalf, suggesting that the hostility that greeted him in London when he took the throne was politically motivated rather than a reflection of his actual performance as a ruler; and she casts Richard and Anne Neville's courtship and marriage as a sweeping love story, in which Richard rescues Anne from the scheming of her father (who marries her off to the son of Marguerite d'Anjou, the Lancastrian heir) and his brother George (who tries to get his hands on Anne's property).
Despite their different goals and apporaches, both miniseries and novel suffer from the same problem, which is endemic to historical fiction (not to mention novel adaptations)--they feel less like a coherent work of fiction, and more like a whole mess of events happening one after another. The White Queen's project to retell a male-dominated slice of history from the perspective of women is an intriguing one, but beyond achieving it, Gregory and her adapters appear to have had no artistic goal--a fact that seems particularly apparent from The White Queen's ending, in which the story simply stops after Richard's defeat without any attempt to put a cap or any sort of emotional spin on events. Only a few of the miniseries's characters become interesting as people, rather than as tokens moving the plot along--chiefly, Margaret Beaufort, whom Hale plays with a wounded awkwardness that makes her terrifying, fanatical belief in the divinely ordained triumph of the Lancaster side (and specifically, her son) seem almost endearing. Though there are a few scenes that try to get at the real, human truth of living through this period--when Warwick's machinations force him to escape to France, his daughter Isabel undergoes a gruesome, bloody childbirth aboard ship, and the series lingers over her and her sister's horror at the visceral, inescapable truth of what it means to be a woman, even a rich and high-born one, in this period--for most of its run The White Queen doesn't seem to be reaching for this kind of humanity. Its characters act not because it's what the people their authors conceived them as would have done, but because this is what happened at this stage of the story.
The Sunne in Splendour, too, gives the impression of not trying to be a work of art in its own right, but a retelling--with an obvious slant--of a historical story. This is brought home in particular through Penman's style, which can only be described as artless. Her characters speak in a cod-medieval argot that consists mainly of using the word "be" instead of any of the verb's conjugations ("There be this I must tell you"; "My lord, the King is here! They be below in the great hall even now") and a liberal sprinkling of the verb "do" in sentences where it serves no purpose ("In July, he did sign a treaty with Burgundy"; "I'd not be surprised if the deaths do number fully fifteen hundred"). Which may, for all I know, be the way people talked in the fifteenth century, but if so it sits very ill with Penman's liberal use of modern turns of phrase, such as Richard telling George to "stay out of [Anne's] life" or Anne reflecting, of Richard's mother, that "We all have to find our own path and the way she's found be right for her." The omniscient narrator is similarly confused--some passages are written in modern English, and some replicate the "be" and "do" style. In some chapters, the narrative voice is contemporary to the characters, sharing their assumptions and worldview, while in others, Penman pauses to explain everything from medieval battle tactics to basic household tasks to her readers. In the book's final chapters, characters repeatedly launch into recitations of the various arguments for why Richard couldn't possibly have murdered his nephews, sounding more like a history lecture than actual human beings--which, among other things, draws an unflattering comparison between The Sunne in Splendour and Josephine Tey's 1951 novel Daughter of Time, which presents the same argument with a great deal more style and wit.
Nevertheless, The Sunne in Splendour is profoundly readable--perhaps more so than The White Queen is watchable. Artless though her style may be, Penman writes clearly and concisely. This is particularly noticeable in the novel's battle scenes, in which she effortlessly sets the scene and takes readers through the beats of the battle (these scenes are anyway a point that The Sunne in Splendour has over The White Queen, which has neither the viewpoint nor the budget to stage big battles; one wonders if Elizabeth's magical powers were intended to compensate for this lack of excitement, but if so then either Gregory or her adapters have failed to use them as such). And, of course, Penman has the benefit of her subject matter--if all she's done with her book is to make a story out of history (no small accomplishment in its own right, it must be said) then that history is fascinating enough to make for an engrossing read.
In fact, both The Sunne in Splendour and The White Queen are at their weakest when their authors step away from the task of storying history and try to inject their own agenda into their rendition. For Gregory, this is the beatification of Elizabeth Woodville, who is clearly the favored of the miniseries's three heroines. This is a problem because Elizabeth is, by far, the least interesting character in the miniseries, a fact that has less to do with her role in history, and more with her author's obvious love for her. Though, as I've noted, very few characters in The White Queen achieve a true complexity, most have some shades of grey--Anne Neville, for example, spends most of the miniseries being frightened yet plucky, but she's surprisingly savvy when she maneuvers her way out of George's control, and later unleashes her inner Lady Macbeth when her husband comes within reach of the throne.
