The Traitor’s Wife by Susan Higginbotham
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark (April 2009)
Paperback: 483 pages
Sandwiched between two of the more successful monarchs in medieval English history, King Edward II of England is often overshadowed by the reputation of his father Edward I (Longshanks) and displaced by the success of his son Edward III. Longshanks nearly conquered all of Wales and subdued most of Scotland during his reign, and Edward III ruled at the time of the Black Death and the start of the Hundred Years’ War, successfully defeating the French at the famous battles of Crecy and Poitiers. Edward II’s reign, however, was marred by a series of failures and bad decisions, which contributed to his lasting struggle against his own nobles and even his wife, Queen Isabella. Edward’s miserable reign serves as the backdrop to the story, though Eleanor de Clare (Eleanor le Dispenser), granddaughter of King Edward I, is actually the protagonist of the novel. This is the story of Eleanor, her husband Hugh le Despenser, Edward II, and Queen Isabella.
Certain movies such as Braveheart portray Edward II as a homosexual and a weakling, and while the former was presumably true, Susan Higginbotham shows that the later is not entirely accurate, for her image of Edward shows he had some strong aspects to his character (at the very least physically, for a person at one point comments on his bodily strength), and he had some kindly and endearing qualities as well. Though in the end, it is his constant need for self-gratification and lack of concern for his realm as a whole that brings about his demise.
The majority of the story is told through the eyes of Eleanor. As the protagnoist, Eleanor is certainly a likeable and caring person, but her blindness to the relationship between her husband and Edward is her ultimate flaw. She is wholly devoted to Hugh, but Hugh — while he loves Eleanor — is difficult to like due to his selfish nature and lack of loyalty to his wife. Edward seems capable as king at times, but on other occasions, he is utterly incompetent and indifferent to the affairs of his realm, and these qualities make it hard to like him as a person. Then, there is Isabella, Edward’s wife and Queen of England. When you first meet her, she is quiet and submissive and agreeable, but becomes jaded by her husband’s and Hugh’s actions later on — and understandably so — and this “betrayal” by her husband drives her to turn against him.
In fact — aside from some of the minor characters like Hugh le Despenser (the elder, Hugh’s father), William la Zouche, and Gladys (damsel to Eleanor) — most of the major characters were somewhat difficult to like. Also, there are a lot of characters in this novel, and it’s difficult to keep them all straight because many of them share the same names. Susan Higginbotham has provided a list of characters at the beginning of the novel, so you may find yourself flipping back and forth to keep them all in order in your head.
Susan has a good command of language, her style is clean and fluid, and her dialogue is strong. Personally, I have not studied the reign of Edward II, but Susan seems to have done impeccable research on the period from what I can tell. The setting of medieval England really comes alive within her story. This is a long novel, about 500 pages, and overall, the pace moves slowly, making for tedious and heavy reading at times. Certain places feel as though you’re reading a history book instead of a novel, though you’ll most certainly gain a better understanding of Plantagenet England because of it.
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars
*Look for my interview with Susan Higginbotham tomorrow on my site.
Other reviews in the Traitor’s Wife Book Tour:
Readers Respite (4/6)
Passages to the Past (4/6)
S. Krishna’s Books (4/7)
The Tome Traveller’s Weblog (4/10)
Jennifer’s Random Musings (4/12)
Medieval Bookworm (4/13)
Peeking Between the Pages (4/14)
A Girl Walks Into a Bookstore… (4/14)
Savvy Verse and Wit (4/15 & 4/16)
Sam’s Book Blog (4/16)
Diary of an Eccentric (4/17 & 4/20)
My Friend Amy (4/17)