16 January, 2011

The Queen of Last Hopes, by Susan Higginbotham. Book review

Sourcebooks, 2011. ISBN . 332 pages. Uncorrected advance review copy kindly supplied by publisher.

Set in England, France and Scotland between 1444 and 1482, The Queen of Last Hopes tells the story of Margaret of Anjou., the French princess who became queen to Henry VI of England and found herself having to fight for his throne during the power struggle known to history as the Wars of the Roses. The novel covers Margaret’s life from her marriage to Henry until her death. All the major characters are historical figures.

Married at age fourteen to Henry VI of England to seal a peace treaty, Margaret of Anjou finds that although Henry is a good man – indeed, bordering on the saintly – this is not at all the same as being a good king. Simmering conflicts claim the life of Margaret’s friend, and then explode into outright war when Henry suffers a bout of mental illness. With a baby son to fight for as well as her husband and herself, Margaret has to take command, raising armies and on occasion marching with them. Margaret’s indomitable spirit carries her through war, exile, shipwreck and robbery – but her greatest personal cost is yet to come.

If you are familiar with the cruel and vengeful Margaret of Anjou made famous by one William Shakespeare (“O tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide!”), you are in for a surprise. The Queen of Last Hopes undertakes the commendable task of telling the story from Margaret’s side and mainly through her eyes, and presents a much more sympathetic Margaret than Shakespeare’s “…. stern, obdurate, flinty, rough, remorseless”. The reader can hardly fail to admire beautiful, unlucky Margaret, battling on with courage and perseverance literally to the last hope.

The Queen of Last Hopes is narrated in first person, mainly by Margaret. Although Margaret played an unusually active role in events, even she could not be everywhere at once, and some chapters are narrated in first person by other characters who were at the centre of the events described. In this way the novel can recount events directly even when Margaret was not present, avoiding the need to have her listen passively while someone else tells her about them, and can also show some other points of view. Each chapter is headed by the narrator’s name and the date, and you do need to pay attention to these to be clear about who is speaking (and the time frame, as sometimes the novel skips forward by several months or even years in one go).

The most successful of the secondary narrators for me was Henry (Hal) Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. Like many of the English nobility he changed sides more than once as the fortune of war ebbed and flowed, and sometimes found himself with friends and family on the opposite side. His narrative touches on the conflicts and divided loyalties inherent in a civil war between two branches of the same family in a way that Margaret, who as a Frenchwoman is outside most of the kinship and obligation networks that criss-cross the English aristocracy, cannot. Hal’s affair with a down-to-earth London confectioner, Joan Hill, is a delightful story in itself, and adds a warmly human counterpoint to the high politics of the rest of the novel. It’s a reminder that while the aristocracy were busy trying to murder each other for a grab at the crown, the rest of the country was getting on with the workaday business of earning a living, regardless of who was calling himself king this week. Anne Neville’s relationship with Margaret’s son Edward is also refreshingly down-to earth, a political alliance that both parties are prepared to make the best of, and with the makings of a successful marriage.

Margaret’s narrative is framed from the perspective of Margaret looking back over her life from old age. Perhaps time and reflection have distanced her from her tumultuous youth and prime. Her narrative is remarkably matter of fact and the emotion is understated, even when she is recounting heartbreaking loss and hair’s breadth escapes. As de facto leader of the Lancastrian party, Margaret had to guard her feelings and put on a brave face in public, and there is a guarded quality about her narrative, almost as though she is maintaining a similar protective shield against the reader. The epilogue, narrated by her lady-in-waiting Katherine Vaux in extreme old age, is an especially poignant vignette. Amidst the celebrations of Henry VIII’s wedding to Catherine of Aragon, Katherine Vaux watches the beautiful, hopeful young foreign princess and, remembering Margaret of Anjou, fears for her future – fears that the reader, who knows how Catherine’s marriage worked out, knows to be all too justified.

A helpful Author’s Note summarises the underlying history and sets out the reasons for any divergences, and a useful list of characters at the front of the book helps to keep track of the large cast (probably especially helpful to readers who are new to the period). A list of Further Reading provides suggestions for interested readers who want to pursue the history in more depth.

Detailed, sympathetic portrait of Margaret of Anjou.


Gabriele Campbell said...

I think many historical women who stepped out of their expected role have been maligned by chronicles and authors. I just mentioned Livia in another discussion - surely not a saint but I doubt she was fully as evil as Graves portrays here in I Claudius. Margaret may have suffered some of the same fate.

Kathryn Warner said...

Great review! I'm really looking forward to reading the novel.

Carla said...

Gabriele - Good point. Antonia Fraser mentions a similar theme in her book Warrior Queens. I don't remember if Margaret of Anjou was one of her case studies, but she makes the same point as you about women being castigated for stepping outside the expected role. Empress Maud/Matilda had a similarly bad press. Possibly both made political/diplomatic errors, but an inept man (King Stephen was, shall we say, not the greatest king England ever had) was allowed a lot more leeway. Interestingly, I don't detect the same note of censure in relation to Aethelflaed Lady of the Mercians, although the ASC is so laconic it would be hard to tell.

Kathryn - thanks! Let us know what you think of it.

Rick said...

The treatment of historical women who step out of role seems to go both ways - maligned, or else exalted.

Think of Elizabeth I. Would even an equally successful king have quite her outsized reputation? For that matter, Boudica/Boadicea was not (ultimately) successful, but that statue in London shows that her heroic image was established well before the contemporary feminist warrior-queen thing.