Elizabeth, however, is caught in an epic (albeit, to a modern viewer, not entirely convincing) love story with Edward, which leaves her incapable of developing much of a personality. Her defining trait is that she loves her husband and children, and she seems to want nothing more than to be with them and to protect them. Though Gregory allows Elizabeth to occasionally be bitchy to Margaret or Anne, she doesn't allow her to acknowledge the political reality in which she's living--the fact that she is a social climber whose family has benefited enormously from her fortunate marriage. The White Queen seems to have a horror of making Elizabeth seem in any way mercenary or ambitious, and so it paints an entirely unbelievable portrait of a woman who married, for love, a man who just happened to be the King of England, and who is repeatedly shocked, shocked to discover that this marriage has earned her enemies and puts her and her family in danger. The result, paradoxically, is to make Elizabeth seem monstrously self-absorbed, so focused on her marriage that she appears genuinely not to have noticed that there's a war going on and that her marriage has intensified it. In one scene, Elizabeth, who is dealing with a crisis of conscience, pensively asks Margaret Beaufort is she has ever experienced loss--when, after decades of civil war, there surely isn't anyone in Edward's court who hasn't experienced it, as Elizabeth should well know.
Gregory's love for Elizabeth Woodville, however, pales next to Penman's love for Richard III, and as much as The White Queen whitewashes Elizabeth, The Sunne in Splendour vilifies her and her family, the better to clear Richard from the charges that history lays at his feet. The core of the dispute between the two characters and their partisans is the early death of Edward IV, which leaves a boy on the throne of England. Richard and the Woodvilles immediately scramble to gain control of the young king, which leads to Richard declaring his brother's children illegitimate and claiming the throne for himself, and the disappearance of both of Elizabeth's royal sons, the famous Princes in the Tower. If you want to make one of the parties in this final stage of the Wars of the Roses look like the good guy (and, just to be clear, I think that this is a dubious project whose result will be bad history as well as bad fiction), you have to make the other into a villain.
This Penman does, and with gusto. In the early chapters of The Sunne in Splendour, Penman describes Elizabeth as arrogant and power-hungry, but also extends some sympathy towards her--in one chapter in particular, we see Elizabeth musing about the loneliness of her situation, hated by everyone except for her narcissistic husband. As the story draws on, however, Elizabeth becomes more and more of a caricature of grasping ambition--her dying regret is that she couldn't convince Edward to kill the priest who proves that their marriage is invalid. She is frequently castigated for behavior that in other characters would be considered entirely justified. When Edward tells her that he was already married when he met her, the narrative undermines Elizabeth's entirely justified rage at the damage he's done to her and their children by having Edward comment (and Elizabeth silently confirm) that "We both know I've given you what you did want most, that Queen's coronet you take such pleasure in wearing. Even had I told you about Nell, you'd still have married me. To be Queen of England, I don't doubt you'd have willingly bedded a leper." Later in book, after Richard has seized the throne, Elizabeth joins forces with Lancaster to unseat him, and is criticized by her oldest daughter for being willing to plunge the country into civil war in order to reacquire her lost power. In a novel that spans a quarter century of dynastic disputes, in which at least seven different characters seek to unseat a reigning monarch, and several battles are fought in which tens of thousands of people die, Elizabeth is the only character who is so rebuked.
If Elizabeth has it bad, her family get it even worse. Penman not only puts the worst possible spin on the Woodvilles' social climbing, describing them as avaricious and unfit for the posts Elizabeth wins them, but she also paints the family, individually and as a whole, as generally worthless people. Elizabeth's brother Anthony and her son from her first marriage Thomas Grey are depicted as craven, uncouth, and foolish. They are frequently the target of Richard's, and often also Edward's, disdain, which they accept because they have no sense of honor and care only about money and power. Much like Elizabeth, they are called to task for behavior that in other characters is treated as par for the course--when Elizabeth objects to Edward pardoning Warwick, who has killed her father and brother, Edward dismisses her anger; later in the same scene, when Anthony makes a somewhat possessive reference to the deaths of Edward's father and brother in the early stages of the war, Edward explodes at this perceived lack of respect for his grief; the narrative treats Edward's outburst with gravity, and makes no reference to his obvious hypocrisy. Thomas Grey is described as having "a taste ... for intrigue" for being able to place spies in the houses of the Woodvilles' enemies, a generally useful skill that several other characters in the novel employ with no authorial censure. He is also described as having "the family flair for hating," and later in the novel he rapes an unconscious woman, one of the most innocent and likeable characters in the novel, just so we're clear who the bad guys are.
