Following The Stolen Crown, Higginbotham’s new novel addresses the queen of
Henry VI, Margaret of Anjou. Son of the powerful Plantagenet Henry V, Henry VI prefers accommodation to war, dwarfed by his father and the trajectory of fate. This Henry is no match for the forces of the Duke of York or the ambitions of the Nevilles, the much-written about reigns of Edward IV and Richard III. When the young French bride arrives in England, she is politically conscious but not well versed in the duplicity of the court or the many faces of intrigue that swirl around kings, especially lesser kings such as Henry VI.
Higginbotham makes no bones about her invention of a romance between Margaret and Henry Beaufort, the Duke of Somerset. Although rumors have long been bandied about, there is no historical credence to the existence of such an affair. Surrounded as Margaret is by clashes in England and the War of the Roses, much of the novel is devoted to historical detail, dates, events and pivotal characters like the Neville’s king-making and the York cause. There is lots of meat here but scarce passion, so Higginbotham can’t be blamed for adding a little more emotional impact to her protagonist’s life. But Margaret’s main claim remains her enmity to the Yorks and her championing of the Lancaster cause, the early enmity of her foes reinforcing her determination to fight to the bitter end.
Along the way, a young queen learns of her new country from dear friend the Duke of Suffolk, his death only the beginning of a simmering rage that will sustain her in the years ahead. When Henry’s mental condition begins to deteriorate in 1453-54, Margaret assumes the mantle of her convictions, taking up the standard that will give meaning to her reign. A fierce opponent of York ambitions, Margaret is a reliable figurehead and a symbol of the long-brewing resentment that ends in bloodshed on the fields of battle.
While Higginbotham’s first novel, The Traitor’s Wife, was soundly plotted and executed, this endeavor fails to inspire on the same level. Although the author attempts to ransom Margaret of Anjou from reality, this character never truly engages the imagination, pawn to a failed cause and the rising York drama on the horizon.
Lovers of historical fiction should pay careful attention to Author’s Notes for information about fact and creative dissembling for dramatic effect. Some writers (Alison Weir, Sharon Kay Penman) rigorously follow the guidelines of historical documentation, while others take hold of rumors and half-truths to create more beguiling stories. As a fan of this genre, I want to know the difference between real and imaginary. History creates its own drama, certain characters dominating the wheel of fate, more powerful than any one individual, save those who have claimed the world’s attention through extraordinary feats of leadership and power, exercised both temporal and spiritual.
I am less inclined to be patient with authors who embellish out of context and reluctant to embrace an idea only to find it trashed by actual fact. The best writers of such novels let fact dictate their stories, filling out characters appropriately, the giants leaping to the fore by virtue of birth and deeds.