The White Queen: romance, sex, magic, scowling, social snobbery and battles

The BBC's new Sunday night drama set in the Wars of the Roses might not quite tick all historical boxes, but it's likely to become required Sunday night viewing.

The forest floor is covered in snow. Into the clearing stumbles a lone soldier, his breath heavy as he drips a trail of blood. He pauses, panting and looking around nervously through the foliage. The camera descends from above, hot on his tail as he stumbles, shedding his helmet and clutching his wound. Then it begins; the music, low and discordant at first like a heartbeat, building to the rhythm of the rider in pursuit, becoming faster, louder. He falls and through the trees, his foe appears, helmeted astride a white horse, his sword drawn to his victim’s scream of terror. Elizabeth Woodville’s first husband is dead, killed by the man who would become her second.

Thus begins the story of The White Queen, which kicked off this Sunday on BBC1 and runs for ten episodes. Rarely has a series been so eagerly anticipated than this retelling of a Fifteenth Century romance that changed the course of a country’s politics. Fans of Philippa Gregory’s bestselling trilogy of novels, which tell the story of the Wars of the Roses through the eyes of its women, have been awaiting this day since plans were first announced to bring her characters to life. This lavish £25m collaboration between the BBC and STARZ, starring the enchanting Rebecca Ferguson as Elizabeth Woodville and Max Irons as her lusty King, should not disappoint them. Filmed in the medieval city of Bruges, it is as beautifully shot as it is located. Yet perhaps, as expected, it is a little more Romeo and Juliet than accurate medieval protocol.

The magnetism between Elizabeth and Edward is quickly established. Their first meeting, beneath the legendary Whittlebury oak, is touching and immediate. Small details add to the anticipation; her mother’s good luck charm, her son biting into a plum, the other waving on the King’s approach. Historical purists might object. It is unlikely to have happened like that in real life. Far from being a “way-side hussy”, Elizabeth had probably already encountered Edward in the Lancastrian court circles of their fathers, but this is an adaption of a novel for Sunday night viewing and the romantic legend makes for better television.

The on-screen attraction between the star-crossed lovers is real and believable. As Ferguson explained in a recent BBC interview, she and Irons “just clicked” with “amazing chemistry straight away”. Almost as convincing are the heavy-handed doubts of the Woodville men, whose early snarls and cynical warnings anticipate the image we have of Elizabeth “wading through blood” for this marriage, as her mother warns her. At the start, her male relations have the feeling of caricatures, deliberate created as foils for the new young king, but as the episode progressed, they were prevailed upon by the wisdom of women to wear white roses. Alongside Jacquetta, played by the impressive Janet McTeer, “commoner” Elizabeth states she is a match for any man and the audience believe her. Through this first episode, it was the pairing of mother and daughter which really stole the show. In a trilogy which presents an alternative perspective of the era through female eyes, these two were radiant.

Almost too radiant. Of course, it was partly the magic at work. In real life, accusations of witchcraft were made against Jacquetta at the instigation of the Earl of Warwick, depicted here in best shouty mode by the rugged James Frain. Yet Jacquetta was cleared by Parliament in January 1470 and no further evidence exists that she or her daughter attempted to practise the dark arts against their foes. However, the sorcery, and Jacquetta’s reputed descent from the goddess Melusine, adds another thread to the narrative which allows for the foreshadowing of future tragic events. Thus the first episode compounds the promise of future conflict, with Elizabeth’s vision of a woman in red with blood on her hands, and the need to protect her sleeping sons, whose future brothers would become known to history as the Princes in the Tower. The dark, misty scenes beside the river when the two women cast their threads, provides a balance to the romantic “boy fogged in lust” shots of the pair in the garden, or the domestic scenes of the family playing blind man’s buff.  Sorcery also gives the audience an alternative explanation of why Elizabeth is a “match for any man,” when, according to the standards of the day, she was not.

Charming as they are, Elizabeth and her mother as depicted in this episode are perhaps a little too clever, too confident and assured, for the reality of a protocol-conscious Fifteenth Century. Sometimes they even come across as a little smug. Initially, their cunning and womanly wisdom makes the Woodville men, Baron Rivers (Robert Pugh) and Anthony (Ben Lamb) a real life sophisticate, appear naïve, even a little crass. It is clear who wears the braies in the Woodville family. The capitulation of Rivers with the line “sometimes woman you even scare me” was rather a clumsy reinforcement of Jacquetta’s marriage to, as Warwick put it, a “grubby little squire”.

It was in the exchange with Duchess Cecily (Caroline Goodall) however, that Jacquetta, as her daughter’s mouthpiece, really overstepped the historical mark. The disapproving Duchess, who was known in real life as “proud Cis,” is too easily overcome by her social inferiors when they whip out her apparent “secret” affair with a French archer. Lost for words, she is silenced within minutes, almost cowed by them. While contemporary notions of “courtesy” dictated extreme forms of submission to the queen, this is a Cecily straight from the pages of a novel rather than the actual proud aristocrat who asserted her own right to rule.

But then again, there is nothing wrong with that. To attempt to map these fictional constructs on to their real counterparts is perhaps to miss the point. Novelists have no moral obligation to present the truth, it is their prerogative to exploit events for the purposes of entertainment. They are free to select and emphasise certain characteristics and ignore others, to merge and shape the past at will in order to structure a balanced narrative of highs and lows. They can even, horror of horrors for historians, alter the past if they wish to. If we get too hung up on playing a game of spot the inaccuracy, we may be in danger of missing out on a very enjoyable piece of Sunday night escapism. That is, so long as we can overlook the clanky old clichés such as “the wheel of fortune rises and it falls,” “the king has married from another house” and “the boy is fogged with lust”. Perhaps the charm of the episode might even allow us to embrace them.

The White Queen contained exactly what it promised; romance, sex, magic, scowling, social snobbery and battles. The opposing sides have been drawn up, of Lancaster and York, establishing a narrative we can anticipate unfolding to more of “Kingmaker” Warwick’s tight-lipped objections and Anthony Woodville’s bristling pity. James Frain, recently lauded for his performance as Thomas Cromwell in The Tudors, may well emerge to steal the show alongside Margaret Beaufort and the other York brothers, only briefly glimpsed in this first episode. Trouble clearly lies ahead. In author Philippa Gregory’s words, “these aren’t like normal family quarrels. If you move against somebody, its death for you or him – or her.” It is the Romeo and Juliet style of this first episode that was a particular strength and should ensure the continuing high viewing figures commanded by The Tudors and The Borgias, filling the old Downton Abbey slot as required Sunday night viewing. With this introduction giving us a glimpse of the other cast members waiting in the wings, The White Queen promises to develop into a more complex and satisfying drama.

Rebecca Ferguson as Elizabeth Woodville in the BBC's "The White Queen". Photograph: BBC/Company Pictures & ALL3MEDIA/Ed Miller

Amy Licence is a late medieval and early Tudor historian focusing on women's lives. She is the author of the forthcoming biography Anne Neville, Richard III’s Tragic Queen and her blog can be found here.

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide