Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Un-Real Estate, and Other Picky Stuff

As I promised myself, last week I got a copy of Philippa Gregory's The White Queen. I did worse than that, actually: I bought a copy. About halfway through, however, I began to realize that I had done my bank account a great disservice.

I didn't finish the book, so I won't review it per se, save to say that Gregory tells the reader that Melusine was the ancestor of Elizabeth Woodville. Then she tells the reader again that Melusine was the ancestor of Elizabeth Woodville. Then, in case the reader is not absolutely certain of this, she has the characters talk to each other about Melusine being the ancestor of Elizabeth Woodville. There are some good bits of dialogue in the book (Anthony in particular has some nice lines), but I got very tired of wading through rivers of Melusine to get to them.

But what stands out about this novel for me, unfortunately, is its inaccuracies. Now, I make mistakes in my historical fiction. Every author is bound to. But is it really excusable for an author who's been writing about the Tudors for years to have Elizabeth Woodville go to Nonsuch Palace, built by Henry VIII? (You know, the guy who had Mary Boleyn as a sister-in-law.) And the errors just kept on coming. In addition to visiting the then-nonexistent Nonsuch Palace, Elizabeth goes to what she describes as one of her favorite country houses, the manor of Wimbledon, which was actually the property of the Archbishop of Canterbury until Thomas Cranmer gave it to Henry VIII in an exchange. At least Gregory didn't have Elizabeth playing at the royal tennis courts there.

OK, maybe complaining about Wimbledon is a little on the picky side. But Whitehall Palace, where Elizabeth also goes? It was known as York Place in the 15th century, and was a residence of the Archbishop of York until it fell into Henry VIII's hands with the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey. It certainly wasn't a Plantagenet palace.

One mention of Whitehall Palace might have been forgivable. But Elizabeth keeps going back there, again and again. I kept expecting Will Somers to show up and start whistling "Greensleeves."

Then there's the unfortunate Countess of Warwick. Following the Battle of Barnet, she went into sanctuary at Beaulieu Abbey, a monastery. Irritatingly, Gregory keeps calling this a nunnery. Monks, nuns, they're both celibate, so what's the difference?

I've grumbled elsewhere about Gregory's claim in an interview that Jacquetta Woodville was tried and found guilty of witchcraft (a claim Gregory repeats in her author's note), when in fact she was acquitted, so I won't bore on about that again. But why must Gregory present the Woodvilles as being Lancastrians in 1464, when they had made the shift to York following the Battle of Towton? Elizabeth's father was a member of Edward IV's council in 1463!

I could grouse at length about Elizabeth and Hastings being strangers to each other when Elizabeth meets Edward IV, when in fact Hastings and Elizabeth had business dealings with each other before that time, but you get the idea.

Now, all of this may sound overly picky. But if a writer's going to praise herself as a meticulous researcher, as Gregory has done, she needs to actually do meticulous research, and that means getting the little facts right as well as the big ones. Giving Tudor-era residences to Plantagenet queens, confusing monks with nuns, and claiming that people were convicted of serious crimes when they were acquitted of them simply doesn't cut it.

Quiz time: Who was Elizabeth Woodville descended from?


Misfit said...

Well to be fair (not really) she did say in her author's notes it was her most fictional novel to date :)

If I'm not mistaken Nonsuch was spelled Nonesuch. Book's gone back to the library so I can't look it up. A terribly mediocre book IMHO.

Lynn Irwin Stewart said...

Susan, do you think, as certain authors become more well-known, they are more likely to let things slide because they think readers won't care as much? It seems to be it should be just the opposite but I just wondered what your take on it is.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Well, she was honest about the fictional part, anyway! Amazon now has the "Search Inside" feature activated, by the way.

Lynn, I think that may well be the case, which is unfortunate because The Other Queen got such negative reviews, even from fans, that Gregory really needed to get back at the top of her game with this novel. I thought The Boleyn Inheritance was excellent, but she seems to be coasting on her reputation now. There were good bits I didn't mention in my main post, like the catfight between Jacquetta and the Duchess of York, but they were too far and few between.

Jules Frusher said...

The book, to be fair, is not in my sights for reading (and probably will never be) but I did have a giggle at your commentary! As for your last paragraph - absolutely! I couldn't agree more!

Literate Housewife said...

Susan, you crack me up! I forgot about the constant reminders that Melusine was Elizabeth's ancestor almost as soon as I finished it. You're right about that, though. Gregory seems to almost always pick one thing like that in all of her books. I wanted to slap her Katherine of Aragon well before I finished The Constant Princess for similar reasons.

I will admit that I enjoyed this novel. I will not argue historical accuracy because I'm not that much of a stickler. I know that people's feelings about historical fiction run deep and the debate is well worth it.

Shannansbooks said...

Wow. I thought I was the only one who irritated about the historical inaccuracies. A lot of people gave it glowing review. Its a good story don't get me wrong but the Meusilina thing made me want to throw the book at times.

Lit. Housewife.. Constant Princess had one repeating phrase that irritated me but I can't recall it right now. I think it was something about wanting to be the queen of England and the daughter of the great Isabella.

Justine Kelly said...

Thank you for this review, Susan. My knowledge of history is focused in the Tudor era, and the inaccuracies found in Gregory's Tudor series drove me nuts. The biggest problem, as you say, is that she praises herself as being a meticulous researcher, yet her books almost always stray from fact. She has even commented that "The Other Boleyn Girl" is "mostly fact" which is absolutely ridiculous.

My biggest fear is that Gregory fans, who don't necessarily know the history, will believe her novels to be mostly true. I think this because Gregory herself often comes out and says that she bases her books almost entirely on fact, and why should readers doubt her? So I'm glad that you are voicing your opinions about the book as a Plantagenet scholar -- people need to be aware of where the creative license comes in.

Kathryn Warner said...

Oh dear, I can't say I'm surprised by Gregory's constant repetition of the Melusine thing - she's not a subtle writer, and I remember in several of her novels feeling like I was being whacked over the head with something, such as the sibling rivalry in Other Boleyn Girl. I feel like shrieking 'OK, OK, I get it!'

trish wilson said...

Well done Sue.

As a matter of fact I've done my bit this side of the pond by tackling Phillipa on her own home turf, her own website in fact.

Just to let you know my own blog is up and running again and the next but one deals with historical inaccuracies. In fact it's been a bummer as we say this side of the pond to discover that both Voltaire and Henry T Ford have been misquoted. In fairness to HTF I have to say that later on he went on explain why he thought that 'History is bunk' though what he actually said was 'History is more or less bunk'

Meghan said...

Wow, this shows you how much I completely ignored all her references to where Elizabeth was going. Looks like she gets the big things (except for that Melusina descent) right but the little things wrong. Disappointing to hear because I did actually like it. I tuned out the Melusina bits personally and should probably edit my review to say that.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Lady D, glad you got a giggle, anyway!

LH, I probably would have enjoyed the book more if I hadn't been researching the same period myself. With her Tudor books, things don't jump out at me the way they did with this one.

Shannansbooks, glad to have you here! I remember the same bit from a Constant Princess--something about Catherine's royal destiny, perhaps?

JustineKelly, exactly!

Alianore, I think I did start shrieking a little!

Trish, I'll check out your latest blog!

Meghan, I think that's fair to say--the larger details were right, but the smaller ones were wrong. Maybe for the next novel, she needs to get a fact-checker to vet the MS for her!

Carla said...

Interesting review, thank you.

Quiz time: I have a vague idea that Elizabeth's mother Jacquetta was descended from King John. Am I anywhere near the mark?

Elspeth Futcher said...

Historical inaccuracies drive me crazed. I understand that one play with history a little bit as long as the operative word is little. This is why I am wary of watching TV shows that are based on this particular era of history. I'm turning off the set after five minutes because I've gotten tired of muttering "Well, that's wrong".

A good story is a good story - but PLEASE, if you're going to populate your book with actual historical figures get the history right!


Mimi said...

I find that the key to Gregory is to read her author's notes and realize how fast and loose she plays with history - she is open about it, but if you aren't reading carefully, you get gobsmacked by them.

Anyway, this looked good, but I'll trust your review. Ay yi yi.

