Pros: Taking real history and people and turning it all into a compelling story.
Cons: Some may get upset at the very adult sexuality here.
For me, one of the best ways to spend a quiet afternoon is in the pages of a book. And when it's a well-written historical novel, where the author has bothered to make the characters believable, and the research and mood is solid, it's a delight.
Susan Higginbotham's first novel is set in the troublesome times of England's King Edwards. The novel opens with the marriage of Edward I's granddaughters, Eleanor de Clare, who is little more than a child herself at the age of fourteen. But England in the middle ages was a time when children grew up quickly, Eleanor is eager to be wed, and when her husband is the older, and very handsome Hugh le Despenser, she is delighted. For her, life is a delight, soon filling up with the children that she and Hugh have together, her presence at the royal court as a cherished relative, and while Hugh does get called away to the Scottish wars, her life is very good indeed.
That is, until the old King dies and his son, another Edward, comes to the throne. Edward II is a king who is charming, handsome and pleasant, but there are a few flaws in him as well. For one, he's not nearly the military leader that his father was, and when Edward loves someone, it's a stubborn, steadfast love. That would be fine in a private man, but when that person is a leader, it can be disastrous. And the first cracks show when Edward marries a French princess, the lovely Isabella.
For this beautiful girl isn't the only person in Edward's heart. The king has had a companion since boyhood, the handsome, silky, Piers Gaveston -- and there are whispers that they are a bit more than good friends. Especially when the king is paying more attention to Gaveston than to his young bride, and commits the insult of giving him some of his wife's jewels along with land grants and eventually the title of Earl of Cornwall. Even Eleanor's sister Margaret is wed to Gaveston. All of this is causing some rumblings among the barons and earls of the kingdom, for Gaveston isn't a well-born Englishman, but the son of an unknown French knight. Even the grumbling penetrates Eleanor's world, but she's so wrapped up in her love for Hugh and her growing family that she doesn't see the onrushing storm at all.
For Edward II, many things can be forgiven a king if he can succeed, especially in warfare. But he lacks his father's drive and ambition, and his Scottish campaigns are dismal failures. We get to see the growing unrest through Eleanor's eyes, from Gaveston's inglorious fall, to the resentment of Isabella, and finally, to the relationship between Edward II and the Despenser family. I don't want to give much more away of the plot, it's simply too good to miss. And as for Eleanor, it's a struggle to survive when she finds out that treachery has been occurring under her very nose, and she's helpless to stop it.
In the hands of a lesser author, this entire story would have fallen apart. But Higginbotham knows her history here, and more importantly, the attitudes of the time. Eleanor may have not much of a backbone at the start of the story, but by the time she does need one, she comes through marvelously -- but then, noblewomen of the time were expected to be gracious, slipped into the role of wives and mothers, and hardly expected to be political players in their own right, although many of them certainly were. Too, Eleanor does slip from her pedestal now and then, which makes her all the more believable to the reader, and much more sympathetic.
Another fine touch to the story is that the minor characters have personalities as well, and most of them are drawn from history. One that I found intriguing was a captive princess who was the child of the last native prince of Wales, and her life as a nun, and the pragmatic view that she takes of the world. For those who like to have plenty of vivid colour and descriptions in their historical reading, there's plenty of that as well, but not so much that it overloads the story.
For a first novel, this is very very good. I was caught up in Eleanor and Hugh's story right from the beginning. The storytelling is tightly written, and while the author does step back every now and then to tell the reader what is going on, it's still good. Her characters speak and act like the people of the time, instead of merely modern people in fancy dress. Eleanor de Clare is a splendid heroine, full of life, loving her husband, and remaining steadfast throughout despite finding out about betrayals that would crush most marriages. And even in the midst of heartbreak, she finds the means to keep going and rebuild her life for herself and her family.
For a nonfiction look at the same story but from a different perspective, I recommend Alison Weir's Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery and Murder in Medieval England.
Four and a half stars, rounded up to five. Happily recommended.
Other novels by Susan Higginbotham:
Hugh and Bess
The Stolen Crown
The Queen of Last Hopes
Her Highness, The Traitor
The Traitor's Wife: A novel of the Reign of Edward II
2005, 2007; iUniverse Star