Review: The White Princess, By Philippa Gregory

Boudoirs, bodices and battlefields

What do Philippa Gregory and David Starkey have in common? Both present lively, contentious popular history braced by glimpses of an odd tit. Gregory's brightly-coloured romps of monarchical realpolitik are energised by characters rushing between the battlefield and boudoir like Benny Hill in a ruff, holding a sword in one hand and a plump wench in the other. Should Gregory ever require a coat of arms, a pile of dead bodies beneath a bodice rampant would do the trick.

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This is doubtless no more than British royalty deserves. In the latest instalment of Gregory's "Cousins' War" series, Henry VII (or Henry Tudor as most subjects insist on calling him) has ascended a wobbly English throne, leaving Richard III in his dust. Pity our narrator, Elizabeth of York – not only Richard's niece and number one fan, but his willing bit on the side (Richard's main course being his ailing Queen Anne).

Just when she thought it was safe to be a York daughter, Elizabeth finds herself affianced to none other than moody Henry himself, whom she holds responsible for the excision of Richard's prized organ (his throbbing, brainy head). Neither a man of the people nor a ladies' man, Henry woos his bride-to-be by raping her into pregnancy to assure himself that, if nothing else, his future Queen is fertile. Welcome to that unsettling mixture of sex and violence that was a Tudor speciality until, at least, Elizabeth I dispensed with the sex.

Despite this uncourtly courtship, Henry and Elizabeth form an entente, if not cordiale, then at least intermittently erotic: an entente rumpy pumpy, perhaps. For Gregory, the relationship, and indeed the entire kingdom, are driven by Henry's paranoia: about boys pretending to be York Princes murdered (or not) in the Tower by Richard (or someone else); about Elizabeth's enduring loyalty to her Uncle Dick and long-lost brother, despite bearing enough children to make Kate Middleton seem a one-trick pony; about his inability to smile and smile and smile convincingly so everyone believes him a villain.

Historical novels are often given a hard time. Too enslaved by fact to make good fiction; too loosely entertaining to be good history. Gregory is guiltier of the latter than the former frailty. Elizabeth is pleasingly mercurial, even if her signature note ("I don't know ANYTHING!") sits uneasily with her ability to summarise current affairs everywhere from Ireland to Portugal. Nonetheless Gregory's fictional approach does give her license to explore lacunae in the past, spinning the unresolved fate of the Princes in the Tower into vivid, slippery storylines. Gregory may be making the whole thing up, but so too was Henry VII. And The White Princess is a lot more fun than he was.