Lucy said...

Hi Susan:)

I just recently got a copy of The White Queen, and frankly after all the wonderful reviews given by the most reputable book bloggers out there , as well as all the talk by book lovers in general-I've heard nothing but positive stuff.

I mean, I do know that P.G. is by no means an historian, but then neither are most readers. Frankly, I can't really imagine an historian reading historical fictional for fact.. I would assume that when they do read any HF, it would be for the simple pleasure of reading a good story- as most of us do. I would also assume that P.G. must have some history knowledge, but I don't think she set out to write a hard-core historical book.

So, we should just take it for that: a fictional read; where fiction and entertainment go hand in hand.
Between you and I, besides Jean Plaidy, I don't know of many HF writers that can claim they're able to combine entertainment, realistic dialog, setting, excellent prose, detail, historical accuracies..and so on...to achieve the perfect book. The reader ultimately decides. As for myself, if a book doesn't do it for me- I just put it aside and move on to another. I'm MUCH more discerning when it comes to my research and history manuals;) So, after saying all this, I guess I'll see for myself how good this book is.

I'm sorry you didn't find it pleasurable at all and that you really don't like Philippa Gregory. I guess I can understand that you'd be really put off by many of those inaccurate details. Personally though, I don't know if I would have picked up on these unless of course, they bring down and kill the storyline.

Thanks so much for being so frank, it's not often that you see this coming from one author to another. Another perspective which offers so much more to the reader out there. Thanks Susan:)

Michelle Moran said...

"About halfway through, however, I began to realize that I had done my bank account a great disservice."

You are seriously hilarious.

suburbanbeatnik said...

Thanks for the hilarious review, Susan. I'm not a big PG fan myself-- I find her prose mediocre and her pretensions at accuracy aggravating. However, some people just like a good brainless costumer, and that's all right. But the danger in PG lies with people who take her stories as historical gospel, when they are far from it.

A few months ago, when I was starting to research George and Jane Boleyn, I was discussing their childlessness with an acquaintance, and what kind of impact that might have had on their marriage. My acquaintance says to me, all innocence: "But I thought George and Jane had a son! After all, Phillipa Gregory says so in 'The Boleyn Inheritance.'" I really wanted to hit my head into a wall at that point.

I think I would be cooler with PG if she provided some kind of disclaimer at the beginning of all her books. Like, "The events depicted in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to any person living or dead is merely coincidental."

Susan Higginbotham said...

Carla, I'm not sure! I think they might have some Lusignan ancestors in common, but I honestly haven't tried to go back that far.

Elspeth, welcome to the blog! I agree totally.

Mimi, you might want to read it anyway and see what you think.

Ms. Lucy, I actually enjoyed The Boleyn Inheritance--I think I was one of the first people to review it on Amazon, and there's also a review on this blog somewhere. But it's not a period I've researched in depth, so nothing would jump out at me the way things did with this one. But I thought the storytelling in that book was superior to this one as well.

Michelle, thanks!

SB, that's the problem--so many people do take historical fiction as gospel, especially when the author is well known. I can't tell you how many times I've seen people post about Richard III, for instance, and cite Josephine Tey as proof of their assertions.

Kathryn Warner said...

As far as I know, Jacquetta was descended from one of the two daughters (either Thomasina or Anastasia; can't remember which offhand, I'm afraid!) of Guy de Montfort, son of Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester and King John's youngest daughter, Eleanor.

trish wilson said...

Well done Alianore! Even Arlene Okerlund appears to have missed out on that one. As for Philippa I wish I could be a fly on the wall when her publisher breaks the bad news.

It's not just about EW - I notice that both W H Smith (UK book store chain) and Amazon UK have slashed their price for White Queen by 40% and 50% respectively and this is for the hardback version!


You are very right to warn about people believing historical fiction to be the truth and you'll never guess who was recently caught out and had to own up to the truth - Sharon Penman! You'll find it on her blog - 'The Blog without End'. In fairness to Sharon it was a case of having to take an educated guess and credit where credit is due it begins 'I am going to begin with a confession'. Unfortunately for Sharon that was before I finally got around to reading TSIS, courtesy of the Brtish Library

As for Josephine Tey I can't wait to trash her. Thank goodness I was brought up on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - Sherlock Holmes - and there's one story in particular that has become something of a beacon in my search for clues or rather how many were missed. In this particular story even SH admits that he nearly failed to pick up on one.

