Screening the Past: Historical Fiction and The White Queen

In our inaugural issue, Laura Saxton (Australian Catholic University) examined the characterisation of the Plantagenet queen, Elizabeth Woodville, in Philippa Gregory’s popular historical fiction novel, The White Queen.

In this guest post, Laura considers the trials and tribulations of representing the past on screen in the context of novel’s television adaptation.

woodville-horizontalI presented an earlier iteration of the article published in Ceræ Journal at the International Medieval Congress in 2013. Happily, the television adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen was screening in the UK at the time, and the night before I gave my paper I watched the episode in which Elizabeth Woodville conjures up a storm in order to win the Yorkists a tactical advantage. This timing was apt — that a handful of audience members had also seen the program meant that my own description of Elizabeth using her mystical powers was more evocative than it might otherwise have been.

However, I found the novel’s television adaptation to be pertinent, not only for its visual representation of the material, but also because public commentary was focused on issues of accuracy and authenticity. The identification of anachronism — costumes had zippers and buildings, handrails — became a talking point in the British media. The focus of this criticism was different from my own analysis of the novel, but what my research did share with the Daily Mail (a phrase I never thought that I would write) was a concern with how the past is represented in historical fiction.

When teaching medievalism last year, I discussed this example in the lecture and asked my students to consider what this press coverage could tell us about the reception of historical fiction. They found the media commentary amusing and facile — why were journalists (and historians) watching telly with such a critical eye, hoping for a stray handrail or zip they could criticise? The show, they argued, was clearly not intended to educate the masses about the clothing of late medieval England. As the BBC’s long-awaited adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies screens, questions about accuracy and authenticity in historical fiction have again been raised: we have been assured that nobody on screen will be left-handed and that the actors’ teeth are not too white because these characters did not eat sugar, but there is some fear that Kate Phillips is miscast because she is too pretty and has too small a forehead to be a convincing Jane Seymour.

These elements of a program are — as my students pointed out — relatively minor, particularly when taking into account the richness and detail of Mantel’s novels; they are, however, important when considering the ways in which historical fiction is consumed. A stray zipper or too-white teeth can be jarring for an audience who expect to be immersed in Plantagenet or Tudor England, and this response can tell us much about what is read as authentic and why that might be. As I assured the class, such debates and the texts at their centre might not offer any insight into the past itself, but they are integral when considering the ways that the past is depicted in fiction, and how those depictions are read today.

My own contribution to this discourse is concerned, not with errors and anachronisms per se, but with fictional representations of the unknowable aspects of the past. Historical fiction, as a form, offers significant potential for imagining (and reimagining) aspects of the past, such as emotion, that are lost, particularly with regard to the unrecorded experiences of women. As a novel and television show, The White Queen offers avenues by which we can imagine what Woodville might have felt in response to the cataclysmic events of her life. The emotions written by Gregory are not those of the real Woodville, but belong to her characterisation of Elizabeth. Gregory is not, after all, writing academic history; she is an author of popular fiction and her representation is explicit in its fictionality.

Yet, does the novel fulfil the potential of its form? I would argue that it does not. Despite Gregory’s criticisms of previous depictions of Woodville,

The White Queen adheres to a number of genre conventions of historical romance, including the attempt by ‘the hero’ — Edward IV — to sexually assault the novel’s protagonist — Elizabeth — after which the couple fall in love and marry. By no means does this story originate with Gregory and, just as television audiences expect rotting teeth in Tudor and Plantagenet mouths, so to might readers hold that an authentic portrayal of Woodville will adhere to this narrative. However, with limited evidence to enlighten us about Woodville’s actual feelings about this assault, if it did indeed occur, the fictional realm offers a space in which we can question: is this account the only plausible or possible interpretation?

You can read Laura’s full article, “‘There is more to the story than this, of course’: Character and Affect in Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen“, here.

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