Her Highness the Traitor, by Susan Higginbotham
Susan Higginbotham’s historical novels avoid the usual heroines. Instead, she focuses on the “outcasts,” the women ignored, neglected or mistreated by history. Her books, therefore, always present interesting new takes on perceived and accepted “truths.”
An earlier novel, The Traitor’s Wife, centered on Eleanor le Despenser, niece of Edward II and wife of the infamous Hugh le Despenser the Younger. It was a valiant attempt at historical rehabilitation, but the thoroughly despicable Hugh proved to be far beyond redemption and his wife, in consequence, seemed befuddled and silly.
Higginbotham’s retelling of the familiar story of Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI, in Queen of Last Hopes, did make this much-maligned queen more sympathetic, but at the cost of depriving her of her considerable (and admirable) tenacity and ferocity in her unsuccessful defense of her son and her crown. Although less than completely successful as novels, they nevertheless provide interesting introductions to complex and confusing periods of English history.
With Her Highness The Traitor, however, Higginbotham has reached her stride.
The title refers to Lady Jane Grey, who held the English throne very briefly after the death of Henry VIII’s young son Edward VI. Edward had attempted to alter the succession established by his father, denying the right of inheritance to Henry’s daughters Mary (unacceptably Catholic) and Elizabeth (of dubious legitimacy).
Instead, he bestowed the crown on his Protestant first cousin, Jane. The English people, however, were having none of it and Great Harry’s daughter Mary took the throne. Jane was imprisoned and, thanks to her father’s foolish machinations, was ultimately beheaded. Her tragic story is one that has fascinated novelists and artists for centuries.
Higginbotham presents this oft-told tale from an entirely new and fresh perspective. Although Jane is the central pivotal character, she is not the “voice.” Instead, the two heroines are Jane’s mother, Frances Brandon Grey, and Jane’s mother-in-law, Jane Dudley. Both of them were witness to, and participants in, the bloody game of Tudor dynastic politics. Neither could dissuade their husband from the course of ambition that ultimately brought both their men, and their children, to the scaffold.
In Higginbotham’s now-practiced hands, both Frances Grey and Jane Dudley spring to vivid life. Rescuing Jane Dudley from historical anonymity was undoubtedly the easier task – few are even aware that Dudley had a living wife!
Frances Grey, however, has been a favorite target of novelists for centuries, generally being portrayed as unfeeling, crude, overbearing, even cruel. Higginbotham’s new interpretation is masterful. Frances is equally likeable and flawed. She and Jane Dudley are Higginbotham’s most sympathetic and believable heroines to date.
Higginbotham’s narrative skills have also reached impressive heights. The dialogue is crisp and natural, the pace is rapid without being superficial, and the cast of characters, while teeming with numerous personalities who change positions and, therefore, names with disconcerting regularity, holds the reader’s interest.
Higginbotham’s characterizations and conclusions may be unexpected, and even controversial, but they are, as always, both thought-provoking and based on impeccable research.