Sue would you like we set the girls another quiz? From which aristocratic family was Elizabeth descended from on her father's side?

Finally Sue I've been trying to acquire both your novels but it seems I can only do so through Amazon. And what I discovered had my blood boiling over; the fact that Amazon UK is charging double the price as Amazon US. The same applies to the novels of Sandra Worth who it seems also lacks a UK publisher.

Joansz said...

I've just left my own book signing at the Battle of Bosworth reenactment and I found myself competing against guess who--Phillipa Gregory. She was there promoting 'The White Queen'. While I was consigned to a small table in a tent at the entry to the reenactment, she got the conference room and undoubtably sold mucho books. They had stacks of her books. But I can't complain because White Boar (the folks who are distributing my book in the UK to keep the price under control)approached the buyer for the Heritage Center shop and they ended up buying ten of my books to sell there. I'm over the moon about that.

Historical accuracy notwithstanding, I don't happen to like PG's style. For me it lacks substance and the conflicts feel forced (I only listened to one book). I don't read HF for historical accuracy, but I really appreciate it when it's there and in my own writing I try to be as accurate as possible. I actually like the challenge of figuring out how to make the story interesting using the facts as best as they are known, and fitting my speculation to be consistent with the facts and the persons characters as I see them. Bottom line, why bother writing historical fiction if you're going to change the history to fit your story? Why not write fantasy or some other form of fiction instead?

Kathryn Warner said...

I've found the King John-Jacquetta connection: Jacquetta, through her mother Margherita del Balzo, was the great-great-great-great-granddaughter of King John's grandson Guy de Montfort, through Guy's daughter Anastasia.

trish wilson said...


It could be that Richard has a real 21st century problem in that he bears a more than passing resemblance to Wayne Rooney a UK footballer who play for Manchester United one of the top clubs - David Beckham used to play for them - and has something o a colourful reputation.

On the other hand if Richard were to travel to our time to restore his reputation he could do worse than become a world-class player. The adulation and adoration which players like Beckham and Rooney enjoy are quite phenomenal.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Trish, you might try Book Depository. I don't how the prices are for UK residents, though, since all the prices show up in American dollars on my screen.

Joan, that's cool about the 10 books! Hope you're having a great trip!

Alianore, thanks for the info!

trish wilson said...


As they say over here you're a star!!!!

Book Despository has an outlet over here end guess what not only do they have both your books but they're cheaper than amazon!

I also came across another 'The Traitor's Wife' (1908)by William Henry Williamson set in Czarist Russia. What's more you don't have to buy it you can read it online for free Just google or yashoo. William Henry Williamson - The traitor'wife and it's the first website that comes up.

I'm glad I can avoid Amazon. I first got cheeesed off by the way the RGs had hijacked the reviews on any book touching on richard III, hyping up the pro and trashing the anti. Then there were your books. Am is charging for the 2007 editions of TW and H&B - paperback - £30.71 and £36,72 that's $50 and $60 - what's more they're not bringing over H&B until another six months. Final straw came when I checked to see who was reviewing PMK Richard III - one was a R3S branch secretary and another - wait for it - Gillian Murray Kendall(daughter)

Well their loss is my gain. I've an alternative that's cheaper and prompter the monthly pay check has just kicked in and on top of all that - as they say good things come in threes - a new candy store
has opened up just up the road with
all the old favourites I used to enjoy as a kid. So when the books arrive I'm going to get a mammoth
bag of goodies, curl up on the futon in my daughter's bedroom which gets the afternoon sun and enjoy!

mzjohansen said...

