Susan Higginbotham writes a good book.
Research, honesty and genuine historical accuracy – the hallmarks of her work – show through in Queen of Last Hopes as they did in The Stolen Crown. Any writerly liberties taken are not just listed in her author’s note, but explained and contextualised. Her books can be trusted, and this isn’t something that can be said about a good many authors of historical fiction.
When it comes to the Wars of the Roses, Susan and I line up on opposite sides, which makes the reading experience for me doubly interesting. My views and prejudices are challenged, and some might say not before time. But I take the challenge easily enough and, while I may not be prepared to develop a disliking for the Duke of York, I am more than happy to find that I have been given permission to like Margaret of Anjou. For that, I am very thankful. Margaret has long deserved her story to be written by a skilled and sympathetic hand, and in Susan Higginbotham she has found one.
Susan’s Margaret is a strong woman, reluctant at first to take up the role that history forces on her, full of regret and sorrow at her ultimate failure and the failure of the cause she devotes a good part of her life to. She is never portrayed as anything other than a woman, and one who has no wish to be anything else. She is a wife, a mother and a queen, and it is in that treble capacity that she fights – for her husband, her son and the crown that belongs to them.
When choosing a female first person narrator in historical fiction, the writer comes smack up against a fairly fierce limitation – women, even queens, were usually nowhere near the scenes of conflict and action that often defined the times. This is particularly true of the Wars of the Roses. While breathless reports from defeated or victorious survivors often have to suffice, there is an alternative device, and one that is utilised cleverly in Queen of Last Hopes – the alternative narrator. Apart from the voice of Katherine Vaux in the epilogue, all voices other than Margaret’s are male. Not only does this allow the reader to witness significant events that Margaret can’t, it also illustrates beautifully Margaret’s lone, and lonely, position amongst the other powerbrokers of her time.
The Margaret of Anjou of this book is not without her flaws. Susan is no apologist and Margaret’s mistakes, both personal and political, are allowed to stand and speak for themselves. And, as writers sympathetic to Richard III have been doing for the last few decades for their hero, she sweeps aside the stereotypes that have plagued Margaret and her son, Edward Prince of Wales. That she has been able to do this without throwing other, undeserving, characters into the role of incorrigible villain – with perhaps one notable and understandable exception – is very much to her credit.
Anyone who is impatient with certain of the current, much acclaimed, crop of women writers of historical fiction can turn to Susan Higginbotham in the knowledge that what they read can be trusted. And enjoyed.