What struck me most in reading the review is that someone has actually written a sympathetic treatment of a Lancastrian.

Carla said...

Rick - One contrast between Elizabeth's position and that of Margaret of Anjou and Empress Maud is that there was no serious rival male claimant to Elizabeth's throne. If Lady Jane Grey had had a brother (or even a baby son) Elizabeth's reputation might have developed very differently indeed, had there been a faction that had an interest in denigrating Elizabeth in favour of their own candidate.

Tacitus portrays Boudica in a 'heroic' role, which has probably influenced later perceptions of her (even if his account does say as much about Tacitus' opinions on contemporary Roman morals and politics as about Boudica herself). It's also worth noting that the inscription on that London statue says something like "Regions Caesar never knew / Thy posterity shall sway", so the statue is as much about the imperial ambitions of Victorian England as anything to do with the historical Boudica. The presence of Queen Victoria as the contemporary figurehead of the British Empire presumably also acted as a spur to look for a suitably heroic female precedent. Interestingly, earlier seventeenth-century fictional representations of Boudica give her a bad press and hand all the heroism to Caratacus. Each era finds its own history...

Yes, it is good to see a Wars of the Roses novel from a Lancastrian standpoint. I haven't read anything like the full crop, but there does seem to be a preponderance of Yorkist novels, presumably reflecting the popularity of Richard III revisionism and re-revisionism. Perhaps also because Richard III can be made glamorous (either as Evil Bad Guy or as Misunderstood Good Guy), and Edward IV has a certain amount of swashbuckling style, whereas Henry VI isn't an obviously glamorous character and Edward of Lancaster didn't really live long enough to get the chance.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Tacitus had a bit of a soft spot for those tribal leaders fighting Rome, be it Arminius, Boudicca, Civilis, or Calgacus. They still had some ideals, or could be ascribed those ideals, Rome had lost after the Republic ended in a mess, and Tacitus was missing some of the better aspects of the Republic. Thus all those freedom speeches he gives them. :)

Carla said...

Gabriele - Yes, exactly. Tacitus is ascribing some noble virtues to the tribal leaders, as a contrast with and a reproach to the decadence he perceived in the politicians of his own day. It would be fascinating to have an account from the tribal side - a Saga of Calgacus or Lay of Arminius - to compare. Absent that, at least they had a sympathetic historian even if he was from the other side; Tacitus's 'noble barbarians' may have a generous component of fiction or wishful thinking, but at least it feels a bit more balanced than the 'evil savage' sort of stereotype.

Anonymous said...

off topic.

have you read Eiffelheim by Michael Flynn?

a review of it would be good.


Carla said...

Al - Hello and welcome. No, I haven't read it.

Rick said...

Yes, if Elizabeth had had a serious male rival her situation would have been a lot tougher. The effect on her subsequent reputation would depend first and foremost on what actually happened!

(And yes, the Victorian reception of Boudica was surely affected by Victoria.)

One further pop-history burden that the Lancastrians suffer from is that the ultimately successful Lancastrian, Henry VII, is so profoundly unglamorous. Even being the first royal Tudor fails to rescue him from pop-culture obscurity.

Yes, his Lancastrian claim was itself pretty exiguous, but if he had cut a dashing figure no one would care, and the entire Lancastrian cause would bask in his retrospective glow.

Carla said...

Rick - If Elizabeth had had a serious male rival she might have ended up marrying him - isn't Mary Queen of Scots supposed to have said it was a pity that the two of them couldn't marry each other? The ramifications are endless.

It's always struck me as slightly curious that Henry VII has such an unglamorous image. His story can be written as pure romance - years in exile, then winning his kingdom on the battlefield from the Wicked Usurper, marrying a beautiful princess, restoring peace after decades of war and living (more or less) happily ever after. If you choose to believe that Wicked Richard III was harrassing Elizabeth of York, you can even throw rescuing a damsel in distress into the mix without stretching the history beyond breaking point. Yet his popular image is one of an especially dull accountant. I rather think he is much under-rated.

Rick said...

Mary Q of S did indeed (supposedly) say that. As it was, the male claimant situation was so tenuous that when Elizabeth had her smallpox bout, several of her councilors, including IIRC Cecil, were prepared to opt for Catherine Grey. That's major desperation, especially for 16th c. males.

I have wondered the same thing about Henry VII. As you say, the basic facts of his life and reign lend themselves to romance. It is as if he somehow just can't escape the combination of Francis Bacon and that familiar portrait.

Carla said...

You may well be right (I can't remember Cecil's view), and that says a lot about the situation. There's a line in a historical novel somewhere (can't remember which, maybe one of Margaret Irwin's) that has the ageing Henry VIII or one of his courtiers, grumping to himself about the Tudor line having "run to seed in a crop of girls". Fictional, but one can easily imagine such thoughts in circulation at the time, especially after old Henry's strenuous attempts to produce a male heir.

It can't just be the portrait of Henry VII that does it. He does have a calculating look, as if he is weighing you up as either a potential threat or a source of money (understandable given his experience, and probably quite a sensible default attitude for a king who would like to stay that way), but I'd say Edward IV looks even more unprepossessing in his portrait. Not starting expensive foreign wars probably counted against Henry VII in the glamour stakes, not to mention the contrast with Henry VIII who was the epitome of glamour in his golden youth (in part thanks to being able to spend the money his father had built up).