I know that Ms. Gregory is capable of much better,the true disservice is to folks who may not know the real facts (nor do they care to compare the fiction to the non-fiction) and will take this book as truth. I prefer to absorb as much of the real history as I can when I read historical fiction, but then again, Ms.Gregory did, after all, admit that this book was the most fictional yet and it is a novel.I found that I enjoyed the book but skimmed a lot of it that was just too fluffy for me. This book was, in truth, a fantasy built on toothpicks of facts. I am glad that there are some new historical fiction authors that really do build on the meat of facts - you, Vanora Bennett, Michelle Moran - there is a lot of talent we have the benefit of choosing instead of fluff! That being said, Susan I cannot wait for your new book to be in hand !

Anonymous said...

Not commented here since my first comment ages ago - but I had to come out of hiding for this! Hilarious review, and so true - inaccuracies just spoil the pleasure of reading unless you're really sure they're deliberate 'changes'.


trish wilson said...


We can all laugh at the deliberate changes made by authors of historical fiction but I draw the line at Hollywood scriptwriters.

Nine years ago an American film called 'U571' came out ,a film which suggested that it was the Americans who first succeeded in capturing the Enigma coding machine. The truth is that it was the British who succeeded in the first capture and that was some months before Pearl Harbor by which time the British had cracked the code. For the record U571 was not sunk by the Americans or the British but the Royal Australian Air Force.

Such was the furore in the UK that Prime Minister Blair found himself under fire in Parliament and President Clinton was forced to admit that the film was complete fiction something which David Ayer the scriptwriter admitted some 3 years ago.

Even before then there had been something of a furore over 'Saving Private Ryan' which many D-Day veterans claimed was a travesty of the truth. At the present time the British are up in arms again over Tarantino's 'Inglourious Basterds'. And why not? Indeed the British are getting furious about the way they're getting marginalised or airbrushed out altogther.

If you want to know the facts rather than the fiction then do log onto my blogsite for 'Hollywood and History' though I must say it's No.5 in the current chain for publication.

Anonymous said...

Yes ... I agree that with some subjects (recent wars, for example!) it doesn't seem respectful to play about with historical fact.

On the other hand, if someone does a little creative shaping - eg. *and admits to it*, I guess I'm fine with that.


Steven Till said...

I haven't actually read any of Philippa Gregory's stuff. Are her other novels just as inaccurate?

I've also recently gotten into The Tudors series on HBO via Netflix. I'm hesitant to believe the historical details too much because I haven't studied that particular period much at all. How accurate is it? How should I take it?

Susan Higginbotham said...

Thanks, Trish, glad it worked out for you!

Thanks, Anonymous # 1!

Lucy, I agree. Carolly Erickson, for instance, has called her latest historical novels "historical entertainments," and while I wish she'd stick closer to history, at least she's upfront about what she's doing, so the unwary won't be fooled.

Steven, I've read a few of her other books, and there wasn't anything glaring, but I haven't researched the Tudor period nearly as heavily as I have this one. I did find some of her characterizations in The Other Boleyn Girl a bit odd, especially that of a sexually inexperienced Mary.

"The Tudors," though, plays very fast and loose with history. Henry VIII's two sisters, for instance, are combined into one person, people are made much older or much younger to suit the plot, Henry VIII never gets fat, etc. That being said, I've watched all three seasons faithfully, and it can be quite moving at times, as when Thomas More dies.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Oh, thanks, Zquilts! I'm looking forward to the Michelle Moran and Vanora Bennett books too!

Steven Till said...

I'm curious as to what you think of Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry. How old was Henry when he divorced Catherine? Was there as big an age difference between her and Henry as portrayed in the series?

MelissaS said...

I have to agree with most of those here who have read the book and go blah.
The story of Elizabeth and Edward is one of my favorite stories (I'm a sucker for a royal romance) and this book has done the story a disservice - specially with all that Melusine stuff!
The next book I have to read is Blood Royal by Vanora Bennett (who zquilts recommended as an author) -Catherine and Owen are my absolute favorites (and PG made an incorrect reference to them in her book) so she'd better do the story justice or there will be blood!

Alyce said...

The Melusine parts drove me crazy too. I didn't know enough about that period in history to recognize the errors, which frustrates me because it's not like I want to be misinformed when I read historical fiction.

I actually gave this book a decent review because outside of the Melusine/mystical parts I enjoyed it. I guess ignorance is a good thing when it comes to reading this book and wanting to enjoy it. :)