That Penman needed to make Elizabeth and the Woodvilles into villains is perhaps understandable--though it must be said that Gregory is much more even-handed with
Richard than Penman is with Elizabeth; in her version of the events that
follow Edward's death, Elizabeth and Richard both start with equal
parts distrust and a desire for compromise, but their paranoia, and some
helpful prodding from Margaret Beaufort, tip them into all-out
war. The specific terms chosen by Penman to describe that villainy are less understandable, however, and as one progresses in the novel that choice increasingly seems to have less to do with wanting to rehabilitate Richard, and more with the Woodvilles' class. You see this, for example, in the contrast Penman draws between Richard's honorable good manners, the seriousness with which he takes his role as feudal lord, and the Woodvilles' bungling crassness. Or in the way that Penman repeatedly paints the Woodvilles as stupid and unsophisticated, but never explains why, despite their general lack of ability, they continue to flourish and present a meaningful threat to Richard and his supporters. One almost expects her to refer to their "low cunning."
What I find most interesting about this is how these two very different approaches to their subject matter on Penman and Gregory's parts end up revealing a similar prejudice in both works. The White Queen and The Sunne in Splendour both seem to have a horror of social climbing. Penman addresses this issue in the more familiar way, by making her story's social climbers into villains, and attaching to them all the classist stereotypes that such characters are prone to. Gregory, though she wants Elizabeth to be her heroine, obviously has the same problem with the idea that she might have married primarily, or even just in part, in order advance herself and her family. And so she pretends otherwise, and makes of Elizabeth a wholly unbelievable, and quite tedious, figure, who somehow manages not to notice that her marriage comes with undreamt-of financial and political perks.
In the documentary produced by the BBC to coincide with The White Queen
(which, though interesting, includes too much of the unfounded
speculation that eventually crops up in the miniseries), Gregory says that the purpose of the
Cousins' War books was to highlight the ways in which, even in a period
that accorded them no rights or status, women were actors in their own
right, and often the architects of their own, or their families', fate.
For all my problems with The White Queen, it does accomplish this task,
not least in the way that it charts the boundaries of that power and
the pitfalls of exercising it. Isabel Neville, for example, does
everything that her husband and father tell her to, and ends up as the
most tragic figure in the story because of it. Her death from
postpartum infection is an almost too-perfect encapsulation of the
inescapable trap of womanhood in the miniseries's period. Marguerite
d'Anjou, on the other hand, repeatedly defies traditional feminine roles. We're told that she effectively ran the country when her mentally unstable husband wasn't up to the task, and after he's deposed it is Marguerite who leads the Lancaster side, even riding with her son's troops. For this, she is unsurprisingly reviled. The Yorkists use Marguerite's influence on Henry VI as their justification for rebelling and eventually claiming the throne in the wars' early stages. Later on, it is the perception of a similar influence on Elizabeth's part that motivates Warwick to turn on Edward, and which later convinces Richard that she can't be trusted with the young king.
Between these two characters, Gregory perfectly captures the double bind that greets women when they to exercise power in a patriarchal, medieval system. Women who can't control their destiny end up being used up and spit out like Isabel Neville; women who try to grab as much power as they can, however, end up being branded as Bad Girls, and sometimes, as in Elizabeth Woodville's case, as witches. The Sunne in Splendour plays into this bind without seeming at all aware of it. Penman is sympathetic towards both Isabel Neville and Marguerite d'Anjou but doesn't seem to have considered how their fates reflect the system they lived in. And, as noted, with her version of Elizabeth she is perfectly happy to parrot the view that a woman who is ambitious, who marries for advancement and takes advantage of her position to amass power for herself and her family, is a Bad Girl (though it is interesting to note that she omits the accusations of witchcraft brought against Elizabeth and her mother by, respectively, Richard and Warwick; perhaps she feared that the associations modern readers would draw from a powerful man accusing a troublesome woman of witchcraft
would undermine her pro-Richard argument). But Gregory, who does see this bind, and the system that created it, is nevertheless unable to escape the Bad Girl mentality. She must strip Elizabeth of her ambition before she can make her into a heroine.
