by Susan Higginbotham
Edition reviewed: iUniverse, 2005, ISBN 0-595-35959-0
Set in England in 1306-1337, The Traitor's Wife tells the story of Eleanor de Clare, niece of King Edward II and wife to Hugh le Despenser (the Younger), one of the most hated men of Edward's reign. All the main characters are historical figures.
Eleanor's formidable grandfather, Edward I, arranges her marriage to young Hugh le Despenser, the son of one of his faithful followers. Eleanor soon falls in love with her clever and witty young husband and the marriage is both happy and fruitful, until the untimely death of Eleanor's only brother at the Battle of Bannockburn suddenly makes her a great heiress. At first trying to secure Eleanor's lands and then to add to them, by fair means or - increasingly - foul, Hugh extorts, threatens, blackmails and bribes his way to ever greater riches. When Eleanor's uncle Edward II becomes besotted with him, there is no check to Hugh's greed and ambition and soon he rules the country in all but name. Not surprisingly, this earns him powerful enemies. When Queen Isabella, her lover Roger Mortimer and most of the rest of the aristocracy join forces to get rid of Hugh, Eleanor and her beloved uncle King Edward II are caught up in his downfall.
The Traitor's Wife is very much Eleanor's story, covering the whole of her eventful life from her marriage to Hugh until her death. Eleanor is an appealing character, sweet, affectionate and straightforward, perhaps a little naïve in taking Hugh at his own estimation and managing to remain blind to his faults for so long. Edward II is also well drawn, a kind and attractive man who nevertheless made a hopelessly inept king. Some of the secondary characters are also memorable, such as the charming and irrepressible Piers Gaveston and the honest, decent, pleasant William la Zouche. Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella have a wonderfully snappish relationship towards the end of their period in power, as might be expected of a couple who came together out of a mix of expediency and lust.
I felt I would have liked to understand Hugh le Despenser better. Clearly a very complex man, the reader sees him mainly through Eleanor's eyes and thus sees mostly his good qualities. I found it hard to grasp quite why he was so detested until very late in the book, when Eleanor has to face the evidence of his misdeeds. I'd have liked to see more of Hugh the villain at the time to understand why the tidal wave of hatred built up against him as it did. Not having seen much of Hugh's bad side, I wasn't very clear whether Isabella and Roger Mortimer were acting out of pure spite in their treatment of Hugh's family, or whether they had some genuine grievance that would explain their behaviour. I also didn't quite grasp why Isabella's attitude to Eleanor seemed to change; when Isabella first comes to England she treats Eleanor as something of a confidante, but their relationship cools and Isabella is later Eleanor's enemy. It seems to happen rather early to be attributable to Hugh's nefarious activities, so I must have missed something.
The novel shows up the remarkable emotional resilience of medieval women, who have to pick up the pieces when their men end up on the wrong side of a power struggle. How do you explain to children that their father has been executed, and shield them from the worst details of it, when your own heart is breaking for the loss of a beloved husband? Eleanor survives the deaths of her brother, husband, father-in-law and uncle, estrangement from her sisters, her eldest son's imprisonment, her own imprisonment (twice), and still manages to lead a fulfilling life.
One aspect of the novel that I liked very much is the wry sense of humour. Hugh has a sarcastic wit (On Piers Gaveston being given months to prepare for banishment, "With his wardrobe he'll need every day of it"), Piers takes nothing seriously, and there are sidelong comments on medieval life, such as the difficulties of being a servant in a castle full of women. There's a delightful note of comedy when John de Grey and William la Zouche are both wooing the widowed Eleanor, and again when they have to go to court to argue over which one of them married her.
The novel is told in third person from various points of view, so the reader is able to see more than one side to the events and can get to know several people. Although there's a large cast of characters with a only small range of names between them, the story is clearly told so I had little difficulty in keeping them straight. There's a helpful list of characters at the front of the book if you do get confused. A useful Afterword also sets out the underlying history, including the aspects that aren't known and that have to be filled in with speculation, and briefly tells you what happened to the rest of the characters after the story ends.
Detailed and well-researched story that brings the people and events of a complicated period of history to life.
Hugh and Bess, by the same author, continues the Despenser family tale into the next generation, telling the story of Hugh and Eleanor's eldest son Hugh and his wife Bess de Montacute. Review here.