11 August, 2009

Hugh and Bess, by Susan Higginbotham. Book review

Sourcebooks, 2009. ISBN 978-1-4022-1527-8. 276 pages.

Set in 1341–1350, with flashbacks to 1326, Hugh and Bess tells the story of Hugh le Despenser (son of the notorious Hugh le Despenser who was the favourite of Edward II and was horribly executed for treason in 1326) and his wife Elizabeth (Bess) de Montacute. Hugh’s mistress Emma and the faithful laundress Alice are fictional; all the other major characters are historical figures.

Bess de Montacute is nearly fourteen, pretty, sharp, wilful and very aware of her status as the eldest daughter of William de Montacute, trusted advisor to King Edward III. So when she is told to she is to marry Sir Hugh le Despenser, who is not only aged 32 but also the son and grandson of disgraced traitors, she is not at all pleased about it, despite his riches. For his part, Hugh has mixed feelings too; he knows he has to make a grand marriage, but he is already in love with his mistress of ten years’ standing, a knight’s daughter named Emma. Bess soon comes to enjoy her role as a rich man’s wife, but on a personal level all Hugh’s kindness and consideration can win from her is a grudging tolerance. Only when Hugh is sent abroad to fight in a war that puts him in mortal danger does Bess realise how much he has come to mean to her – but is it too late?

Susan Higginbotham’s previous novel The Traitor’s Wife told the story of Eleanor de Clare, niece of Edward II, and her husband Hugh le Despenser (the notorious one, who used his position as Edward II’s favourite and homosexual lover to extort money from practically everyone in England, thereby achieving the remarkable feat of uniting the English nobility, at least until they had got rid of him). Hugh and Bess continues the story of the Despenser family into the next generation. This Hugh le Despenser was an attractive character towards the end of The Traitor’s Wife, as he patiently tried to live down his father’s appalling reputation by exemplary behaviour and loyal military service, so it was a pleasure to see him get a novel to himself.

Hugh and Bess is subtitled “A Love Story” in some editions, and that’s an accurate description. Although politics and warfare play a part in the story, and there is a harrowing portrayal of the Black Death, the focus of the novel is the relationship between Hugh and Bess. Bess is an immature and rather self-centred teenager at the start of the novel, which is fair enough considering her age, and becomes more engaging as she grows up. I found Hugh the most attractive and interesting character. He has to come to terms with the fact that the father he loved was also (deservedly) one of the most hated men in England, and imprisonment for four years in harsh conditions bordering on solitary confinement has taken a heavy toll. Somehow Hugh has to learn to cope with society again – not easy when everyone looks at him askance as the son of an extortionist and sodomite – as well as to face the gargantuan task of redeeming his family’s reputation. Hugh meets the challenge with pragmatism, courage, and a wry sense of humour. For example: musing on his relationship with the king, “…they would never be intimates; in any case, his father had been so close to his king that this would probably have to suffice for whole generations of Despensers”; when the Black Death arrives at his manor causing unwelcome guests to depart in a precipitous hurry, “That was one way of chasing off Lady Thornton, you have to admit”.

The narrative style has a similar light touch and occasional shaft of dry wit, which I found appealing. I like a novel that can make me smile. For example, the description of the dowager queen Isabella “…carefully dressed so as not to outshine the younger Queen, but somehow managing to give the impression that she could certainly still do so if she pleased”; Bess, as a flighty teenager on the day before her wedding, feeling that it would be disrespectful to pray for something to prevent her marriage and frivolous (not to mention impractical) to pray for her bosom to develop overnight; Elizabeth de Burgh, commenting on Bess’s desire for a sign from heaven about her marriage, “What, a lightning bolt?”.

Hugh and Bess is quite a short book, somewhere between a novel and a novella, and makes for a quick, easy read. Details of domestic life among the fourteenth-century aristocracy are well covered, including the ever-changing fashions (Queen Isabella on Bess’s attempt to dress demurely, “That gown and wimple are fit only for a soggy day in Wales”). The effects of the Black Death, known at the time and in the novel simply as “the pestilence” are also well described, covering not only the disease itself but also the remarkable stoicism with which the survivors picked themselves up and rebuilt their lives in the aftermath. A helpful Author’s Note sets out what happened to some of the characters after the end of the novel, and the history underlying the story.

Charming, uncomplicated short tale of domestic life and love in fourteenth-century England.


Susan Higginbotham said...

Thanks for the review, Carla!

Kathryn Warner said...

Great review! I loved Susan's wit in this one, too, and am a big fan of Hugh the even younger, so was delighted to read such a lovely, sympathetic portrayal of him (he's great in The Traitor's Wife too).

Steven Till said...

Nice review, Carla. Your words are always so eloquent. I have to agree that Hugh was the most interesting character. It helps that he received some face time in the Traitor's Wife, so readers who read the previous novel were already familiar with him. I also liked Emma's character and actually felt more attached to her than Bess.

Carla said...

Susan - you're welcome!

Alianore - yes, I took a liking to him in The Traitor's Wife. Living down the reputation of Hugh Despenser the Younger (can I rename him Hugh Despenser the Notorious, just to avoid confusion?) must have been quite a challenge!

Steven - I liked Emma, too. I think it helped that she was about Hugh's age, so for most of the book she was a fully adult, rounded character. Bess is quite a child at the beginning, and it takes a while for her to grow up.