I can't help but be reminded of Anne Boleyn, another English queen who appears quite frequently in historical fiction, and who was also branded--by her contemporaries and, often, by modern authors--as a Bad Girl. Anne and Elizabeth, in fact, have a great deal in common. They're both English-born queens of England (Elizabeth was the very first), both women who were expected to settle for being the King's mistress, and instead held out for marriage and crown, and both women who earned themselves a great deal of enmity for doing so. More importantly, Anne and Elizabeth both amass power in the only way available to women in their period who have no property or connections--by attaching themselves to a powerful man. Unlike Anne Neville, who is a great heiress even before she marries Richard, or Margaret Beaufort, who is the mother of a Lancastrian claimant to the throne, the only power Anne and Elizabeth have is that there is one man who considers them special, and that he just happens to be the most powerful man around. (To be clear, this is speaking relatively. Though Elizabeth is called a commoner, her family were minor aristocracy, and her mother was related to the royal court of Burgundy; the Boleyns, meanwhile, were a branch of the powerful Howard family. Elizabeth and Anne could both have made very good marriages within their social stratum, but they didn't have the money or connections to aspire to a crown.)
This is, obviously, an incredibly dangerous tactic. If your man tires of you, as Henry VIII did of Anne, you end up with your head chopped off. But even if he doesn't, if you're the perfect wife, if you turn a blind eye to his infidelities, if you give him many healthy children, including sons (something that both the novel and the miniseries ignore is how much of the Wars of the Roses are driven by the fact that many of the York and Lancaster claimants didn't have children or outlived them, while the Woodvilles were incredibly fertile; to bring this back to the issue of class, I can't help but think that this is what happens when you don't spend four generations marrying your cousins in an effort to keep your property in the family and the riffraff out)--even then, your position is precarious. If your only power comes from being special to one man, then all the other men who have power will not only resent you, they will treat you as morally inferior, as a Bad Girl, for using sex to get power, and for wanting power in the first place instead of being born with it.
In her novel Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel tries to do some of the same things as Gregory and Penman--to rehabilitate a historical figure usually cast as a villain, in her case Thomas Cromwell, and to draw attention to the ways that women used power in periods that officially gave them none, and to the dangers of doing so. Mantel could have made the choices that Gregory and Penman do. She could have made Anne Boleyn a blameless woman in love, or Cromwell a saint driven to evil acts by a conniving woman. Instead, Mantel recognizes what neither of these authors seem to--that to look for good guys and bad guys, and to root for a particular side, in a dispute like the Wars of the Roses is a fool's errand. Instead, she focuses on her characters' humanity. Her Anne is not an appealing figure. There is little romance between her and Henry VIII, and as he grows tired of her and she grows more desperate, she seems to shrivel up until there's nothing left but ambition and arrogance. Nevertheless, she is still human, and Mantel doesn't judge her for her choices or ambitions. Her Cromwell, too, is more than a hero or a villain (though in my reviews of Bring Up the Bodies and its prequel Wolf Hall I've taken Mantel to task for going too easy on him and downplaying his less savory actions). He has many admirable qualities, and though over the course of the book we watch his soul atrophy, and the worst in him emerge as he engineers Anne's death, we never lose sight of the good that is still in him.
It's that humanity that is missing in both The White Queen and The Sunne in Splendour. As you may have noticed, I've said virtually nothing about Penman's Richard, which is because, like Gregory's Elizabeth, he is interesting more for what happens to him than for who he is. When given the chance to explore Richard's humanity--to imagine, for example, how despite his inherent goodness he could have been spurred to terrible acts after his brother's death, one small step after another--Penman instead chooses to present apologia, to painstakingly detail how none of the terrible things that happened during Richard's reign were his fault. The result is a character to whom things happen, far from the magnetic figure that Penman obviously wants him to be. The White Queen and The Sunne in Splendour both have their pleasures (if I had to rank them, I would say that The Sunne in Splendour is more enjoyable, but also more aggravatingly overt in its attempts to push its take on history, which ultimately mars the novel beyond recovery), and both work well as an introduction to a fascinating bit of history. But what they mainly made me wish for was that an author of Hilary Mantel's caliber would take hold of this material, and make some real art out of it.